What's in Store for the Future of Digital Signage Advertising?

By Wesley Fenlon

Trends, challenges and exciting possibilities in the world of digital advertising.

As LCDs grow cheaper, flat-screens get flatter and technology becomes more pervasive than ever, it’s a safe bet that screens will continue popping up in new places year after year. Airports already display flight details on rows of HDTVs. Public computer kiosks use LCD monitors and sometimes include touchscreens. Someday they’ll be absolutely everywhere. The ever-increasing affordability and versatility of these technologies guarantee that digital signage has nowhere to go but up.

Is that a good thing? Should we be excited about more displays all around us shepherding society towards a Minority Report future? Will digital signage make our lives easier or inundate us with information overload? Tech companies like NEC have a clear direction in mind: the company’s latest multi-touch panel measures more than 13 feet across and is built for showrooms or (seriously awesome) classrooms.

That’s just one possible outlet for the future of digital signage--let’s take a look at where this technology seems to be going, where we hope it ends up and what science fiction we should be taking inspiration from.

Today’s Digital Advertising

Advertising is everywhere: we watch it on TV, see it online, flip past it in magazines. And it’s outside, too: buses and billboards are constantly championing new products. Indoor public places aren’t much different: we decorate malls, movie theaters and airports with signs galore to capture the attention of passers by. Digital signage has a real chance to take off in these areas for one key reason: foot traffic. Millions of people pass through these public locations every month, and digital signage brings a new set of advantages to a sect of advertising once driven by paper, plastic and cardboard.

Digital signage can be updated instead of thrown away. Digital signage can be interactive and actually engage the audience. Combine those advantages with massive foot traffic and you’re looking at a potentially lucrative industry. Some companies are already shifting their efforts from online advertising to digital signage.

On the Internet, advertising is often viewed as a barrier between consumer and content. Pop-ups? Hate ‘em. Banner ads? Try to ignore them. Video ads? The worst! These ads only grab our attention for seconds at a time, only while we’re online, and only on specific websites. Digital OOH (out of home) signage, on the other hand, can be strategically placed to capture audience attention for minutes at a time. Signs near the check-out counters of busy stores, signs at bus stops, signs in airports all attract millions of eyes a month and capture our attention when we’re not looking for other content.

A 2007 survey of about 1800 US residents found that digital signage tops the list of interesting advertising and is one of the least annoying forms of advertising: only newspapers ranked lower on that list. More importantly, digital signage drives a real response: over 50% of the survey participants said they’d taken action as a result of something they saw on a digital sign. Obviously those results are a few years old, and people may be less interest in digital signage as the new wears off--the medium will certainly go through changes and growing pains as it matures. Still, trends are positive--even the expense of digital signage, one of the major roadblocks to setting up a network of LCDs, has come down in the last year.

What kind of signage does that leave us with right now? NEC’s multi-touch wall (below) and the adiVerse footwear wall envision a way to turn digital screens into interactive outlets for shoppers and exhibitors. This is a dramatic, but perhaps not so effective, way to interact with consumers. These massive LCD touchscreens are attention-grabbers, but they take up a ton of space and support only one or a small handful of shoppers at once.

Smaller kiosks are getting bigger, too, as TV-sized touchscreens become an accepted format for service terminals. LCD displays can easily be turned into attractive installations when embedded in walls or properly framed. If cost was no object, movie theaters could replace their paper posters with regularly updated LCD installations. In fact, some already do. For digital signage to continue thriving over the next 10 or 20 years, it has a long way to go: production costs need to be lowered, power consumption has to be minimized and--most importantly--advertisers have to get creative.

Tomorrow’s Digital Advertising?

Sci-fi films from the 80s on have given us visions of digital signage both inspiring and horrifying. Blade Runner’s dystopian visions of ad-covered zeppelins with blaring loudspeakers and omnipresent neon make for great neo-noir and pretty awful real life.

Similarly, Steven Spielberg’s A.I. pours on the eye-searing lighting in a futuristic Vegas-like strip of robot debauchery. Then again, this is kind of what Vegas looks like already:

If there’s any technology that holds great promise for digital signage in the future, it’s the organic light emitting diode. Transparent OLEDs could absolutely revolutionize advertising, making it easy to turn glass walls and windows into ad space without sacrificing visibility. LG’s already demonstrated such a display, but it will be years before transparent OLEDs are affordable enough to support widespread adoption. Flexible OLEDs stand to change the way digital signage is implemented as well: imagine being able to mount paper-thin interactive screens on walls instead of 30 pound LCD sets.

Hopefully advances in technology will drive creative advertising in the digital medium. Internet advertising has found enormous word-of-mouth success through viral videos--people love character, intrigue, and humor in advertising, and digital signage has the potential to tap into that appeal. Dentsu London’s conceptual Uniqlo store advertising is the perfect example: these little characters make use of a digital space to attract attention and curiosity rather than sell a specific product (jump ahead to the 3:03 mark).

The go-to movie comparison for digital advertising is, of course, Minority Report. Spielberg’s futuristic thriller combines the best and worst elements of advertising: the ads are technologically cool (holograms!) and targeted but simultaneously omnipresent and invasive. Advertisers in Minority Report’s world clearly have access to too much personal information. That’s a future we need to avoid.

From a pure technology standpoint, holograms have the same appeal as transparent OLEDs with the added benefit of 3D. Unlike today’s digital signage, though, it’s going to be difficult to make holographic advertising that isn’t creepy or confusing for some people.

Gigantic, expensive touchscreens may be the current focus of out of home digital installations, but they probably won’t last. Smaller touchscreen kiosks make more sense as tools that guide shoppers towards the products they want. LCDs and OLEDs are guaranteed to slowly encroach on ad space now dominated by paper and plastic--it’s only a matter of time until the price is right. Children of Men's opening scene depicts a world where these screens are everywhere and constantly in motion without being too overpowering.

Digital signage gives advertisers the opportunity to develop fun, interactive campaigns with QR codes or viral videos. We can only hope that’s where the tech goes. But hey, as long as they don’t get their hands on our ads, what’s the worst that could happen?