No business like show business

No business like show business

"We are getting a lot of enquiries from people who want to use full-colour, video-style screens for signage and advertising because it allows different messages to be scrolled through a single point," Ho explained. "If council regulations allow only a single advertising display to appear it can now be used by multiple parties, and that becomes a very attractive option."

According to Computronics' Cesaro, however, the LED displays have benefits which LCDs remain hard pressed to emulate. Not only can they be manufactured in a wide range of styles and shapes; they are also extremely bright, and use very little power. "Because they are so bright you can see LED displays from a distance, and even in the daylight," Cesaro said. "Also, people are almost conditioned to look at LED information - they immediately attract people's attention."

Nonetheless, with prices on LCD screens falling, Cesaro conceded the market for digital signage is entering a new era.

"It's really horses for courses. You can put an LED sign on and leave it on for hours and people will still look at it," Cesaro said. "For an LCD display to work you need to design a series of images which constantly rotate." The news is not so good for plasma screens. Although the technology in a sense paved the way for the boom in demand for LCD displays, many in the industry argue the technology is totally unsuitable for signage and corporate displays.

"Plasma was a temporary solution in the early days because it was more economical and got people's attention," Ho said. "People will still try to buy plasma because it is cheaper, but cheap plasma users will be burnt."

In fact, many in the industry blame the inappropriate use of plasma technology in corporate signage for a raft of failed implementations.

"Plasma is very good for true colour and motion video, but you will always have an issue with the longterm static information, especially with highly contrasting colours," Sony's Boros said. "We still offer plasma screens for very large displays, but you need to be extremely careful to ensure the image is constantly changing and there are no borders or logos displayed for long periods."

A networked bonanza
While much is made of the LCD market picking up pace due to the low cost of entry, it is also proving an attractive signage solution because it can be so easily integrated into pre-existing corporate networks. At the high-end of the market, companies such as digital signage integrator, Screentech, are rolling out solutions to airports, fast food outlets and government agencies.

"One of the key attractions is that you can install the screens in multiple locations and control the content remotely, which is great for franchises or companies that want to send the same message across several locations," Ho said. "We installed 40 LCD screens in Singapore's Changi Airport - all the content is created and sent from Australia."

However, the networkability of LCD screens is as much a boon for internal displays as it is for public screens.

"The attraction is that monitors provide for dynamic signage. They can be easily changed and updated with the latest company information," Sony's Boros said. "From an infrastructure perspective, most companies already have the network cable in place so the installation is fairly straightforward."

Moreover, according to NEC's Shearer, companies are discovering that a few strategically placed digital signs are proving an effective way to communicate witth staff.

"One of our customers is a call centre which uses the digital signage to inform staff about new deals and offers," Shearer said. "They can glance over at it passively while they are still on the phone and pick up the information without breaking their concentration."

Getting what it takes
The good news for audio-visual and information technology resellers is that most already have the right mix of skills to get involved in this rapidly expanding market. NEC's Shearer said resellers with the good sense to skill up and take a complete solution to market would do best.

"It's not a box-dropping solution, it's got to be a complete AV and IT package," he said. "The companies that do well will provide project management covering the hardware, software and networking components of the package so the customer ends up with a smart solution."

Providing the right digital signage solution requires more than knowing how to plug in a monitor, according to Communitech's Else. Resellers who want a piece of the action need to do their homework to ensure they are offering the right combination of hardware and software advice to customers.

"It's very important to use quality commercial grade panels. I've seen so many installations fail within 12 months because they've used domestic LCD or even plasma panels, which aren't designed to be turned on all the time," Else said.

The need to implement commercial technology is also a factor when it comes to software.

"The downfall of many digital signs is the time it takes customers to create and maintain fresh information," Else said. "You need to provide software which is specifically designed for digital signage - PowerPoint just isn't sophisticated enough, and isn't designed to be permanently rotating."

Content provision might just prove a sleeping success for resellers who can provide packages with ongoing graphics support in the initial installation. Inappropriate content provision could see a lot of customers turn away from the technology altogether.

"Whatever the medium is, content is king," Craig Burnard said. His newly established company, Instore Vision, provides high-grade purpose-built digital signage graphics. "An LCD screen is essentially a digital billboard, and what really matters is what is displayed."

Burnard said digital displays with poorly designed graphics were ultimately counterproductive either as advertising or information sources.

He said companies had been forced into receivership for offering poorly designed solutions that focused on the underlying technology rather than the message the screen was built to convey.

Creating the right content meant knowing about the frequency and duration of traffic through a customer's premises, he said, as well as how to combine data and images to create a motivational message.

"It looks terrible when companies end up with a screen that is either switched off because no one has had time to update the information, or a screen which is scrolling PowerPoint images that don't quite fit," Burnard said. "Why bother, it only makes the retailer or club look worse when they've got a digital display that doesn't work."

So if you want to join the quiet revolution, don't wait. Go out and do your research today, because the exponential growth is real. Now's the time to catch the wave.

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