By Richard Slawsky – Adjunct Professor, University of Louisville
Other Contributors: Barco, Sharp NEC Display Solutions of America, Azumo, Dave Haynes/SixteenNine
Republished courtesy of The Kiosk Industry KMA https://kma.global/
Although the COVID-19 pandemic appears to be on the decline, many changes made from its impact will be with us for the long term. An increase in the number of workers doing their jobs from home, services such as kerbside or click and collect pickup at retail stores, continued social distancing guidelines and contactless payment at point of sale are among the ways of doing business that will likely be a part of our lives for the foreseeable future.
And as face-to-face interaction becomes less of a priority in the marketplace, organisations of all types are reconsidering the ways they communicate with their customers. In many cases, they’re incorporating large-format displays to accomplish the task.
“Previously, large-format displays most commonly were used for immersion and “wow factors” in experiential centres or lobbies,” said John Steinhauer, Vice President of Entertainment Sales, Americas at global technology company Barco. “Now, these technologies are becoming more common for practicality in board rooms and large meeting spaces as workplaces accommodate both employee distancing rules and remote workers.”
With a trillion dollar-plus infrastructure budget being proposed by the federal government, experts say we’ll see much more digital spread through the community, not just for advertising but for information dissemination and other uses as well. Large-format displays will be at the centre of those efforts.
A matter of size
Before getting into a discussion of the role large-format displays will play in a pandemic-aware world, it’s helpful to get a sense of the various types of displays on the market.
Twenty years ago, a 42-inch LCD display was considered massive, while today those displays are available in sizes as big as 98 inches or more. LCD displays leverage the light-modulating properties of liquid crystals combined with polarisers to create an image. The liquid crystals do not emit light directly. Instead, they use a backlight or reflector to create an image. A resolution of 4K is becoming common, with 8k displays beginning to come down in price.
It’s unlikely that displays in sizes much greater than 98 inches will be in common use, simply because of the price jump.
Variations on the LCD concept include the organic light-emitting diode (OLED) display. Because the pixels in an OLED display emit visible light, there’s no need for a backlight. That allows OLED displays to be extremely thin, and in some cases, flexible. Although visually appealing, OLED displays are still relatively pricey compared to their LCD counterparts.
Transparent LCD displays are based on the same technology as typical LCD displays, except for the backlight being eliminated. Instead, transparent LCD displays depend on ambient lighting to create a visible image. That makes them suitable for applications such as the door of a supermarket refrigerator.
Another format making inroads is reflective LCD, or RLCD. Reflective LCD displays depend on ambient light to illuminate the image and don’t require a backlight. Because of that power consumption is low and the displays can be extremely thin. RLCD displays are a good solution for outdoor applications, although they’ll need additional lighting to be seen in the dark.
And making a strong showing in the large-format domain are LED displays. The difference is that the pixel pitch, or distance between individual pixels, continues to shrink, with some displays boasting a pixel pitch of 0.9 mm or even smaller. What that means is that the viewing distance, or the distance from the display the viewer needs to be to perceive a quality image, continues to fall as well. There are a variety of ways to calculate optimum viewing distance, but one common method is to multiply every 1 mm of pixel pitch by 10 to get the viewing distance in feet. So if the display features a 0.9 mm pixel pitch, viewers should be at least nine feet away from the screen for the best effect.
Advantages of LED displays include the ability to manufacture them in virtually any shape or size. In addition, those screens can be shipped and assembled on site. If a panel fails, it can be easily replaced. They’re much brighter than LCD displays, making them great for outdoor and/or high ambient light situations and brightness can be easily adjusted dependent on conditions.
On the downside, LED displays can be expensive and power consumption is higher than an LCD display of comparable size, although both of those issues are being addressed as the technology improves.
First, let’s take a look at where large-format LCD displays are likely to be prominent:
The restaurant industry was among the hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, one of the restaurant verticals that fared reasonably well during the pandemic was the quick-serve segment. Thanks to existing drive-thrus, they could serve customers in a close-to-contactless manner. The challenge, though, was to speed up drive-thru service for the lack of dine-in revenue. Many accomplished that by trimming menus, eliminating items that took longer to prepare and spotlighting higher-margin offerings.
