Enabling Technology

Sensor Architecture: The Evolution of Digital Signage and Intelligent Visual Communications

Sensor Architecture: The Evolution of Digital Signage and Intelligent Visual Communications

Proximity networks and beacon software are being used to enhance the digital-signage experience for retailers, venue owners, and customers in stores and other public locations.

by Mark Boidman

A key aspect in the recent development of digital-signage systems is the increasing amount of personalized and real-time content being delivered to viewers.  Enhanced display devices, including tablets and kiosks, now have the ability to leverage collected data to drive contextually relevant content displayed on digital signage.  This article will discuss how digital-signage enhancements, specifically proximity networks and beacon software, are being integrated by digital-signage manufacturers, allowing retailers and venues to personalize the visual experiences customers have when traveling through stores and other public locations.

Proximity, Beacons, and Digital Signage

Proximity-based communications include the variety of technologies that allow consumers to connect to a nearby retail location via mobile devices.  These technologies, with beacons the best-known among them, are being installed together with digital signage to create an experiential in-store environment – connecting shoppers, brands, advertisers, mobile apps, retailers, and venues to enable a personalized interactive digital shopping experience.

Beacons function as signal transmitters that can be configured with the help of a mobile app.  Powered by Bluetooth technology, beacons are portable and can be embedded within digital signage to use smartphones as the primary end receivers (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1:  The flowchart from mobile-engagement-platform developer Gimbal (owned by Qualcomm) broadly outlines the beacon communication process.  The beacon software works together with a software-development kit and mobile application to track and then provide relevant content to consumers.

Impact on Retailers

Several leading retailers, including Macy’s, Target, Nordstrom, and Neiman Marcus, have already begun to integrate beacons into their marketing and omnichannel strategies.  Whether deployed to send personalized deals, recommendations, or rewards to customers; remind a shopper in a bricks-and-mortar location of recent online purchasing intent; attach information regarding product features where items are displayed; or to cross-promote merchandise in other departments through push notifications to a shopper’s mobile device – the opportunities to effectively, and ideally without friction, engage the connected consumer at the point of sale are considerable.   In addition to driving sales and conversion, retailers are using beacons to obtain more detailed in-store analytics and are analyzing the data in an effort to further increase storefront conversions and customer-visit durations and frequency.  U.S. in-store retail sales influenced by beacon-triggered messages are estimated to grow from $4.1 billion in 2015 to $44.4 billion in 2016, according to Business Insider Intelligence.

Retailers who have begun to implement beacon technology are garnering critical consumer insight through the software.  Online coupon service RetailMeNot now enables retailers to offer beacon-powered deals, allowing customers, in turn, to find digital promotions and discounts from a variety of retailers and brands.  Furthermore, beacon technology extends beyond the traditional retail space.  Today, conferences, transit authorities, stadiums, fitness centers, museums, and events regularly use beacons to communicate with attendees in real time.  The annual SXSW music and film festival, for example, deploys approximately 1,000 beacons across its venues to provide the event’s 100,000+ attendees with information on schedules, artists, and social-media engagement opportunities.

The beacon implementation process intersects significantly with digital signage placed in retail locations (Fig. 2).  Operators of stadiums, stores, and other venues have to decide the most effective way to communicate with visitors and potential consumers, while also leveraging beacon technology to its full potential.  Daktronics and Panasonic are two large electronic-equipment specialists with experience in making sure a venue’s digital displays work seamlessly with beacons installed on-site.  For example, Whole Foods partnered with Panasonic to install beacons that worked both with its Powershelf system (a system that allows management to update prices at a remote location and automatically forward changes to electronic labels on shelf merchandise via an inductive coupling connection) and Whole Foods’ existing mobile application.  This is an example of how companies are beginning to tailor their technology to the client.  A major enabling factor is Heterogeneous System Architecture (HAS) (discussed later on in this article), which is making it easier for coders to manipulate code on a product-by-product basis.

Fig. 2:  The flowchart describes, at a high level, four key analytical opportunities that beacons provide to retailers in terms of customer insight.

