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Digital Signage Screen Technology: How’s the View?

​Ryan N. Fugler is a former editor of WRAPS magazine. 
 

Television sets from the 1980s would be considered relics in today’s world—with their rabbit ear antennas, huge knobs and cumbersome cathode ray screen technology—but that cubed box we all grew up watching in the corner of the room has come a very long way.

The technology of today has elevated the basic capabilities of TV screens and provided consumers and users of multifaceted electronic digital signage with dependable, highly-functional, and intuitive viewing screen systems that are implemented across a wide variety of applications. 

So Many Options

The digital signage screen is an interesting animal. Because of the range of existing technology, screen options run a fairly wide gamut. Users must consider screen resolution, brightness, the environment, display size, connectivity, content integration options, user interface/interactivity, cost, and more.

Sign shop owners selling digital signage should have a firm grasp of the various screen types and options and have a good idea of their best applications. Here is brief a summary of today's screen technologies and where they fit in the market.  

Liquid-Crystal Display (LCD) screens

Currently the technology of choice for digital signage (but starting to change), LCD screens are popular among digital sign users because of their range of size, quality resolution and effectiveness both indoor and outdoor. According to Richard Ventura, vice president of product marketing and solutions for screen manufacturer NEC Display Solutions, screens can range in size from 32" to 98" and today's LCD screens feature high-brightness even in direct sunlight.

“LCD is the mainstream of digital signage, and will continue to be so for some time,” says Kevin Schroll, director of Samsung Electronics America's Smart Signage product group.

One LCD version—LED-backlit LCD screens—replaces cold cathode fluorescent (CCFL) backlighting with LED backlighting functionality. Dave Perrill, president of WAND Corporation, says this technology “still represents the industry standard for digital displays, as they offer the brightest, most eye-catching imagery while still remaining green in total energy usage at a cost-effective price.”

Light-Emitting Diodes (LED)

LED screens (sometimes called direct view LED) differ from LCDs in that they do not use backlighting to produce an image, rather the LED lights on the actual panel are illuminated. Generally, when LED screens lose out to LCD screens it’s because of resolution and cost concerns. However, LED screens are gaining in popularity within the marketplace.

“Direct view LED represents a new display technology that fits into many more applications than previous technologies,” Schroll says.

Pixel pitch is a common term with LEDs which relates to screen resolution; it describes the number of LED pixel groupings (each with red, green and blue LEDs) in a given area of the display. For example, “NEC has fine pitch, standard pitch indoor solutions as well as outdoor solutions,” explains Ventura. “All of NEC’s products are Tier 1 LED, so that translates into longer life expectancy, more color uniformity, and ease of installation and service.”

Organic Light-Emitting Diodes (OLED)

With OLED screens, the composition of the light source changes. A thin film conductor (which can be carbon based) produces light through electrical currents. There are noticeable advantages in its thin profile, good color and contrast, however, “OLED is not really ready for mainstream commercial applications,” Schroll says. “Light output is limited, durability is lower, and life cycle is shorter. Great for consumers, but not for commercial applications.”

Some manufacturers have been hesitant to offer OLED screens at this time since there are drawbacks to the life of the screen, especially in situations where content is running all day, every day.  

According to WAND's Perrill, OLED is “not quite mainstream yet, but the possible applications are endless.”

Plasma

A plasma display panel (PDP) is a type of flat panel display common to large TV displays 30 inches (76 cm) or larger. They are called "plasma" displays because they use small cells containing electrically charged ionized gases, which are plasmas.

Most digital sign professionals interviewed for this story concede that plasma screens are based on older technologies and are no longer a good choice for commercial applications. They have lost almost all market share against more affordable LCD screens. For a time plasma screens were fairly popular in the consumer markets, but never caught on in commercial digital signage settings

Of plasma screens, Perrill says bluntly: “These screens never really found their place in commercial signage, and now most likely they never will.”

Projection

Projection screens can be found in locations such as event centers or in some retail outlets. The additional hardware involved with the set-up (the actual projector) can make the configuration cumbersome and less attractive to the operator. There are certainly products available to users—NEC has offerings in this space—but specific disadvantages can be found when comparing projection screens with other options (brightness/contrast concerns, maintenance risk, environmental requirements).

3D Screens

Here is another technology that is either not used with digital signage, or is used only sparingly. Ventura states that “NEC works with partners who can integrate 3D into our large format displays as well as supply overlays.”

It appears most often, however, that other technologies are favored in place of three-dimensional aspects. “3D and 4K/8k battled it out over the past few years,” says Perrill, “and I think now that we can declare a clear winner—outside of an IMAX—the 4K/8k offers the feeling of depth and immersion without requiring special 3D glasses.”

However, one screen manufacturer—Stream TV Networks with its Ultra-D product—is offering improved glasses-free 3D video screens. Still, this discussion raises one unanswered question: What is 4K technology and how does it exactly fit into this market?

