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New Roles for Digital Signage

Digital signage

Digital displays are showing up everywhere inside—and outside—retail establishments. From massive LED arrays that cover an entire building facade to shelf-edge displays, signage is giving merchants countless ways to communicate with consumers.

To learn how signage can create amazing brand experiences and generate additional revenue for retailers, technology power couple Sarah-Jayne and Dean Gratton interviewed experts from ONELAN, a leader in digital visual communications that serves customers including Virgin, Tesco, and L’Oreal.

(To listen to the full interview, check out our podcast Retail Tech Chat Episode 5. For more on this topic, read the article The Many Faces of Digital Signage.)

The Many Faces of Digital Signage

Dean Gratton: What does ONELAN do, and what do you do?

Simon Carp: ONELAN is a company that specializes in digital communications technologies, primarily in digital signage. ONELAN is part of the Uniguest group.

ONELAN’s digital signage technologies are most commonly found across retail, also in higher education, corporate offices, public venues. And across the wider Uniguest group, you’ll find our technologies deployed consistently for guest engagement applications, but more broadly across hospitality, sports stadiums, along with the other verticals that I mentioned.

As for my role, I head up our product management function. As part of that, I have a small team that is responsible for making sure that we are really in touch with what our customers are trying to accomplish, what are they finding challenging in achieving their objectives and strategy and trying to develop solutions that are really going to effectively make their life easier.

That means we have very regular contact liaising with both customers and our sales team, who are spread worldwide, and translating that into definitions of new products and new services that we can build within our development team and then take to market.

Dean: Knowing that the kids and the university students have gone back, how that’s working in the education system?

Simon: Yeah, absolutely. Across all settings, we’ve never had a greater need to communicate really clearly with our audience. So although we are living in challenging times, some of the benefits of digital signage are really coming to the fore. We are able to get messages out there to the masses. We can keep it up to date because we all know how frequently either government or local business or institution policies can change.

We can get the content out there, and we can get those messages out there far more effectively than some of the other traditional mediums that you might be reliant upon, like email and intranet sites. It’s got an awful lot to add to those types of institutions to make sure that they’re successfully getting the message across with regard to COVID-19 and social distancing and those types of policies.

At the moment we’re running a campaign, which is STAYSAFE, which is really highlighting some of the key features within our product set that we feel are relevant now more than ever.

Sarah-Jayne Gratton: Stephanie, tell us a bit about what you do.

Stephanie Scott: I work with Simon very closely in the product management team, and I’m Head of Pro AV Marketing. We’re responsible for launching campaigns across the globe. These are a combination of tactical campaigns, anything that may help our end customers, as well as more strategic-level campaigns, such as the ones Simon just mentioned, which is our recently launched STAYSAFE campaign.

To add to what he just said about education, we’ve just found out actually one of our customers has deployed digital signs within halls of residence to communicate with students.

I’ve visited some universities recently and I can see the posters stuck on the doors, whereas digital signage within those halls can allow that message to be communicated really quickly, can help those students understand that they are being kept safe, and the latest protocols that are available. So it’s a win-win.

Signage in the Age of COVID

Sarah-Jayne: How do you think the pandemic has changed digital signage?

Stephanie: We’ve seen it used in different ways. Corporates are using it now to communicate the key messages of safety: wear a mask, wash your hands, social distancing. They’re using it to communicate with their employees in a way that previously they wouldn’t have done.

They can also use it to communicate whether an area is full, with our occupancy management solutions: if it’s possible to go into a canteen, if they should or shouldn’t. Also, in retail: Is the store full? Is the store empty? Is it safe for people to go in?

So the applications and the messaging are becoming a lot tighter, and we’re helping our customers not just by installing the signage but also giving them custom template layouts that they can immediately deploy. Just trying to make their lives as easy as possible, as quickly as possible. As Simon alluded to, things are changing very quickly. We never know from one day to the next what the latest protocol might be, and that’s no one’s fault, that’s just the guidelines are continually evolving.

Trying to help our customers keep pace with those changes, and ultimately keep people safe, is one of the priorities and that’s part of the premise behind the STAYSAFE campaign, all the tools that we have available to help deliver safety messages for staff, employees, visitors.

Digital Signage in All Shapes and Sizes

Sarah-Jayne: What about concerts and events—are those the kinds of things that you would address?

Simon: Yeah, definitely. It’s definitely part of our overall solution and that very large end of signage, and we’ve got examples across the Nordics, in Russia, in Taiwan. In India, you’ll find various roadside billboards being used by the government to communicate what’s going on in the local area and the government policies.

