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Interactivity, Data Mining, and the Future of Digital Signage

Considering content and the possibilities of DOOH
University Business, March 2012

If you were to travel 10 years into the future and walk onto a college campus, what would you expect digital signage to look like? I’m not sure what it will look like, but what I do know is that my two young sons will want to interact with it. Steve Jobs left me a legacy of listening to endless fire truck videos; clips of animated cars, trucks, and trains speaking in German, Dutch, and Japanese; and video updates of the latest in dancing robots (“bebots,” as my 18-month-old calls them). The three-year-old navigates an iPad to find the YouTube app with youthful ease and can scroll, choose, play, and turn up (never down, for some reason?) the volume on videos better than some of my colleagues.

Thanks to the iPad, iPhone, and Android devices, an increasingly younger population has the expectation of interacting with displays to obtain specific, personally relevant information. For my two sons, personally relevant information is finding specific videos they want to watch. So how do two little boys have any bearing on the direction of digital signage? When they grow up, they’ll expect to interact with every display they see. They will have grown up thinking interactive monitors are part of everyday life.

I see it in my house already when they climb up on boxes to touch the 50” plasma TV in my family room; they are expecting that, if they touch the screen, something will happen. But… when nothing happens the hysterics ensue and I then need to quiet the beasts with an iPad. Ahh…the future never looked so bright.

Touch screens are not new and IR touch control overlays are easy to retrofit on today’s displays, but creating interactive content and serving it up in a way that’s intuitive and compelling is new. If there were a platform that allowed interactive content on all your displays, would you replace your current digital signage network or re-think a future installation? I’d be surprised if the majority of digital-out-of-home (DOOH) network owners don’t face this question at some point.

With all the clamoring for engaging, effective content (as we all know, “content is king”), have we gone as far as we can with static displays? Digital signage has proven that distributing information on campuses can be fast, easy and even attention getting, exactly as designed. But, is it relevant or just background noise?

I hate to say it, but what is the draw for your campus citizens to stop and view information that’s on the signage? Most, if not all, of the information there could also be found on a mobile device or on websites. What is the value proposition?

Valuable Content

Making content valuable is the primary challenge. Once the content can be considered valuable to the viewer, it becomes engaging and effective. So, how do you go about making content valuable?

From the viewer’s perspective, valuable content is what will make DOOH relevant in the future campus. From my boys’ perspective, a digital signage display of the future without valuable content might as well be a poster board display.

To create the valuable content, the DOOH might want to provide information or data that can only be obtained by using the interactive display. Perhaps it’s using an application that pulls real time data from the ERP system on the number of tests graded and how many are left to be graded in Section 3 of History 101. Perhaps the screen’s location makes the content unique, like using the interactive display to determine real-time status of free work stations in a medical school lab. Could it be made into an app for a mobile device? Probably, but the idea is to provide unique information only accessible or relevant from an interactive touch screen that’s accessible to anyone. 

Once viewers have found some valuable content, they most likely would like to be able to transfer and retain it on a mobile device for future reference. My little guys don’t want to carry a pen and paper to write down an address of a website. They want it sent to them, electronically. 

The digital signage network would provide a convenience to the viewer, thus adding value. Viewers could obtain more information about an upcoming event shown on a “teaser” slide in the system’s slide deck, if the interactive display could send a text containing links to more detailed event information to the requesting viewer. The system could then grow into a virtual, self-service “Information Desk.” 

Still, information isn’t worth anything to anyone unless viewers can easily access it. The future digital signage system would make interactivity familiar. The design of an easy-to-understand, intuitive graphical user interface (GUI) might be based on the type of interface found on the mobile devices. But the GUI is only half the equation. Screens that use the IR touch positioning can have slow response times, especially compared to what people have come to expect from iPad touch screens. Until the hardware on large screens catches up with mobile devices, it’s necessary to design an interactive GUI that takes the current hardware limitations into consideration to reduce viewer frustration.

Certainly, the application of interactive displays for commercial use would allow marketers to directly reach consumers. Interactive display applications at a shopping mall could provide the viewer (consumer) with unique discount codes only available at the displays. If the viewer is given a special discount code, marketers would be able to collect a gold mine of demographic data. If the interactive display applications were designed to collect the right demographic data, the facial recognition software currently being used for demographics collection would not be necessary. As a result, the advertising possibilities made possible through interactive displays could be really amazing.

Judging from what my sons have already shown me, it’s their generation’s expectations of technology that will shape the future. Is that future an interactive digital signage system or a purely mobile device? That may be determined by how intuitive and valuable the content will be. Here’s one thing I can count on: the need to make sure the iPad is fully charged at all times. Otherwise, I can expect to hear about it.

James Velco is chief technology officer at The John Marshall Law School in Chicago. He will be presenting “Digital Signage and Mobile Convergence: Taking the Next Step in DOOH” this month at the 2012 Digital Signage Expo.