DynaSign library

Ahead in the Cloud

Paula Aven Gladych is a freelance writer based in Denver, Colo. She can be reached at pgladych@gmail.com.

Traditional signs are here to stay, but the industry is moving quickly toward more digital options. As that happens, the cloud becomes increasingly important to managing all of the quickly changing content.

Billboards are increasingly digital. When you walk into the center of Times Square, you are instantly awash in digital advertisements. Even local fast food chains now use digital signs that are run through the cloud. The cloud makes it easier for one person in a data center to change the message on thousands of digital signs at once. That is a huge achievement, especially for larger companies with lots of locations.

Robert Creasy, vice president of business development for DSA Phototech in Carson, California, says that cloud-based digital signage has opened up the industry for all types of business models. Some, like DSA Phototech, build the boxes that house the digital displays. Others design software and extensive networks to power the signs and others create and manage the content. Some companies try to do it all.

But cloud-based signage isn’t just user friendly; it offers extensive marketing opportunities. That’s because cloud-based digital sign makers are including cameras that collect all kinds of customer data, from the age and gender of those standing in front of a screen to gauging a customer’s interest in certain items on a screen. Cameras in the units can “judge your reaction to things on the presale menu or see how you react to the menu screen or how long you look at the menu screen,” Creasy says. “All of that is going to go through the cloud to whoever is collecting it. It is an accumulation of business intelligence, whether tracking the order itself, components of the order or camera specified.”

The technology was in its infancy just eight years ago, Creasy says. It was impossible to get a display bright enough to see outside in the sunshine

Now, “You literally can put it in a retail store, behind one-inch tinted glass and see it three blocks away. It is amazing what can be done now,” Creasy says.

It was all made possible because of advances in LED technology. Box makers have also found ways to knock the glare off the glass case and block the heat from the sun while finding ways to cool down the inside of the display because it can’t go above 140 degrees.

When DSA Phototech started building these types of signs, they were the only ones doing it. Now there are probably 100 or more companies in the space.

The main advantage of cloud-based signage is that it allows a company to get the right message to the right customer at the right time.

“You can pick your message, the time you want to deliver it and anticipate what customer you are going to put it in front of. That’s really big,” he says. The cloud also offers agility, flexibility and efficiency. Someone in the corporate office can distribute the same message to 50,000 locations simultaneously. They also can monitor each monitor to make sure it is operating correctly.

Some retailers are even getting away from offering a large inventory. Instead, they offer digital displays of all of their wares and can digitally show a customer how they would look in the clothes they are admiring. They can change the color and the size and it all shows up in the dressing room mirror, as if the person is physically trying on clothes.

“All of that is out there now. It is incredible what they’re doing. All of that is the cloud. There is no way you could do that communication without an unlimited pathway. You couldn’t run enough wires to have it all. A lot of it is done remotely. It is wireless,” Creasy says.

The main disadvantage of cloud-based signage is cost.

“The more creative and further out there you get, the more it is going to cost you. It is very difficult to do validation and ROI (return on investment),” he says.

One of the first signs his company worked on was for KFC. The company wanted to eliminate its point of purchase print advertising. It eliminated all paper and replaced its menus with digital menus.

“It saw no impact whatsoever. It does exactly the same or POP never had any impact to begin with,” he says.

Other companies have tried to implement video screens in their drive thrus so customers feel they are still getting the same individualized attention as they would get by entering the establishment. But, as neat as the concept is, it doesn’t speed up the drive thru process, he says.

Clients need to clearly define what they are trying to accomplish with the signage and measure that.

Creasy adds that digital signs take a lot of resources, from the software and expertise to the level of quality needed to show a video or picture on a screen. Digital can sometime go down and there isn’t a backup for that. They are also vulnerable to hacking.

“You have all the standard software issues. What happens if Windows goes down? What happens if the communication line from the cloud gets cut? Does the media player have the ability to hold the last picture? Most do. If you pull the cable, would it hold the picture?” he asks.

It is also important to understand if a software update is backwards compatible. That’s why many digital sign companies are working with outside companies to host the latest software. That way, their signs are always tapped into the latest and greatest and they don’t have to have IT people on staff to manage the software.

Dynasign Corp. is a software to service company. For a monthly fee, it offers companies carte blanche use of its content management service platform for digital signage and mobile tablet screens. The company launched its cloud business in 2003 but, back then, it wasn’t very popular. Everybody wanted to have their own server, backend and control. Now, the cloud is the preferred choice, says Jimmy Dun, chief marketing officer with Dynasign.

“If you do have a plan for a large media network and multiple locations, it is a huge benefit, depending on the service vendor you choose. They may already have a network to distribute to you globally,” Dun says.

If a company wants to purchase software as a service for only a few months, then the cost is much more expensive than purchasing software outright. But, if a company is planning to use a service long-term, the cost is less. Every unit has a fixed price on it with a discount based on how many signs are deployed, Dun says.

He adds that moving from a traditional sign company to a digital one is not easy because it has nothing to do with what a company has done in the past. The biggest value a traditional sign company has to the digital world is its book of business.

“Not every sign will transition to digital because of the nature of the business. There’s a need for a regional company to help them transition,” says Dun.

Wade McKelvey, technical development manager at EBSCO Signs & Displays in Clanton, Alabama, says that his company just launched its cloud-based software in January. Someone can run the application through a standard web browser or from a telephone app.

The cloud is being used to send and receive new sign content, using a standard Internet connection. It also can be used to retrieve information off the Internet, like the current time and temperature.

“We can see the status of a sign in real time. We can pull information about its up time and different statistics for that particular individual sign and can even remotely fix it. If it is 100 percent software related, we can remotely fix most of those issues across the Internet, which is pretty cool,” McKelvey says.

By being 100 percent browser-based, sign dealers and installers don’t have to worry about installing software on people’s machines.

“We’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback on that because it is not something you have to install. You can use it on any operating system,” he says.

In the past, when a sign used traditionally installed software, the number of users on it would be limited to one and it was difficult to add or remove users. In the cloud, it is easy to add or remove users, which is important from a security aspect. If someone is no longer associated with your organization, you want to remove them from the ability to change your sign as soon as possible.

EBSCO offers a content library to all of its sign clients, like individual video clips, animations and illustrations, that is continuously updated with new content people can use on their signs.

One of the drawbacks of using cloud-based software is that your cloud host has to be up and running for you to communicate with your sign. It is important to choose a cloud host that has multiple backup systems to ensure a sign’s content never goes dark. You also want a cloud provider that can be scalable and grow as your business grows.

“As these apps have grown, you have more and more signs coming online; more users trying to access it at the same time. If there is no way to scale up, you are going to start choking. You need to build that into your platform; you need to have the ability to scale up as demand increases,” McKelvey says.

One of the biggest short-term issues faced by digital sign providers is the pain of creating content for the sign.

“People spend a lot of money on these things and, in many instances, they end up putting plain text messages on the sign. That doesn’t showcase the sign’s ability or draw attention, which is what these signs are supposed to do,” he says.

One of the things EBSCO hopes to do is offer the ability for someone, who doesn’t have design skills, to type in the message they want to put on the sign and turn it into a cool animation with the press of a button.

Another thing the industry will see is more online collaboration and social networks revolving around digital signage. That means the community will come together to help each other out with content or sign problems. Another option for the future is using signs for more personalized advertising, like what you would see on Google. Individual sign owners would be able to opt into advertising networks and have a marketplace where people do advertising. It is another way for clients to make money from their signs.