Digital Signage Taking Next Step

By | June 1, 2007 | Feature, Telecom

The ability to beam ads and promotional content to any number of sites simultaneously via satellite remains a remarkable concept, and network reliability and cost concerns that may have conspired to turn prospective customers away in the past are being overcome by advancements in technology.
Digital signage solutions are becoming more attractive in Europe and North America due to more affordable high-resolution displays and more reliable networking components. “It is a market that became more positive two or three years ago as upgrades to BTV (business TV) and distance learning networks started taking off,” says Christopher Baugh, president of Cambridge, Mass.-based NSR. “Still, digital signage has generally not met expectations and has not developed as quickly as many originally thought. Time frames have slipped. It is a challenging market.”
While gains are being made, the digital signage market is a long-term play — “longer term than many expected perhaps three or four years ago,” says Baugh. “We still believe in the viability of the digital signage market, and some obstacles are being overcome. Business model identification and formation is the biggest problem. Large retailers — the low-hanging fruit with satellite [information technology] already in place — get it but not necessarily the smaller players.”
The digital signage sector as a whole appears to be on track to achieve forecasted sales of more than $3 billion by 2009, says Lisa Jachimowicz, president of the Washington-based Digital Signage Forum. While demand for satellite-delivered digital signage is growing, small and medium-sized companies remain reluctant to embrace it because “they think it is too expensive to implement,” she says. “The good news is that larger networks are being deployed, and using satellite can be an easier solution for managing content and more cost effective [than] traditional digital signage delivery for both small and large companies. Satellite companies need to do more marketing and more education in the digital signage industry, and there is a serious lack of presence when it comes to satellite solution providers at trade shows and industry events.”
Helius, based in Lindon, Utah, is seeing significant growth in demand for digital signage networks across a variety of markets and industries, says Jeffrey Curtis, senior vice president, of worldwide sales and marketing. “The primary driver for satellite-based networks is the requirement for live events in conjunction with digital signage playout,” he says. “I believe the jury is still out in determining if these networks increase sales. Most of the people we work with do not know understand the cost benefit of satellite networks and this provides an opportunity for us to introduce satellite as the transmission method. The quality of the video signal is much more important with digital signage than with traditional BTV. Support for Flash and other file formats is important as well. Customers often do not require the video to be live, so store-and-forward methods are often effective.”
 Content management is not simply a matter of timing, as viewers are demanding more options if digital signage systems are to attract and hold their attention, says Greg Weaver, manager of digital signage networks at Raleigh, N.C.-based Microspace Communications Corp. “Constant advertising is not compelling, nor is hard news,” says Weaver. “A soccer mom standing in line with her four-year-old probably does not appreciate seeing a news feed of people getting blown up.” To achieve true cost savings, “multicast via satellite is still the way to go as networks grow,” Weaver says. “Dealing with a variety of different terrestrial providers in different regions [means] network management only becomes more cumbersome. Smaller networks or initial pilots are fairly cost effective and easy to control on a terrestrial circuit but still are unicast models.”

Advertising Remains Key

Falling prices for displays and the continued erosion of broadcast TV advertising effectiveness are strengthening the growing popularity of digital signage networks, says Weaver. “We have witnessed a number of high-profile advertisers pull millions of dollars out of TV budgets and redirect them to alternative methods,” he says. “As the acceptance of out-of-home networks continues to increase and the number of deployed screens rise, Microspace sees this segment poised for explosive growth throughout the next three years.”
Recent digital signage deployments in Europe also point to increasing acceptance of digital signage worldwide. Barrie Woolston, commercial director for media and enterprise at U.K.-based Arqiva Ltd., notes recent additions in the United Kingdom, including the deployment in the London Underground by CBS Outdoor (formerly Viacom Outdoor) of a roadside product from Clear Channel as well as a digital airport project by JCDecaux.
Networks such as CBS Outdoor are built with the single purpose of delivering advertising, and Woolston urges the industry to take stock of digital signage developments and to grasp the complexity of advertising models. “Early implementations in (grocery stores) have proven that digital signage increases product sales, but that does not necessarily translate to an equivalent increase in the overall basket size,” says Woolston. “Furthermore, in-store marketing budgets are far more complex than initially suggested, and while networks can be proven to generate revenue, the money is not necessarily new spend.”
Digital signage solution providers also must contend with the simple fact that consumers are becoming much more demanding in terms of what it takes to capture their attention when it comes to video. “Digital media networks will need to meet or exceed consumer video quality,” says Douglas Medina, senior program director, North American division, at Germantown, Md.-based Hughes Network Systems. “High-definition TV in the consumer market has raised the bar on acceptable video quality.“
As system operators try to increase the appeal of digital media networks through the use of dynamic video content to provide frequently updated information such as news and weather reports, timing becomes a more sensitive issue, says Medina. “This exacerbates the bandwidth problems associated with digital media networks. Frequent distribution of high-quality content often exceeds a retailer’s existing terrestrial network capability,” he says.

