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Pro A/V & Digital Signage Trends to look out for in a COVID-19 world

By Guest Blogger: Dave Haynes, Digital Signage Expert

Digital signage technology is always evolving and advancing, but this crazy year has accelerated its adoption and revealed the value of visual messaging for a huge range of use-cases.

When routine activities – like picking up groceries or grabbing lunch – were abruptly different, something needed to communicate the changes. Like Opening hours. Access restrictions. New rules. Shifting supply levels.

We saw two ways of dealing with all that:

  1. If a business was already using digital displays, they communicated those changes quickly and effectively on their screens – in their business and on screens in windows and outside.
  1. If a business didn’t have digital displays, they were pulling paper flip charts and dry-erase marker boards out of a meeting room, or dead storage, to communicate with customers at the entryway. They were printing off 8 ½ by 11s and taping them to windows and doors. They were turning the valuable staff into bouncers, charged with communicating what was OK and how things now worked.

In short, those companies that already had digital signage were glad they had it, and those who did not were regretting putting off adoption … because what they were doing instead was a necessary, completely off-brand hack.

Digital screens, fixed in the right places, are able to keep pace with changing rules and deal with the simple realities of life during COVID-19. It’s just a better experience, whether it’s picking up dinner ingredients or making a rare trip for dinner when it’s clear from messaging what’s available, where to go, and how things now work.

That big jump in relevance – making screens fundamental to operations – is just one trend we’re seeing in digital signage. Let’s look at some others:

Touch hasn’t gone away

When COVID hit, a lot of us in the industry were thinking that was the end of touchscreens, and requirements would shift to contactless interactive technologies like gesture and voice. But it hasn’t worked out that way.

Touchscreens are just another surface in a store, bank or restaurant. They can harbour a contagion, but when you are boinking away at a screen to pay or order, you know it. And you know to use your sanitizer gel right after.

The bigger risk is doing a transaction or getting information in face-to-face (hopefully mask-to-mask) with staffers at that business. That’s why very savvy operators like major QSR chains have not shut down their self-service ordering kiosks but focused on them to keep their kitchen and pick-up counter staff safe.

Research has confirmed sales for interactive technologies like touchscreens slowed when COVID hit, but now business is close to or at pre-pandemic levels.

Future is here finally

Technologies that seemed to never get past stores and bank branches “of the future” are getting a longer look and likely to see rollouts because they now make sense and because the pandemic has changed consumer behaviours.

Your parents and grandparents, for example, maybe people who steadfastly gone into a bank to deposit a cheque. They didn’t want to learn how to do a mobile deposit. But then they had to, to stay safe, and learned it was convenient as heck.

A good example of something that seemed a bit gimmicky when tried in concept stores and banks was remote advisors – touchscreens that launched a remote video session with an expert advisor, working across the city or country. Now, with many businesses forced to reduce on-premise staffing because of business conditions, a remote advisor allows a business to have expert-level staff available to customers, without the ongoing cost.

With all of us on Zoom, Teams, Meet or whatever we use, video meetings are now second-nature and comfortable.

Several shifts

More broadly, the digital signage industry is seeing several aspects shifting:

Direct view LED has matured to a level of visual quality and management that the people who design physical spaces – like architects and commercial interior design firms – are now making digital a consideration for the big statement about a physical place. That big feature wall in the lobby can be granite, wood, Italian tile … or direct view LED. The attraction with digital is that making a change with conventional finishes is costly and messy. With digital, it’s a few keystrokes.

Have a look, if you are in Toronto, at the BMO branch in the Manulife Centre on Bloor. The lobby wall is one big floor to ceiling sweep of fine pitch LED, and it is awesome.

The good news is that costs are coming down on LED, and displays that used to be subject to easy damage now have versions with hardened coatings that protect them even in public spaces.

Most of what you see is called SMD LED, but we’re starting to see the emergence of microLED. That’s super-teeny LEDs on black backgrounds that result in huge, flexibly-sized video walls that can look as good as the 4K TV in your home. Sony has its Clear LED. Samsung has The Wall, and now LG is in the game with Magnit.

Right now, they are super-expensive, but those costs are expected to plummet as manufacturers get better about production processes.

Projection revival

Projection is coming back because lasers last far longer than lamp-based systems. The fun thing, as well, is seeing new form factors like Epson’s track lighting-style LightScene projectors.

We’re also seeing an evolution in the fundamental components of digital signage.

Software companies are growing more specialized and focused on select verticals because what you could call simple digital signage is being disintermediated by web technologies. Browsers and related software can do much of what a digital signage CMS can do, but more specialized CMS platforms are optimized for things like advertising, food services or workplace communications.

Media players

In the early days of digital signage, PCs were the norm. Little NUCs and small form factor PCs still have a role, but it is more specialized – like when faster Intel CPUs are needed to do things like 4K video walls or handle AI computer vision processing. Set-top boxes, like Apple TVs, are now media players, and so-called smart signage displays are now very powerful and capable. With a system on chip processor embedded in a display, the signage job doesn’t even need an external media player.

It’s a really interesting time for digital signage. Much of these insights I have related here pulled out of industry expert Dave Haynes, who writes the go-to digital signage publication Sixteen:Nine. Based in Halifax, Dave will kick off our Oct. 22nd event with his views on industry trends, and chat with some of our key sponsor partners.

Join us on October 22nd at 1:00 pm for the opportunity to network and gain valuable insights from our sponsoring vendors. You'll also be able to learn from our Keynote Speaker, Dave Haynes about the evolution of the Pro A/V and Digital Signage industry.  Register today!