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Digital screens offer sign of the times

Exit onto the 35th floor at the Sofitel Hotel in Melbourne and you'll be faced with an electronic directory board chock-full of information. The NEC panel welcomes patrons and highlights all manner of hotel functions and services.

"The panel hits you in the face. It directs you where to go, while displaying high-quality photos and important information," AV and IT specialist Mike Quinn, owner of Victoria-based Architectural AV, said.

The integrator is seeing high demand for digital signage solutions in the hospitality sector, and plans to focus more resources on the space.

"In hospitality, we call it passive digital signage," Quinn said. "They're not pushing product in the traditional sense but they create a professional image, which boosts business down the line."

The hotel plans to hook up another five panels in various locations from the reception area to major function rooms and conference facilities.

Hotels are just one area where digital signage makes sense. A host of consumer and business environments including pubs and clubs, retail, airports, banks, cinemas, museums and conferences are looking to move away from the static posters and lifeless billboards. Digital signage offers a way of modernising and conveying several messages from the same location.

From catching sale information displayed in-store or checking flight timetables at the airport, the latest digital products are big, splashy and overflowing with content.

Growing market

IDC market analyst, Mercie Clement, said the digital signage market was starting to take hold although local numbers were not yet available for the emerging category. "We're watching this space," she said. "We know there are opportunities for resellers to provide end-to-end solutions."

Total Concept Media knows a thing or two about hooking up digital signage solutions in the club environment, as well as putting the total package together, according to CEO, Mary McTaggart. It has built a network of 700 42-inch plasma screens in RSL and Leagues clubs, and can perform all manner of complex jobs associated with the technology. In addition to providing the hardware and scheduling software implementation, McTaggart there are network management issues and creative content decisions to be made.

"Our IT infrastructure is a VPN network. We load content via ADSL and download a couple of times a week to the club network," McTaggart said. "Content is an issue because you can't have ad after ad. You need interactive content, which engages the customer. It could be a mix of news, weather, sports, trivia, music or bloopers - the idea is to mix it up.

"You need to understand that what you display in a sports bar is not what you'd play in a restaurant. There's a lot of programming and strategy involved."

And while most of the digital signage action is in the club scene, McTaggart said Total Concept plans to break into new markets in the next three years including retail, pubs and in-store private networks.

While clubs gravitate towards plasma given the need for large screens, the company plans to offer LCD technology in the retail space. But whichever form of display is implemented, the technology is modernising the message.

"Digital signage is dynamic and flexible. It allows you to have moving images, using different platforms and you can also do streaming and set up XML feeds via our servers," McTaggart said.

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Challenging environment

Panasonic AV and IT group manager, Brendan Frawley, agreed the digital signage sale was complex and required a fair bit of getting used to for new players. But he said the market was quickly picking up the pace and advised integrators to come along for the ride. Panasonic is pushing hard into the market and working with its partners to get the message out.

The tricky part is setting up networks and linking multiple panels. There are hardware, software, telecommunications and project management decisions to make, as well as cabling, viewer and designer license issues in terms of who has access to the content.

"You could have signage in 30 different shopping malls and up to 4000 screens," Frawley said. "You would have different content based on the advertising schedule. It's not an out-of-the-box solution."

In addition to the retail space, many companies are looking to replace outdoor advertising, which is static and drab. For complex jobs, Panasonic offers solutions with an embedded PC.

"Australia is fairly new to this area. The resellers that are successful are the ones that can carve out a niche in select verticals," Frawley said. "When in public areas, space is a premium, so the technology can't be all clunky and full of wires. Complex jobs would require a media player or PC attached to the screen."

Integrators could also expand the sale by integrating lighting and air conditioning systems onto the network.

"Many pubs and clubs are integrating the lot," he said. "There's one mainframe controlling the whole venue."

NEC is aggressively moving into the dynamic content distribution market with the launch of a complete digital signage solution. Product manager, Andrew Shearer, said the company was putting all the pieces together including panel displays, broadband and scheduling software.

Shearer said the screens could be managed remotely from a desktop, which lets users edit schedules, communicate breaking news and update in-store promotions in real-time.

The software works with all flat panel displays, and can be used in a network where TCP/IP communication is available such as a wireless LAN or VPN environment. Users can distribute content to a group of screens thanks to the latest software, which comes in standard and professional versions.

"It supports an unlimited number of displays, interfaces with any type of display device and is easily expanded or modified," Shearer said. "It offers a tree structure for the grouping of panels."

Select partners

The company is currently touting its digital signage message to professional AV resellers, NEC visual display division, national sales manager, Steven MacDonald, said.

"Not every dealer can promote the technology. Only those with the infrastructure in place, and that have an installation crew, will have the expertise to sell it," he said.

Mitsubishi is also looking to win hearts and minds in the digital signage market and recently released a 42-inch LCD screen that can be linked together with up to 16 panels to form a single configuration, according to product manager, Matt Hanna. He said recently launched 32-inch and 37-inch LCDs offered built-in scheduling features. "The shopkeeper can program the panel to turn on or off at a certain time," he said.

Also relevant to the category are video cubes, which come in 50-inch and 67-inch models. These use DLP technology and can be formed in varying configuration of up to 64 cubes.

While the type of display best suited to digital signage is still in question, there's no debating that the industry is seeing increased interest from a growing number of vertical markets.

"The interest started 6-12 months ago. It's now an area that vendors and resellers are focusing on," Hanna said. "It big in the US and we're now following their lead."