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Digital Signage: A Digital Approach to Outdoor Advertising

Mar 1, 2008
In cities all across America, digital billboards are springing up, bringing the benefits of instantly changeable digital graphics, images and text, to a medium where advertising contracts were traditionally sold for months or longer at a time.

As of January 2007, about 400 digital billboards populated the U.S. landscape, according to an article in The New York Times. Quoting a forecast from the Outdoor Advertising Association of America, OAAA, the article reported that about 4,000 digital billboards will be in use in 10 years.

A recent example of the use of a digital billboard probably encapsulates the reason why they're so appealing better than a 10,000-word treatise on them ever could. Digital billboard operators in Des Moines, Cedar Rapids, Dubuque and Waterloo, Iowa, teamed up Jan. 3 to deliver news from the Iowa presidential caucuses that was updated every seven to 10 minutes till the process was complete and Senator Barak Obama and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee were declared the winners.

Having access to that sort of immediacy on such a scale in the outdoor advertising arena was unthinkable a few short years ago. What that translates to on a commercial basis is the same digital sign can be used to advertise hundreds and hundreds of products in the same day -not the same product for months on end.

To date, the dominant display technology responsible for these digital billboards is a particularly bright, particularly responsive light emitting diode -LED. Just as TVs -whether their LCD or plasma flat panels or old-fashioned cathode ray tube televisions- make pictures based on tiny discrete picture elements called pixels, light-emitting-diode-based billboards rely on an array of LEDs to display text, graphics and video. (Video is a major application in stadiums; it's more doubtful how useful or safe it would be if the intention was to communicate with drivers zipping down the interstate at 70 miles per hour.)

While highly effective, large LED signs are quite expensive and power-hungry. A Washington Post article last spring quoted an executive with CBS Outdoor, one of the three largest outdoor advertising companies in the world, as saying a 14-by-48-foot LED digital billboard costs about $450,000. With that sort of price tag, it's easy to understand why the OAAA forecasts their number to grow to only 4,000 in 10 years while there are about 450,000 billboards across America. It's also not too hard to imagine that full-on, high-quality video-, text- and graphic-based LED signage may be out of reach for literally hundreds of thousands of other outdoor signage applications.

However, there is an alternative. New high-gain projection screens, such as the XL-A-Vision screen from AccelerOptics in Carthage, Missouri, have the ability to reject enough ambient light -even the intense noonday sun- to make the use of video projectors a practical, affordable alternative. Depending on the type of configuration specified, this approach to outdoor digital signage can cost in the tens of thousands or dollars, not several hundred thousand dollars as with the LED-based approach.

Recently, the first major outdoor application of an XL-A-Vision screen went online in Grants Pass, Oregon, where the developer of a modern office complex installed a double-sided outdoor projection-based sign based on the high-gain screen. The 10.5-by-15-foot sign, which the building's owner has dubbed "The Paragon," offers all of the advantages one would expect of a digital sign, including the opportunity for ad sales to offset the cost of the display.

However, what really drives home the point of why this approach to outdoor digital signage is significant is the fact that the building's owner, Consolidated Financial, did not have the budget to pay for an LED-based digital sign. If projection-based signage made possible by a high-gain projection screen technology had not been available, the company would have abandoned the idea of installing an outdoor digital signage.

While the number of digital billboards using LED-technology will climb over the next 10 years, think of how many more applications for outdoor digital signage will be enabled by this revolutionary, affordable approach to projection screen technology. High-gain projection screens, like those used for The Paragon, may have as big of an impact on the outdoor advertising landscape -if not bigger- than LED-based approaches.
About the Author
David Little is a digital signage enthusiast with 20 years of experience helping professionals use technology to expand their marketing messages with alternative media . Visit http://www.keywesttechnology.com and find how you can expand your marketing horizons.
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