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Outdoor displays, digital signage

With more technological developments on the horizon and a host of affordable, reliable displays to chose from, the outdoor displays sector continues to grow. Peter van Dijk, business development manager for Mitsubishi Electric and Graham Burgess, managing director of displayLED, amongst others, discuss the market with Ian McMurray.

With more technological developments on the horizon and a host of affordable, reliable displays to chose from, the outdoor displays sector continues to grow. Peter van Dijk, business development manager for Mitsubishi Electric and Graham Burgess, managing director of displayLED, amongst others discuss the market with Ian McMurray.

I think that I shall never see
A billboard lovely as a tree.
Indeed, unless the billboards fall,
I’ll never see a tree at all.
When Ogden Nash parodied Joyce Kilmer’s poem Trees in Song of the Open Road in 1933, out-of-home signage was already commonplace – and, to many, intrusive. Catching the attention of people on the move, of people enjoying themselves, has long been a mainstay of the advertising industry – and outdoor displays are the logical descendant of the billboard.
“Hot applications include outdoor kiosks in open-air shopping malls, street furniture – bus shelters, city information kiosks, ski resorts and so on – and digital signage on building exteriors, such as movie theatres,
retail outlets and drive-through menu boards,” notes Scott Pickus, marketing manager at DynaScan,
which manufactures digital signage solutions.
Peter van Dijk, who is business development manager for Mitsubishi Electric Benelux, sees a similar scenario.
“Outdoor display is a rapidly growing sector,” he says. “Transportation seems to be enjoying particularly strong growth; screen numbers in passenger terminals – station concourses, for example – are increasing steadily. But we are also seeing interesting developments in small ‘microsite’ applications like bus stops. The availability of 3G – and soon, 4G – wireless connectivity and the latest generation of affordable, high-reliability/low-maintenance displays are going to make these kinds of installations more common
in future.”

“The outdoor screen market is expanding in volume terms at a significant rate,” echoes Graham Burgess, managing director of displayLED. “Media facades have been popular in Asia for some years and more so now in Europe: these are increasingly being specified into refurbishments and new developments. Traditional markets such as sports venues have continued to grow, with LED technology becoming increasingly affordable.”

Outdoor options
Burgess’s passing reference to LED raises the question as to which display technology is the most suitable for outdoor deployment. Inevitably, the answer depends on the application.

Pickus explains: “The optimal technology is dictated by the size of the display and its proximity to the viewers as well as brightness levels high enough to be seen in broad daylight. LED technology is acceptable for very large displays, they’re becoming more affordable and their brightness is good. Their downside is a very poor image quality at a short viewing distance.”

“High-brightness LCDs, such as the DynaScan DS? products, are best for smaller displays – up to 72in diagonal, and for viewing up close. With these screens, not only are you getting a Full HD image, you are also getting the high brightness needed to be viewable in direct sunlight applications.”

“Everyone knows that LED is perfect when you want mass reach, when you need to target your message far away,” adds Dikran Tawitian, marketing manager at Infinitus, a specialist supplier of outdoor standalone public LCD displays. “But when you’re talking about smaller HD resolution systems, LCD is pretty much the only option. Even though you might think from its technical specifications that plasma might be a perfect solution – not least because of its price – it reacts very badly when confronted with solar radiation and heat.”

LED technology isn’t just bright, as Lighthouse Technologies’ UK general manager Simon Taylor points out: it’s also more accurate. “LED can reproduce trillions of colours, which is a far wider colour range than any other display technology, including LCD and plasma,” he says, “which means that advertisers’ corporate images can be accurately reproduced.”

Bright idea
‘Brightness’ is, unsurprisingly, a recurring theme. “When placing a screen outside, your worst enemy is the sun,” points out Rogier Extra, digital signage expert at SmartMetals, a Netherlands-based developer of audiovisual mounting solutions, “so the more brightness you have, the better the image will be. The latest technology in displays includes sensors which allow the brightness to be adapted during the day and night to get the best result.”
Tawitian expounds passionately on the subject of the effect of sun on outdoor displays. “All-weather performance – operating despite rain, snow, dust particles – and so on is relatively easy to achieve,” he says. “It’s similar with vandalism: all of us can build steel enclosures and limit the chances of it occurring.”