Bandwidth Must Be Sufficient

According to Scott Calder, CEO of Salt Lake City-based Mainstream Data Inc., “New applications often tend to get caught up in — and slowed down — by intra-organizational turf wars. Smart companies in this space, which are looking at digital signage as a key revenue support and enhancement stream and as a key medium for reaching customers, will decide to build a dedicated, no compromise digital network,” he says. “The key is to concentrate and invest in more forward-looking areas where needs are emerging such as real-time Internet push networks, which are more powerful and sophisticated than traditional FTP, and use streaming technology to deliver information to multiple sites using the least possible bandwidth.”
Narrowcasting techniques can help meet the demand for more and better means of advertising in light of a “constructive fragmentation” of the advertising discipline and the never-ending search for new advertising revenue generation, says Calder.
“Depending on customer-specific requirements and constraints, VSAT technology can be implemented with an overall cost saving,” says Woolston. “The entrance of manufacturers such as Cisco into the digital signage space will undoubtedly add further weight to the argument for converged networks, however, this will be specific to markets such as retail and banking where other applications and networks currently exist.”
Today’s broadband VSATs offer sufficient bandwidth and can support broadcast of video and audio files for in-store TV as well as other applications for the retailer such as credit card transactions and Internet access, says Keary Cannon, vice president at Hughes Network Systems Europe, based in the United Kingdom and Griesheim, Germany. “It is really up to the customer as to how they want to distribute the digital signage content — standalone or over the in-store network,” he says. “Hughes, however, has seen a take-up in customers using multicast content delivery in addition to using the satellite network for business continuity.”
While some customers initially may ask about using the same communications system that carries their traffic for point of sale, inventory and other data, Microspace encourages customers not to add more traffic to this system, says Weaver. “The possibility of clogging their communications system during transactions is not something which we want to contribute. We tell the customer if he is happy with the existing system, keep it and we will provide an overlay system that will not interfere with their existing network,” he says. “Also, if one were to propose using the existing WAN or LAN, at some point there will be an [information technology] meeting. We have encountered many [information technology] managers stating, ‘You’re not putting video on my network.’”
Medina sees digital signage as another multimedia application that can be accommodated using the multicast capabilities of VSATs. “Even broadband terrestrial circuits are not well suited for large scale multimedia distribution,” he says. “Such customers often wrestle with expensive terrestrial upgrades,” he says. “Alternatively, those same customers may pursue a hybrid satellite overlay to reduce the bandwidth burden on the existing terrestrial network.”
 

Hybrid Networking Options   

At a specific site or venue, there are several options when it comes to content delivery to the display besides a hard-wired approach, says Jachimowicz. In large deployments and outside applications, wireless is a great match for satellite content delivery. “It makes the content easier to deliver, easier to update and usually results in fresher up to date content for viewers. Quality content being updated daily is really the true key to digital signage success,” she says.
While Woolston is aware of hybrid digital signage networks using wireless technologies, Arqiva has not implemented any to date and prefers to pursue innovative wired technologies to provide connectivity within a venue. “The main reasons for this decision are, firstly, the 802.11 standard is often cluttered in densely populated areas which can cause reliability issues,” he says. “Secondly, as venues typically require electrical cabling to support the displays, the cost of running data cabling is not a significant incremental cost, negating the requirement for wireless.”
Hughes Network Systems Europe is testing systems which use wireless to deliver content to multiple screens, including low-end wireless products that deliver text and limited graphics via cellular data, such as latest value of lottery jackpots. “These systems do not have the bandwidth or reliability to support in-store TV networks with multiple channels of video and audio,” says Cannon, who adds there also may be other sources of interference, including machinery and commercial lighting, which must be taken into account.
According to Weaver, security requirements or the application guide the decision-making. “Some customers such as banks, are so conscious about security in other communication sectors that wireless is not an option,” he says. “However, some customers require portability, which allows them to move the display around the store as promotions change in various departments. Using a wireless technology enables them to easily to achieve this.”
Curtis points to some of the new networks being deployed based on cellular technologies to provide the Internet protocol (IP) connectivity, which offers many advantages such as ease of installation and provisioning time. In March, Helius and PlasMedia Productions unveiled a nationwide digital signage network where updated content is delivered via a cellular IP network using DynaScan 360º LED video display devices and Helius SST-Mi digital signage players. The multicast dimension or the requirement that the same ads reach multiple sites in a timely manner ensures that digital signage delivered via satellite is front and center.
Ultimately, the customer will make the decision concerning a wired versus a wireless network, but Jachimowicz is trying to motivate satellite solution providers and prod them to be more engaged in the process. Digital signage is still in its infancy as a service and opportunities are available. Simply sitting on the sidelines and waiting for the digital signage market to mature might not be the best course of action for satellite companies.

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