We’re driving a large range of LEDs. So rather than LCD TV panels, it tends to be a very large array of LEDs, which allows you to create something that’s a little bit non-standard, in terms of a display.

Sarah-Jayne: Signage comes in all shapes and sizes. Which end of the market do you address?

Simon: We really address both ends. It comes to quite extremes. In terms of size, we would use our technology to deliver content to a display that’s perhaps only 10 inches in size. That could be a small display in a corporate office by a meeting room. It could equally be a small display within a retail setting, directly next to the product that it’s promoting.

At the opposite end of the scale, very large displays. We’re delivering content to large video walls where you perhaps have multiple LCD screens tiled together to create a much larger display. At the very largest end of the scale, generally outdoor displays will be the larger that you will find. In those scenarios, using LED-based technologies, we’re delivering content to a display that might be meters, tens of meters, corner to corner, across the exterior of a building, advertising content to the local community.

Shape is another interesting one and gives another interesting dimension. There’s a lot of technologies developing and becoming more accessible, cost-wise, with new LED technologies. That allows you to really create a display that is any shape you like. It’s almost limitless in that sense.

It can be 3-dimensional, it can be curved. There’s an awful lot you can do with it. We’ve got some great examples where some of our customers have taken ONELAN’s technology and those new display technologies.

There’s one really nice instance where there’s a retail concession where they’ve wrapped the façade of the shop with LED and that allows them to use the whole space, all the way round from the floor to the ceiling. It has a cutout for the window so you can still see in and out of the store. And there’s a cutout for the door so can get in and out.

But they can use that entire architectural surface to present content and reinforce a brand and promotions for what’s going on in that particular store, and it’s really effective.

It’s the kind of thing you can’t not see. You might not be interested, but you’re going to see it whether you like to or not.

Interactive Signage

Dean: What about interaction? From a customer experience point of view, to actually interact. Are we there with virtual reality or augmented reality? Can you interact with these devices or these displays?

Simon: Yeah. We’ve seen touch interaction become far more prevalent, using the signage to be passive, and play out video content to an audience. But you’ll find increasingly in retail, shopping malls, and universities, in businesses, those types of displays are also interactive. You can use them to navigate a building, to get access to more detailed information about local events, what’s going on in the area, product catalogs, for example, promotions.

I would say there’s probably a degree of hesitance at the moment with touchscreen interfaces. I think that’s inevitable given the COVID-19 crisis that’s going on at the moment. But it will be interesting to see how that particular challenge evolves over the course of time.

Dean: What about augmented reality? You talked about that shop experience where there are enormous displays.

Simon: AR perhaps lends itself more to mobile devices because it allows you to use the camera to almost investigate an area and have content augmented on your display. There are, I guess, similar examples in digital signage.

We’ve got a really nice project with a hotel with the Cartoon Network brand. In their restaurant, they have displays that are installed to almost appear as windows, and behind those windows is the kitchen. Rather than seeing that, you actually see Cartoon Network characters creating dishes, washing the plates.

Creating a New Experience

Sarah-Jayne: How do you think signage is evolving from just an advertising channel into an integral part of the consumer experience?

Simon: I think attitudes and technologies are maturing continually. Certainly, the growth of e-commerce has forced retailers to reevaluate what they’re offering to the consumer in the physical space. I think it’s now definitely going beyond purely functional displays to show information.

There’s still a space, and it’s still relevant to show promotions and promote marketing campaigns on digital signage, but there’s definitely an increase in interest in how we can take this technology to build and contribute to the overall experience a consumer has within the store.

It definitely can help build the ambience within a retail setting. It can sometimes seem frivolous, but there’s so many things you can do creatively with digital signage, in terms of what content can you show that’s really going to resonate with your target market.

It could be just a streamed video of what’s going on at a beautiful beach in California, but it sets that ambience for the retailer. It takes somebody to a different place where their mood is perhaps a little bit more receptive to the products that they’re trying to sell in that setting.

New Revenue Streams

Stephanie: It’s also valid to say that for some retailers, they can use digital signage as an additional revenue stream. They can use their party advertising.

We have a very large customer down in Australia who uses it for that. Shelf-edge displays, and suchlike, whereby they use a third party, or a third party uses that as an advertising platform, and those spaces get booked up months and months ahead. It’s an additional stream for the retailer as well, for brands.