“The biggest problem is making the display sun-readable – and in ensuring its longevity in harshly lit operating environments,” he continues. “If every supplier integrated the same LCD panel within an IP65 enclosure, and you compared them, you would see very different performance levels. Something the market really doesn’t understand is all of the factors that need to be taken into account when it comes to outdoor displays. The technical specifications tell you very little about how a display will actually perform, or how long it will really last. Preventing the interior electronics from overheating in a sealed enclosure under high ambient temperatures is a huge challenge.”
“There is,” he concludes, “much, much more to outdoor displays than a high-brightness panel and an IP65 rating. It’s vital that customers and integrators do their homework.”

Sun isn’t, however, the only enemy of outdoor screens. “Our screens have an IP66 rating, which means that they’re dust-tight and that they are protected against powerful water jets,” says Enrique Robledo, European marketing manager, visual system solutions, Panasonic System Communications Company Europe. “They are also resistant to direct sun and, at 1,000 to 1,500cd/sqm, they’re bright enough for any outdoor application.”

Inevitably, there’s disagreement about how much brightness is necessary to produce a sunlight-readable display. “An indoor screen will never be bright enough under the sun,” claims Pickus. “You need 2,500 nits of brightness at a minimum and even that might not be enough in very bright latitudes.” (The terms ‘nit’ and ‘cd/sqm’ [candelas /square metre] are interchangeable.) Pickus says that his company has supplied screens with up to 5,000 nits of brightness.

Inside out
The discussion about brightness leads naturally to a debate about whether outdoor displays can simply be adaptations of displays developed for indoor use – in effect, ‘ruggedised’ after the fact – or whether their ruggedness needs to be designed in from the ground up.

For example: a screen with enough brightness to withstand bright sunshine is almost certainly too bright to be deployed indoors. But are there other factors? Unsurprisingly, Tawitian is a strong proponent of the need to purpose-design outdoor displays, rather than to try to adapt displays designed for indoor use. He finds an ally in displayLED’s Burgess.

“Outdoor LED screens are completely different to those used in indoor applications,” he says. “Environmental conditions such as heat, water ingress and particularly erosion from salt are factors that need to be addressed at the design stage. Brightness and contrast are technical issues that require different use of the technology and components for outdoor applications.”

There are other issues to consider too. “A key point is to understand that maintenance can add significant cost to outdoor display installations and can make the difference between a viable system and a costly mistake,” continues van Dijk. “A display designed specifically for outdoor use is always going to provide a better solution than trying to adapt an existing product. Mitsubishi’s ODT6 LED screen, for example, was built around purpose-made weatherproof LED packages which were designed to be used outdoors, and so don’t need additional weatherproofing. We also changed the cooling system to use heatsinks instead of fans, so the maintenance requirement has been reduced to virtually zero.”

A recurring challenge is mounting outdoor displays. “No two locations are the same,” points out SmartMetal’s Rogier Extra, “so there are very few universal or standard solutions available. We can offer a custom development service for customers who can’t find what they’re looking for. Once we understand the customer’s parameters on a wide range of issues, we can advise accordingly.”

There’s also installation to consider. “The design of the structure is the most critical element for installing outdoor screens,” notes Taylor. “Lighthouse products are all lightweight so that the installers can perform the installation more easily, and our Impact series has the advantage of offering both front and rear access and a larger panel size. This is important in places with difficult access or where screens are to be mounted on a wall.”

And what of the future? Many in the outdoor displays industry believe that OLED technology can become significant – “but there are many technical problems to overcome first”, believes Burgess.

“I think the market will continue to evolve and we’ll see more innovation around outdoor displays,” says Panasonic’s Robledo, “seeing them pop up in different applications beyond traditional digital signage and making use of technology such as interactivity to bring a customer experience to life.”

DynaScan’s Pickus is, if anything, even more bullish. “It’s not just about advertising. People want to be informed wherever they are, whatever they’re doing,” he says. “Eventually, every static poster will be upgraded to digital.”
Perhaps these new outdoor displays will tell us where to find the trees.