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Digital Signage: It’s Time to Start Doing

There's been a lot of talk?and writing?lately about why pro AV dealers aren't embracing the digital signage revolution. Surveys show they're very interested, but so far that interest hasn't translated into widespread business.

Digital Signage: It’s Time to Start Doing

There’s been a lot of talk?and writing?lately about why pro AV dealers aren’t embracing the digital signage revolution. Surveys show they’re very interested, but so far that interest hasn’t translated into widespread business.

There’s been a lot of talk–and writing–lately about why pro AV dealers aren’t embracing the digital signage revolution. Surveys show they’re very interested, but so far that interest hasn’t translated into widespread business. Much of the commentary around AV and digital signage claims that IT integrators are eating our lunch.

Kris Vollrath, CTS

I, too, find it interesting that the number of engaged AV integrators hasn’t kept pace with the increase in available projects over the past few years. But I disagree that another group has already aggressively stepped in. I will say this, though: If AV integrators don’t step up soon, IT integrators will definitely fill the void.

One reason I believe our industry hasn’t staked its claim to digital signage is the lack of qualified IT professionals employed by AV organizations. I’ve been talking about this for years–IT adoption has been slow or nonexistent. My peers who are having success in digital signage integration are doing so by deploying strong IT professionals in their organizations.

So why is it not happening more pervasively? Honestly, I don’t know. The marriage of AV and IT seems perfect to me. More than five years ago, I made the transition from enterprise IT to the AV industry and feel very much at home now, constantly challenged by new and emerging technologies. The thought of going back sends chills up my spine. And folks like me–IT pros who can be successful digital signage technicians, including PC technicians, applications experts, and network engineers–are not hard to find.

Integrator Or Not?

Another reason AV integrators aren’t embracing and expanding into digital signage is the almost universal (but totally misguided) notion that just by hanging a few LCD displays in a cafeteria and cabling them to a central PC (and in many cases, stopping right there) an AV pro is effectively a “digital signage integrator.” That’s not the case at all; that still makes them an AV integrator.

Yes, those displays can be defined as components in a “digital signage solution,” but that doesn’t make the AV integrator a digital signage integrator. There’s far more to the discipline than the traditional hang-and-bang of displays. The AV infrastructure is the easy part. The computers, software, network, and content are all pieces that take skilled professionals to integrate correctly.

Of course, the same could be said of a number of high-end AV technologies, such as videoconferencing. When video teleconferencing (VTC) suddenly became viable and necessary and AV integrators were being called upon to deploy sophisticated solutions, how many AV dealers tried–with very little success–to provision ISDN on their own? When they finally got an advanced services representative from the telecommunications company on the line and he asked questions like, “Are you set up for 5ESS and clear 64 or just 56?” how many of us responded, “Huh?” Did you need an NT1 at the interface? Did the SPIDs need 700 prefixes? These are all advanced telecom technologies and terms that may have been completely foreign to the AV industry when it started getting into conferencing systems.

‘Huh?’ Is No Answer

Yet here we are, those of us who took the leap and acquired or trained staff to deploy new technology (and continue to do so with advanced HD VTC), and it hasn’t gotten any easier. The bandwidth needed to move huge amounts of HD data–whether for conferencing or signage–is staggering and companies large and small are looking to us for answers and solutions. We can’t say, “Huh?”

The outlook for digital signage is impressive. In this time of corporate cutbacks and projects held in limbo, digital signage is one of the few promising technology applications that stands to grow, not shrink, in the coming months and years.

Out-of-home (OOH) networks are launching and expanding in major cities around the world. Companies like Titan Worldwide, ClearChannel Outdoor, and CBS Outdoor are all aggressively deploying in airports, mass transit terminals, on the sides of busses, in trains–anywhere there are a lot of eyeballs. They are finally having great success with advertisers willing to move their precious dollars from traditional ad buys to this new vehicle. Such success will only further the entire digital signage industry.

That said, the software side of the industry isn’t faring well right now, and they’re looking for us to help. There are a lot of players out, many with solutions that barely differentiate themselves from one another. At the Digital Signage Expo earlier this year, analysts and major display manufacturers estimated there were 800 systems that fit a generally acceptable (although not necessarily accurate) definition of a digital signage solution.

Opportunity Knocks

Over the next few years–maybe even the next few months–there will be significant attrition and consolidation among these companies. But the digital signage software companies that are strong and closing deals continue to complain about the lack of strong digital signage integrators in the industry, which brings me back to where I started.

The business is there–the skilled integrators are few and far between. What will happen? Who will step up to do the work? If we don’t start doing rather than exploring digital signage, the answer will be self-fulfilling: The IT integrators we worry about taking all the business will take all the business.

These IT firms have a couple of things going for them. They know the IT side of the equation (PCs, network, applications), and they aren’t afraid to get in there and make a go of it. What they don’t have yet is the understanding of how it all fits together–the content, resolution, sound, if necessary. (In fact, they almost completely lack the skills and knowledge to do sound correctly.)

This is the AV professional’s window of opportunity. The AV integrator–with his expert attention to what looks and sounds good–offers that special sauce that makes a solution stand out to a client and ultimately influences the people the client wants to influence. The rest is just a delivery mechanism.

There are really only two possible outcomes here. Either the AV integrator steps up and acquires the necessary skills to do digital signage or the IT integrator stumbles across (or hires) its own special sauce. With big boy Cisco entering the market, who do you think has the inside track to be tomorrow’s digital signage integrator? All I can say is, wake up, or it won’t be you.

Kris Vollrath is vice president of Advanced AV in West Chester, Pa., an industry consultant, and frequent speaker on digital signage applications and technology.

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