Dean: Well, actually, funnily enough, I was going to touch upon that, Stephanie, about the in-store experience. Because with the pandemic, and of course with the High Street as well, it’s difficult that people have got to keep their distance and whatnot. It’s interesting to know how the digital signage is helping in-store experiences. Can you share that with us?

Stephanie: I think pre-COVID, in-store, as Simon mentioned, retailers were using digital signage to create a different ambience. They could use it to engage. One of our clients, a High Street travel agency, they were using it to create a holiday experience. It began the moment the potential customer walked into the store: digital signage throughout the store promoting the destination, providing that experience, and also promoting it to the children as well.

A family would walk into the store and the experience, whether it was Disney or whatever, would begin the moment they walked into that store, and a lot of that was delivered by digital signage. Clearly the fixtures and the fittings of the store had a part to play in that.

But the signage, you can change obviously. You can keep it up to date. You can put live feeds on it. It brings that real-time experience into the store. The moment you start putting Disney information or Disney channels on stores, you’re just not going to get the kids out. It’s a great way to drive footfall and ensure that people stay within the store for a little bit longer than they might do otherwise if their kids are entertained.

From a branding perspective, if you’re a large retailer, you can deliver that content centrally, you can manage your brand centrally and just deliver activities out to each individual store. But you could also make it, or present it in a way that if you’re near a local airport, for instance, you can customize that content to allow it only to show offers pertinent to that local airport. You can retain the overall global brand while having that level of localization and personalization for each store. There’s lots of things you can use, it’s not just a one-size-fits-all.

New Technologies for Advanced Signage

Sarah-Jayne: I think what you’ve touched upon is real personalization and a bespoke solution for consumers, and also for obviously the distribution networks behind the signage. How does Intel factor into this?

Simon: Intel give us the horsepower. No matter what size the screen, and we’ve discussed the variety that we have in that sense, there’s always at least one of our media players, and within each of those media players is an Intel CPU.

It’s also a key part in making sure that we’re offering something that’s reliable. We can’t have screens that are blank on any of our networks. The Intel technology ensures that we have the reliability that all of our customers expect of us. So, 24/7, even beyond that 24/7/365, we can have these Intel-powered media players running reliably with no downtime.

Sometimes that’s really important. In some cases, it may be in really quite hazardous environments: offshore oil and gas, where it’s really difficult to service a piece of equipment. You’ll find our technology is working in that kind of environment.

Airports are notoriously challenging, and they really reap the benefits of the reliability and 24/7/365 operation. It’s very impractical to get a service technician within an airport should a screen, a player, need some kind of maintenance. So it’s something that our customers have found extremely powerful and useful within our system, utilizing the Intel technology.

They can put those players behind the screens, way up high in the airport, and leave them there happily for many years, and they’re going to run reliably and securely and not need any maintenance in many cases.

Dean: Are your displays network-connected or internet-connected such that if a display is faulty or part of a display is faulty, it will transmit to you and say, “Hello. I’m having a problem here. Can you come out and fix me please?”

Simon: The system is intelligent in that sense. It’ll generate alerts for various conditions. If a player was to go offline, then we can detect that, and we can send an alert to a service department to troubleshoot it.

We can often sense the status of the display as well. If a display panel goes off, we can generate alerts also. Even down to perhaps somebody who’s responsible for running the content and getting content to those screens. Perhaps they’ve uploaded an image that’s corrupted and fails to play.

We handle that gracefully. We can pass straight past the image or the piece of content that’s problematic straight onto the next piece with no gap. But we can also generate an alarm to the relevant person to tell them that this particular player didn’t play that image, and quite often we can identify why that was the case as well.

Dean: So you haven’t quite reached the self-healing facet of technology where it can sort itself out?

Simon: In some cases, it can. If the content is somewhat more complex, maybe there’s some HTML content that’s starting to slow the system down; we detect that and we can restart things. There’s a lot of preventive care that the system will do intelligently.

If it determines that something’s stopped responding as it should do, we can either move onto the next playlist item and resolve things that way. More often than not, we can manage those situations without the customer ever being aware. Should we need to, the system can reset itself, but, again, that’s very rarely required. In most cases, we can handle that kind of issue either by not allowing incompatible content to be uploaded in the first place, or handling it gracefully when it is attempted to play on there.

Camera-Equipped Displays

Sarah-Jayne: Regarding camera-equipped displays, what kind of new business models do you think they enable?

Simon: There’s definitely some very interesting opportunities with integration to cameras and other types of sensors for digital signage. We very recently brought a solution to market which utilizes just that.