4K Technology

4K is a term used to describe a display’s screen resolution—4,096 horizontal pixels to 2,160 vertical pixels. By comparison, 720p high definition offers 1,280 x 720 pixels. Now imagine that kind of 4K resolution on a mega-scale video wall or large digital signage screen. Is it even possible to achieve that kind of screen quality?

According to Ventura, “4K is growing, but it's not there yet.” He points to the limitations of content integration—the screens offer wonderful resolution, but as of today, most video content is not shot using 4K digital recorders, and most players do not yet handle 4K.

“Right now the market focus is heavy into interactivity and engagement," Ventura adds. "Everyone wants to take their mobile phone interaction to the larger screen.” This is a huge consideration in the digital sign market, which basically reinforces the fact that screen technology is improving at such a fast rate that content elements are lagging behind.       

“The major issues here do not revolve around the large format displays (LFDs) themselves, but players and available content,” Schroll says.

Perrill agrees saying, “Media player hardware capability has been the only noticeable issue as 4K screens are becoming more commonly used. Some popular mainstream media players don’t even support the resolution in any way, so it becomes even more than a performance issue.”

Cost Considerations

Of course, with any type of new technology, cost is also a concern. This is also true with 4K screens.

“When they were first introduced,” explains Todd Heberlein, business development manager for Almo Professional A/V, “the cost of 4K displays were so far removed from that of 1080p displays that only in very rare circumstances were 4K displays considered.”

He goes on to describe how product demand has pushed prices down to a more reasonable level. Now, users can include 4K technology in larger screens and more applications.  

“There was a time when anything over 55 inches dictated the use of a projector because of the cost of large displays or video walls,” Heberlein continues. “Now displays reaching over 100 inches are available, with 80 inch displays being quite common, projectors are being phased out in signage applications.”

Still, the main hindrance of wide-scale implementation of 4K is on the content side.

“Lack of content has been an issue with 4K screens since their introduction years ago,” says Heberlein. “Now that the cost of 4K screens has decreased significantly, end users have made the investment to get ahead of the curve by purchasing 4K technology for their digital signage, only to find that the prohibitive cost of 4K content has become a large barrier to taking full advantage of this resolution.” 

But there is light at the end of the tunnel according to Heberlein. He says, “As content providers offer more and more 4K content for a reasonable price, I think we’ll see an even larger adoption of 4K displays for use as digital signs.”

And from Schroll’s perspective, “Media players that can drive 4K resolutions are just now becoming mainstream, so this problem will largely disappear in early 2017, but currently a potential user must ensure that the player they select can drive the output resolution they desire.”

Touchscreens

Most of us have experience with touch screen technology on a regular basis—smart phones being the best examples. This is an element that has exponentially advanced interactivity with digital signage.

“Touchscreens, as well as interactive content, are important to fully round out a signage offering,” says Heberlein. “Since the majority of people use some sort of smart device daily, the need for interactive signage to fully engage the end user is becoming more evident.”

For the amount of information that is present in today’s world, coupled with the minimal amount of attention that a consumer is willing to give, interactivity provides a great distinction against traditional static signage and even non-interactive digital signage.

“Multipurpose kiosks draw people in for functionality and tell them a story as they approach,” explains Perrill. “Trigger-based applications will continue to lean heavily on this technology.”

Case in point, Rent the Runway’s flagship store in New York City, a luxury fashion outlet with technological tendencies, recently incorporated a display of digital screens inside its walls.    

“(It) features a completely reimagined retail concept to suit the company’s unique rental business model,” says Schroll. “Unlike the typical retail shopping experience, the store optimizes its technology and design features to guide each customer’s visit based on her unique needs and her past interactions with Rent the Runway, whether onsite, in-app, or in a store.”

As such, Samsung included four 32-foot end cap displays to amplify the Rent the Runway’s styles and become a “closet in the clouds” by providing a multitude of fashion options. Interactivity served as a key component; the touch overlay on each screen enabled users to search inventory that was not on physical display.

Also included was “Samsung’s 55-inch ML55E Mirror Display, that elevates the shopping environment and allows shoppers to experience the clarity of the mirror and full functionality of a display, and in this case, provide the perfect interactive screen for makeup touchups to accompany trying on the latest styles and trends,” Schroll says.

Incorporating interactive elements into a screen is becoming more and more commonplace, and these days there are far less limitations to do so—such as screen size.

At NEC, “our 17-inch to 32-inch displays can have multiple touch technologies integrated into the displays,” says Ventura. “In 32-inch to 98-inch, NEC offers both integrated as well as touch overlay solutions; giving flexibilities as well as multiple application support. Lastly, NEC’s kiosk offerings (42-inch and 46-inch) utilize this technology to simplify the overall solution needs of the partner.”