In addition, some took the opportunity to incorporate digital menu boards at the drive-thru entrance to speed up service. A study conducted by research firm SeeLevel HX found that the use of pre-sell menu boards that display menu highlights before the customer reached the speaker, cut service times at the drive-thru by an average of 13.2 seconds. The study found that those with digital menu boards reduced service times by an additional 12.3 seconds, while digital “order confirmation” boards not only increased order accuracy but sped up service times as well, by an average of 17.4 seconds. Incorporating presell boards, digital menu boards and order confirmation boards as part of a complete drive-thru solution can lower service times by as much as 42 seconds or more, critical when revenue depends on serving customers as quickly as possible.
And because the viewing distance from the customer to the board is likely to be relatively short, LCD displays will likely continue to dominate the QSR space.
One of the ways educational establishments can address social distancing concerns while still delivering face-to-face instructions is via the use of large-format displays in lecture halls. Tutors can supplement lectures with PowerPoint presentations and/or videos, displaying those images on a screen large enough for those in the back of the hall to see clearly.
Of course, cost remains a concern. Lecture halls with large-format displays may be a way to have a single tutor teach in multiple locations at once. Wayfinding and sports presentations will be a factor as well.
The enclosed shopping mall is on the way out, retail industry insiders stay. A 2020 report from Coresight Research predicts that as many as 25% of the roughly 1,000 shopping malls in the United States will close in the next five years, with the pandemic speeding up a trend that had been gaining steam over the past decade. In the ultimate irony, many of those vacant malls are being purchased by the company that contributed to their demise: Amazon. The online retailer has converted about 25 shopping malls into fulfilment centres over the past five years.
Replacing the enclosed shopping mall is the open-air retail centre. Advantages of the open-air concept compared with enclosed malls include lower operating costs, increased visibility for individual stores and a sense of increased safety when it comes to social distancing.
The challenge for store operators is to capture the attention of shoppers either from their cars or from the sidewalk. Large-format displays at the street, in windows and on sidewalk kiosks will be part of meeting that challenge.
And of course, once the customers are inside the store the same rules regarding digital signage apply. Video walls and other in-store signage will continue to deliver messaging to shoppers. More and more, though, deployers will incorporate IoT devices such as temperature sensors and Bluetooth beacons to deliver more targeted and personalised content.
Transportation and smart city efforts
Kiosks and large-format displays are a part of many smart city initiatives..
The pandemic has highlighted several issues facing cities, including transit and mobility and internet connectivity for digital services, teleworking and remote learning. The pandemic also shone a spotlight on the role of data and technology in delivering citizen services and making informed government decisions. And as we begin to return to some sort of normality, some are incorporating technology as a way to boost efficiency.
Large-format displays have long had a place in transportation, and they’ll continue to do so, albeit with some enhancements. In addition to displaying arrival/departure information at transportation hubs, large format displays are being incorporated into ticketing and wayfinding kiosks.
The other side of the coin
Now let’s take a look at LED displays.
Although fine-pitch LED has just begun to make inroads into the indoor market, it’s becoming the display of choice for outdoor applications. About 75% of the LED market is outdoor displays. Fine-pitch LEDs no longer limit the end-user on the standard 16:9 aspect ratio of LCD.
There are lots of applications for LED displays in outdoor settings such as sports stadiums, the side of buildings, digital billboards and so forth and it’s easy to create a configuration of any size or shape.
Fine pitch LED is slowly encroaching on the large-format LCD display market, although the price point is not yet competitive with LCDs. Still, this doesn’t mean that within the next five to 10 years we won’t see significant growth in the market for indoor and outdoor LED displays.
Here’s where LED displays are likely to shine going forward:
Large-format LED displays were playing a role in entertainment long before the pandemic. In 2014, for example, Panasonic unveiled, what was at the time, the largest 4K video board in the world at 52 metres wide and 27.5 metres tall, at the home of the Kentucky Derby. Content included multiple split-screen presentations of video, images, data and live and recorded programming.
In 2018, Pink Floyd founder Roger Waters incorporated a 64.5m wide x 12m high LED display supplied by INFiLED as the backdrop of his Us + Them concert tour. At 21.8 million pixels and a 5.9 mm pixel pitch, the display was the highest-resolution touring LED screen in the world to date.
And Disney’s Star Wars-based series The Mandalorian uses LED displays instead of green screens. The filming set, known as The Volume, consists of a curved, six metre high by 55 metre wide LED video wall comprised of 1,326 individual LED screens with a 2.84mm pixel pitch. Topping that is an LED video ceiling, placed directly onto the LED wall.
