New Directions for Digital Signage and Public Displays: Part 2

New Directions for Digital Signage and Public Displays: Part 2

The second half of our two-part series on the market dynamics of digital-signage applications for commercial (or public) displays examines the educational and corporate markets and winds up with a forward look at how OLEDs may further energize the industry.

by Todd Fender

IN the first part of this two-part series (January/February 2016), we looked at the growth of the public-display industry, which has rebounded substantially since the global recession in 2008–2010 and at the factors affecting that growth.  Positive influencers include LCD panels that are larger, brighter, and have smaller bezels, including those with alternative aspect ratios, as well as the recently emerged fine-pixel-pitch indoor direct-view LED displays.  Potential negatives involve the proliferation of televisions as public displays, which threatens a portion of the public-display market by enabling customers to use readily available and cheaper TVs in lieu of purpose-built digital-signage displays.  We also discussed the future of UHD and HDR displays, which will undoubtedly multiply in the public-display market, where trends tend to mirror trends in TVs.

In this article, we look at displays used for the education and corporate markets, where LCD technologies and integrated touch solutions seem to be edging out the prevailing projection-based technology.  And, last, we look at a new digital-signage contender – OLEDs with mirror and transparent versions to enable new applications.

The Rise of the Interactive Flat Panel

An important sector of the digital-signage market is represented by the large displays that are used for sharing information in classroom and corporate settings.  Among the earliest and best-known examples are the projection-based digital whiteboards (trademarked as SMART boards by the Canada-based Smart Technologies), which were widely introduced in classrooms beginning in the 1990s.

A battle is now being fought between competing technologies in the conference room and education markets.  The current champion continues to be front projection.  However, the front-projector market is forecasted to lose share in developed regions at the expense of interactive flat-panel displays.  [For the purposes of this article, interactive flat-panel displays can be defined as LCDs featuring integrated optical, infrared (IR), projected-capacitive, or surface-acoustic-wave (SAW) technologies. The term Integrated touch is defined as touch technologies integrated at the brand or set level and sold through distribution or direct to the end user by the brand (NEC, Sharp, etc.).  It does NOT refer to those units that are integrated by third-party integrators (those entities that are in business to integrate and add value to existing products) and then sold to end users.]  These interactive displays are gaining a foothold in corporate and education verticals due to advantages over front projectors that include higher resolution and brightness, less heat emission, and the potential for greater collaboration.  According to the Q1’16 IHS Public Display Market Tracker, shipments of integrated interactive LCDs will increase at a 18% CAGR from 2016 through 2020.

In one corner, projector companies BenQ, Casio, Dell, Epson, and Sony are not going down without a fight.  They all revealed ultra-short-throw front projectors at InfoComm last year, and many of these projectors now integrate with pen- or finger-touch capability on a generic whiteboard or on a wall for education and classroom settings.

Typically, targeted at the K-12 education market, these short-throw/ultra-short-throw projectors are a more affordable option for deployments of displays larger than 70 in.  (A 65-in.+ display is believed to be the ideal size for this application since it is approximately the same size as many of the whiteboards that have been installed over the last decade or so).  In K-12, acquisition cost is often the main or sole consideration when institutions budget for capital expenditures.  Decisions often come down to choosing between buying 10 projectors at $200 each and equipping all classrooms with their own projector or buying one 65-in. flat-panel display for $2000 and equipping only one room.

In the other corner, several other companies such as Cima NanoTech, Infocus (which has expanded its product line to include flat-panel touch products in addition to projection) Smart Technologies, Sharp, ELO Touch Solutions, FlatFrog (which uses what it calls InGlass Technology, an optical in-glass touch technology), and many others have recently showcased various multi-touch flat-panel LCDs featuring optical imaging or projected-capacitive technology.  In higher education facilities, many are choosing flat panels over projection since colleges and universities usually have deeper pockets and can consider costs such as installation and average life expectancy, etc., as part of the purchase.  In addition, flat panels are viewed as more sophisticated and collaborative displays that can interact easily with a variety of devices.

Additionally in this corner is the 800-pound-gorilla Microsoft, which a few years ago acquired Perceptive Pixel and more recently announced the launch of the Microsoft Surface Hub 55-in. FHD and 84-in. 4K IR-based collaboration displays.  It is evident that Microsoft has identified this product solution as a way to more deeply entrench itself in the corporate world and beyond.  However, at $22K for the 84-in. display, it will be interesting to see what the actual demand will be after the early adopters finally receive their units.

In 2015, 61% of integrated touch LCDs over 55 in. were between 60 and 69 in., mainly due to a large installation of 65-in. displays for the education market in Turkey (Fig. 1).