We’re using cameras as a sensor to measure occupancy, and that’s particularly useful in helping manage social distancing. We can integrate with a camera that allows us to determine the number of people within a specific area, and then using the tools already built into our content management system and our digital signage products, we can dynamically change the content according to the occupancy level.

That might mean when the retail store or the restaurant or the canteen is well below its capacity limit, we can present a very welcoming message, a big green thumbs-up: “Welcome to the store. Come on in.” As the area becomes busier, perhaps even reaches the limit of capacity, we can instantly change that message to say, “I’m afraid this area is currently at maximum occupancy. Please wait a few moments for somebody to leave.”

We can integrate with various types of sensors. So if there is an API within a system that we can gain access to, then we can easily position an appropriate digital sign on each level of a carpark, notifying where there’s space, where there isn’t space.

We do similar things conceptually in other settings, for example, a library in a university. We have various customers where, as you enter the library, there is a screen that will tell you how many computers are free within each area of the library. You don’t have to wander around hoping to happen upon an available space; you can see that information dynamically on-screen.

There’s benefits to the consumer, in that case a student or a member of staff, in being able to self-serve that request. But I think also for the institution there’s an advantage because there’s less reliance upon approaching members of staff to ask relatively trivial questions. People are able to self-service in that sense.

It is very effective for the retailer in that case, or the bar operator, because there are certain environments where actually counting occupancy can be quite a challenge. If there are multiple entrances and exits to the same space, it’s quite a challenge, without suitable technology, to have staff counting people in and out to maintain a certain level of occupancy.

Using this technology, we can do it dynamically. We can integrate with these cameras that are really smart and are aware of how many people are within that space at any given time, regardless of how many entrances and exits there are.

That can ensure that the retailer never finds themself in a situation where they are over capacity. They can maintain compliance in that sense, but they can also do it in a way that’s cost-effective and efficient, because certainly having members of staff spending their whole working day on a doorway counting people in and out is not the most efficient use of human resources, and they can be repurposed.

Managing Costs

Sarah-Jayne: You touched upon a point there that’s so important. It’s about cost-efficiency these days because so many businesses are struggling, and having to have staff do jobs that your system can do very effectively, and cost-effectively, is, I’m sure, an absolute godsend to a lot of businesses in the hospitality region, and retail for that matter. Can you give us an example of some stores where this has been the case?

Simon: Definitely. I think one of the things that was interesting in the early stages of lockdown and social distancing becoming a daily reality was how quickly those policies can change. I recall an interview on the news where a retailer, a relatively small retailer, had to outlay an investment to put signs around their store to say “Please stay within a certain distance” or not go any closer, only to find within a few weeks that the detail of that policy had changed. For them, it meant all of the investment that they’d put in creating these printed and physical artifacts was laid to waste.

Digital signage is completely effective in that sense, and we know many of our existing customers are using it to make sure that the content and the messaging is bang up to date, and you can do that instantly. It doesn’t matter how many times the government or the institution, the retailer, changes their policies with regards to social distancing, or any other factor, you can very quickly go into the platform, make the changes to the messaging, whether it’s three meters, two meters, one meter, and make those changes and roll them out nationwide, globally, within an instant.

It demonstrates a degree of responsibility, I think, if, as you’re approaching a retail store, you’re faced with some content that’s reminding you about social distancing. You also know that everybody else who’s gone into that space has had the same reminder. I think it’s a good, positive message for companies to present to their consumers, and shows that they really are taking this safety issue seriously.

Monitoring Occupancy

Dean: You mentioned about occupancy before. Can you determine redundancy, whether an office space or part of an office space is being used?

Simon: Absolutely. A lot of the technologies that we’ve already discussed in a retail setting are applicable in more of a corporate office setting and, in fact, many of the retail customers that we service not only use our technology in their front-of-house retail stores, but they also use our technologies within the corporate headquarters for internal communications. It’s a very effective platform. In the office, an effective way of communicating policies to those employees.

Another product area that has been very successful for us and, again, this is powered by Intel, is the Reserva range of meeting room sites. Smaller displays beside meeting rooms that tell you exactly what the status of the room is. It’s always linked to your date and calendar system, so will show you in real time exactly what’s happening, what’s scheduled to happen later in the day.