Background scenes were displayed on the LED wall during filming. The wall offered several advantages compared with a green screen, including eliminating the cost of adding those effects in post-production and making it easier for actors to immerse themselves into the scene.
Anyone who’s been to New York’s Times Square or Piccadilly Circus will have been inundated with ads from countless large screen LED displays.
There’s a requirement for increasingly higher resolution, and the price point continues to come down as there’s more scale and more product.
The Coca-Cola sign in Times Square has been updated many times since it was installed in 1920, but it’s the one unveiled in 2017 that demonstrated the potential for new opportunities in digital displays.
Recognised by the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s first 3D robotic billboard, the sign measures 210.2 sqm and is made up of more than 1,700 moving LED cubes and 245 static cubes. The moving cubes can be programmed to create effects ranging from a wave rolling across the screen to flowing liquid to that of a flag waving in the breeze, and many more.
LED displays are being used to create 3D effects, such as in a digital signage art installation in Seoul, South Korea, manufactured by Samsung. The curved 80m x 20m display, called “the world’s largest 3D wave,” shows what appears to be a giant wall of water crashing inside a huge aquarium. The display is comprised of 31,000 LED panels installed at the Coex Artium in K-Pop Square in the Gangnam district.
The signage wrapping around the sales centre of real estate developer Kaisa Prosperity on the Guangzhou Baiyun Kaisa City Plaza in Guangdong province, China features a 275 sqm trapezoid-shaped LED wall that displays everything from underwater scenes to robots. And inside the building, LED panels mounted on the ceiling show scenes of the galaxy.
A place for interactivity
Interactivity was a growing trend in digital signage before the COVID-19 pandemic, blurring the line between digital signage and self-service kiosks. But with consumers today hesitant to touch displays for fear of contracting COVID, what will be the place of interactive signage in a health-conscious world?
Many restaurants and other establishments shut down on-premises operations, during the pandemic, making the use of kiosks a moot point. But as those places reopen, the role of interactivity remains unclear.
Antimicrobial coatings for kiosks and other touchscreen displays had long been promoted as a solution for screens located in health care facilities, and interest in such solutions increased throughout 2020. Still, a report from New York-based Lux Research cautioned against making health claims regarding such coatings.
The most touted is antimicrobial coatings, however these do not “kill” microbes. Instead they inhibit bacteria growth once bacteria is deposited. It takes time, and operationally a touchscreen is repeatedly touched throughout the business cycle, therefore the inhibit function never gets a chance. If a touchscreen could go 72 hours post touch without any touching, then that original bacteria may have “starved” and died, but that would be unlikely to happen in a practical environment.
Regulatory approval is another challenge. There are also health and environmental concerns that need to be addressed and have increased regulation and oversight. With a surge in research and funding, there will be less concern over performance and regulation.
The original recommendation to wipe down the screens periodically, if only with basic soap and water is still the best advice by far.
Others are exploring gesture controls as a way to incorporate touchless interactivity, leveraging cameras to detect hand motions and manipulate content on a display. The entertainment, health care, auto and retail industries are poised to be the top beneficiaries of such applications.
But while many people are cautious about touching screens in public spaces, there’s one screen with which they have no trouble interacting: their smartphone display. That comfort level has spawned the development of applications that allow users to control the content on a digital display via their mobile device.
Several of these solutions incorporate a QR code on the screen that users can scan with their mobile device. They’re then connected to the display via the Internet and can manipulate content via the browser on their mobile device. There’s no Wi-Fi connection, and the user doesn’t need to download an application to connect. In addition to allowing users to interact with kiosks and other touchscreen displays without actually touching the screen, these solutions allow interactivity to be added to displays behind retail store windows, projected content and LED displays.
The final word
The world is slowly regaining a sense of normality, but it’s a safe bet that the way we interact and conduct business in the future will be much different than it was before 2020. We might be dispensing with masks at some point and businesses may be reopening, but going forward we’ll likely be more cognisant of social distancing, and many of us will be working remotely even after the pandemic is a distant memory.
But to quote Albert Einstein, “In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.”
Communication will continue to be the lifeblood of the world, and while the events of the past year have been tragic, they present a tremendous opportunity for kiosks, digital signage and particularly, large format displays.