Moving forward, the main sizes of integrated touch displays will be 55, 65, and 70 in.  By 2020, these sizes will combine to total 83% of the market.

Fig. 1:  Last year, the majority of integrated flat panels sold world-wide were in the 60–69 in. category.

Trends Both Ebbing and Growing

As mentioned above, trends in digital signage often follow those in consumer TVs.  Curved TVs, launched a few years ago into the global consumer television market to some fanfare, represented just slightly over 2% of sales in Q2’15, according to the IHS TV Sets (Emerging Technologies) Market Tracker Report.  The same report forecasts that by 2019 only 2.3% of all shipments will be curved.  This data indicate that curved displays will not be a major player in the digital-signage market.  In addition, practical considerations suggest that since the majority of digital-signage solutions strive for the thinnest and flattest displays possible (in theory, digital signage is attempting to replace paper advertisements, posters, and fliers) curved displays will not be popular.  Also, there are limitations in many public spaces as to how far a display can protrude from a wall; in the U.S., that is 4 in., according to the Americans with Disabilities Act.

OLEDs, on the other hand, have potential in the digital-signage market, independent of their success as a TV technology.  Currently, OLED displays are primarily used in the consumer market for smartphones, MP3 players, and cameras.  In terms of wider market adoption, OLED displays are facing many obstacles.  Notably, the price of production is high (the cost of an LED-backlit LCD TV is one-quarter or less than the price of an OLED TV), and the blue color in the display has a relatively short lifespan compared to that for the other colors.  It is true that the latest consumer OLED panels are claiming life spans of 30,000 hours to half-brightness, which means they can be used 24/7 for 3 years (the standard life expectancy to which a public display is held).  However, there still may be an issue of OLED image retention or image burn-in, either of which will cause many in the industry to experience déjà vu based on the nightmares related to early plasma displays’ inability to show static images without permanent damage or significantly reducing the life expectancy of the display.

Moreover, recent developments imply that OLED displays may be positioned to enter the digital-signage market on a larger scale.  Both transparent and “mirror” OLED technologies have been developed that hold a great deal of potential for numerous applications.  Some OLED panels are designed to generate light in both directions (front and back), and this feature creates an opportunity for expansion in new applications such as bi-directional signage.

Mirror OLED displays (under development) that offer a personalized shopping experience – for example, an interactive fitting room that enables customers to see how clothes, shoes, or jewelry look on them before making their purchase decision – have been demonstrated.  In this case, the display works in conjunction with 3D cameras and software.

Transparent OLED displays allow users to view what is shown on a glass video screen while still being able to see through it, enabling them, for example, to overlay digital images onto real objects that sit behind the glass.  The digital information about the product behind the OLED display allows retailers to create augmented reality.  These transparent OLED displays can also be used as interior windows, room dividers, and partitions for informational purposes (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2:  Samsung recently demonstrated its 55-in. transparent OLED technology.  Image courtesy Samsung.

Both LG and Samsung have announced or displayed large-screen OLED products.  Samsung Display recently introduced its mirror and transparent OLED display panels, aimed primarily for retail digital-signage applications for personalized shopping and informational browsing.  LG Electronics currently does not have a transparent OLED display in its portfolio of commercial products, but LG Display (its parent panel supplier) has basically gone “all-in” on OLED technology for televisions.

In the second half of 2014, a new OLED project between Sony and Panasonic in Japan, called JOLED, was created to combine R&D efforts to develop transparent OLED display panels for digital-signage and other applications.  The newly established company will develop methods to mass-produce displays at low cost by combining Sony’s knowledge of advanced semiconductor technology and Panasonic’s technology to make panels from organic materials.  JOLED was supposed to finalize details of its new plant to manufacture prototype OLED panels in late 2015 and decide by the end of 2017 whether mass production of the panels is viable.

Public displays, regardless of technology, size, or features are clearly becoming ubiquitous.  Hopefully, companies, institutions, and governments will realize their goals of reducing costs, improving communications, and increasing awareness with their target audiences through digital signage.  This will not come without challenges.  As hardware costs decrease and performance improves, more focus will be on the software and the content shown on the displays.  We have already reached a point where simply using these displays to replace printed materials is not enough.  With cameras and other sensor equipment being attached to the display, companies are now capturing data on the public.  (See the article, “Sensor Architecture: The Evolution of Digital Signage and Intelligent Visual Communications” also in this issue.)

Will this negatively affect the growth of public displays or are these tactics just a forgone conclusion and now generally accepted as long as there is a perceived benefit?  This, in itself, is a whole other discussion.  •

Todd Fender is a principal analyst within the IHS Technology group.  For more detailed information and analysis on the public display, professional display, and specialty display markets, contact, or visit