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It’s Time for Electronic Signage



Two decades ago, in general practice, the world’s digital-data infrastructure was limited to voice communications — telephones, primarily. Since then, we’ve seen and enjoyed the ever-escalating buildup of text, graphic and video platforms and applications designed for business as well as individual use.

At that time, I worked for AT&T Bell Laboratories (Holmdel, NJ) in a division that pioneered fiber-optic, digital technologies. Our lab s task was to increase fiberoptic bandwidths, so such systems could transport huge amounts of data. Truth is, we were looking for a killer application for internet and intranet use, and our first applications streamlined email-type communications.

Today, the mainline choice for personal communication — connectedness — is text. Next comes image and video transfers, although the latter remains somewhat restricted because today’s available bandwidth, although immense when compared to the recent past, still limits video’s real-time quality and usage. Also, because time always equals money, video, in a file-size (not content) sense, requires more bandwidth and storage space. Thus, it’s more expensive to create, store, transmit and view than static files.

Even so, many businesses use such modern, electronic-communication tools — Blogger, Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, and YouTube — for connecting with various customers and audiences.

Interestingly, as the Internet and telecommunication scientists were bringing more capabilities to personal and B2B communications, many appear to have overlooked signage. Perhaps signs’ static nature (both in message and in location) causes them to received scant attention from information technology (IT) scientists. When IT developers, myself included, think of enhancing communication, we tend to visualize transportation of electronic information as telephony and internet data via copper cables, fiber-optic and wireless systems.

However, albeit slighted, signage is an extraordinary form of communication. More interesting, now that digital technologies have reached outdoor multimedia, the communications scientist’s grandest customers are the signage, advertising and entertainment industries.


Signs as advertising
So how has the signage industry benefitted from digital technologies? Through electronics, signage has become an active, dynamic, advertising medium. Also, because changeable sign content allows varying messages — think of graphic ads or traffic warnings. Further, constantly changing text and images attracts more attention than static images.

A changeable (active- or passive-matrix, i.e., animated) sign can become a profit center because numerous advertisers can buy time — exposure — in the same space.The signage industry is inherently a gigantic part of our lives because signs are primary venues for people — especially mobile people — to quickly choose locations for goods and services. The dynamic nature of electronic-digital signage (EDS) allows users, advertisers and other implementers (such as regulatory authorities) to update information, share costs and follow a targeted audience. Unquestionably, EDS yields a fast, simple and cost-effective communications system.

Shared digital functions
Digital technologies advancement has elevated connectedness for educational institutions, governments, businesses and virtually all other types of human networking. Many different types of digital technologies aggregately enable multimedia networks that provide voice, text, graphic and video streams in point-cast, broadcast and multicast fashions. These digital technologies employ numerous basic functions:
• Electronically converting vast amounts of source data into digital, binary equivalents;
• Digitally processing and controlling such data, so that various format and network identification markings can be superimposed;
• Digitally transporting such data via fiber-optic, copper-cable or wireless technologies to proper destinations;
• Receiving, decoding and displaying the data at destinations;
• And, storing network data, so it s available for future use.

The above digital technologies enable the worldwide Internet and Intranets, as well as operation systems and myriad applications for mobile (handheld) devices.

Employing many similar digital technologies, EDS systems bring digital graphics and videos to both indoor and outdoor devices, throughout. Most obvious are the animated, LED-lamped billboards.

The display systems for various EDS comprise technologies that include active- and passive-matrix, backlit, fluorescent or LED illuminated LCD screens; fluorescent-lamped plasma screens; bitmapped LED-lamped, large-format screens; and organic LEDs (OLEDs). All incorporate digital-display technologies — meaning images represented by digital, binary data — which is formed on screens using discrete (R, G, B for example) color controls in a pixel-based array.


All the systems, however, will automatically refresh, make adjustments and perform fault-tolerance adjustments.

Electronic-message centers (EMCs) have limited use in terms of refresh rates, size, brightness, quantity and location. Additionally, both on-premise and off-premise EMCs are usually regulated by local, state, and federal ordinances — many of which are still under development.

Active signage
Electronic, digital-display technologies have revolutionized the sign industry by increasing its information-sharing and reaching abilities. They have also automated the labor tasks once involved in changing dated billboards and other, large-format signage. EDS has also generated excitement — certainly, its colossal sizes, eye-catching graphics and vibrant colors attract attention.

Around the world, stadiums, retail venues, banks and major sporting events have applied thousands of large-scale EDS to energize and narrowcast or broadcast their ads, news or events. For example, London is preparing for the 2012 Summer Olympics with many new EDS units in place. Its plans include an LED update of the Piccadilly Circus Sanyo sign, one of the last large neon signs in that area.

Signs are no longer just stationary, in either space or time. The digital revolution has allowed business, personal and advertising communications to merge. It has, in essence, brought signs to people’s eyes — and fingertips — virtually anywhere. Various printing and projection technologies also allow text and images to be placed on multitude of surfaces — enhancing the sharing and reaching of signs even further. Such signage and advertising enablers are also promoting innovation and entrepreneurship among people of diverse demography.

In these exciting times, when signage has evolved to a dynamic and colorful form — it’s no longer about LEDs or neon — it’s more about integrating numerous, digitally compatible technologies. The digital age is revolutionizing the sign industry. It’s almost screaming: “It’s time for electronic signage!” 


As president of LED Lighting Technologies, Dr. M. Nisa Khan consults in the solid-state lighting industry and educates consumers about LED lighting. She has a bachelor’s degree in physics and mathematics, and master’s and Ph.D. degrees in electrical engineering. Email her at



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