The next step for us beyond the occupancy management system we’ve already described, where we can trigger the content on the screen itself, the next step is to integrate that within our Reserva product, where we have a nice analytics platform. At the moment there’s a range of KPIs and metrics we can show within Reserva analytics. We can show you which rooms are very popular, which rooms are not so popular, based on utilization. If a room is available for 10 hours, and it was only used for five hours, then we can then report that kind of data back.

The interesting advantage looking forward, when we bring sensors into that, is not only can we show a utilization, but we can also demonstrate occupancy. Let’s say one of your meeting rooms is utilized 80% of the time. That might feel like a really strong return on investment in that sense.

But with these sensors, and very soon we’re looking at integrating with the analytics platform the capability to show how many people were in that room on average over that period, or what the maximum occupancy level was, and in that scenario your meeting room with 80% utilization perhaps never gets above 50% occupancy, in which case you can start to make some decisions about adjusting the design of the working environment, as simple as putting a divider down the middle of the room and getting two rooms for the price of one at half the size.

New Frontiers in Signage

Dean: Is there anything else you’d like to discuss?

Simon: I guess one thing just to touch upon, when I introduced ONELAN at the start, I mentioned that ONELAN in part of the Uniguest group. We’ve been very successful in developing technologies across retail, universities, corporate communications.

But across the broader Uniguest group, we’ve got technologies, engagement technologies that are very prevalent in a range of other verticals. Particularly in hospitality, in hotels, conferencing centers, we have a number of solutions relevant there.

Also, in sports stadiums there’s quite a nice market where Tripleplay, which is another one of the Uniguest group, is very prevalent. I probably can’t namedrop too many of the exact stadiums where we find those technologies, but certainly the majority of Premier League football stadiums, and many more further afield outside the U.K., are utilizing technology within the Uniguest group, not only for digital signage, but also for streaming live feeds of sports events, and getting that to the non-pitch-facing areas of a sports stadium.

Dean: You manage all the signage around that as well? I don’t profess to know too much about rugby. Despite being a Welshman or football, I don’t get it. You do all the signage around the stadiums as well?

Simon: Stadiums is a very big part of the Uniguest group’s business. Lots of stadiums and sporting arenas across multiple sports: football, rugby, tennis, NFL, many more.

Two things that might be worth talking a little bit about. The first one was, we talked about displays of different shapes and sizes. Stephanie mentioned shelf-edge signage briefly. It’s been a very popular area of growth, and shelf-edge signage is really what it says. It’s a long, narrow, similar to a letterbox but perhaps much, much longer, display fixed on the edge of the shelf next to products.

We’ve got one of the biggest rollouts of those globally, thousands of them just deployed with a retail chain nationwide in Australia. Really interesting concept, allowing a retailer to get that content and promotional content about a product right next to the product itself. They particularly run that as an advertising network within their stores. They will sell advertising slots to all of the brands that are represented within the drugstore, in this case. It’s been incredibly successful for them.

The shelf edge is only the latest addition to their advertising network. They have large-format digital signage. They’ve got external street-facing displays, as well. It’s very simply a case of supply and demand. They’re booked out at least 12 months in advance for these advertising slots, because the brands know how effective they are. They’ve been looking for more inventive ways of installing displays that can carry advertising within the retail environment, the latest of those being the shelf-edge displays. Really effective for them.

It’s quite amazing when you see a shelf unit from top to bottom with one of these narrow shelf-edge displays on each shelf, and I think that’s definitely something we can see growing in the future.

Dean: That surely is a tick in the box for sustainability, right? Because normally when you go into a store with the shelf signage, it’s usually a plastic thing with a bit of paper written on saying this is £1.99 or something. But with a shelf signage, you’ve got now the electronic version of it and you can update that ad hoc, and there’s no wastage.

Simon: You can have it scheduled long in advance with all the correct content. Content can already have been pre-distributed down to the players. At exactly the time, date, and minute and second that you want that content to go live, you can have it scheduled to immediately then appear on all the screens connected to your network.

Dean: To hear your story about digital signage is great to hear, and to learn more about it because I think the great thing about that technology, it’s taken for granted.

We walk down the street and just see these things happen around us and we just see them, we just absorb them. I think that’s a great thing about technology. When you don’t have to think about technology and it’s there, part of your life, and it’s everyday and you don’t have to think about it, that’s when technology is winning.

About the Author

Kenton Williston is the Editor-in-Chief of insight.tech and served as the editor of its predecessor publication, the Embedded Innovator magazine. Kenton received his B.S. in Electrical Engineering in 2000 and has been writing about embedded computing and IoT ever since.

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