Impact Beyond Retail

Even outdoor venues, including sports stadiums, theme parks, and gas stations, have begun to deploy beacon technology to deliver geo-located personalized deals and messaging.  Outdoor venue operators have realized that they can use this new technology to communicate with visitors in an inexpensive efficient manner and perhaps, more importantly, during live events, which previously had not been possible.  The NFL, for example, used Qualcomm’s Gimbal product to deliver personalized messages and advertisements via its NFL mobile app at MetLife Stadium and Times Square during Super Bowl XLVIII.  Just as in other retail environments, outdoor venue operators have come to realize not only the opportunities now available to supply visitors with relevant deals and information, but also the significant commercial benefits that can result from pursuing these opportunities.

It is also worth noting that beacon implementation in outdoor venues has not been exclusively added for commercial benefit.  The Los Angeles Zoo and Botanical Gardens, while using beacons to promote deals throughout the park, has also implemented beacons to change the way visitors interact with and learn about its animals and exhibits.  Through beacon-powered notifications, visitors have the ability to take themselves on a guided tour and bring the information they learned home with them; overall, the result is an enhanced, interactive learning experience.

A number of companies that operate in the digital-signage space are working to maximize the opportunity for clients to interact more seamlessly, more often with potential custo-mers, which has been made possible by improved beacon technology.  For example, TouchTunes Interactive Networks, the largest in-venue interactive music and entertainment platform, launched Attract TV in March 2015.  Attract TV allows venues to deliver dynamic custom messages within their locations and allows consumers to interact with conference screens via social media.  Beacons connected with TouchTunes’ mobile-app work with the Attract TV platform to detect users and facilitate communication between venues and attendees while on conference or event grounds.  Through its implementation of beacons, TouchTunes has been able to offer specific rewards to users while allowing venues to acquire more complete sales and consumer-related data.

Developments in HSA

Among the recent technological developments geared toward improving the interactive shopping experience is HSA.  Central processing units (CPUs) and graphic processing units (GPUs), the two main processing units that run general and graphic programming tasks in computers, were designed as separate functional processing elements in computer-programming systems.  This means that the two units have separate memory space, which has always led to an inefficient use of memory storage and has made sharing memory challenging.  HSA allows coders to create data structures in a single unified memory address space.  This, in turn, allows CPUs and GPUs to share memory regions and exploits the capabilities that come with running two parallel execution units throughout the application development process.  Overall, the goal of HSA is to eliminate inefficiencies associated with sharing data, code, and work items among different computing elements.

So what does this mean for beacon technology and digital signage?  With more efficient coding capabilities, both in terms of time and cost, coders can create tailored applications for retailers at a fraction of the historical cost.  Cost is the largest limiting factor for beacon-technology adoption, and with HSA technology making beacon software less expensive, more retailers can begin to experiment with, and implement, this technology.

Eddystone: How Google Is Breaking Ground with HSA

Google is taking advantage of the technological improvements that come with HSA technology, having announced in late 2015 that its Chromebox (desktop computer running Chrome OS) product will soon double as a Bluetooth beacon device.  Essentially, signage networks that run on Chromeboxes will soon be able to use the Chromebox device in place of beacons.

This new feature is made possible by Eddystone, an open Bluetooth 4.0 protocol designed by Google developers that offers the leading-edge enhancement of allowing retailers to communicate with a shopper without a proprietary application installed on his or her mobile device.  Because shoppers will still have to opt in under their phone settings, their personal information and overall data security will be protected.  Once shoppers enter a store outfitted with Eddystone technology, provided they have opted in, they will receive a black bar on the top of their smartphones alerting them to any current deals or venue information.

Just as HSA enables coders to write one set of code that can communicate between the CPU and GPU on software and hardware devices, Eddystone is designed to support multiple data-packet types, such as a Web site or mobile application.  Eddystone differentiates itself from traditional beacon providers by making it easier for developers to contribute to the open-source code and for hardware manufacturers to implement Google’s low-energy beacon format on any platform that supports Bluetooth beacon software.  As Fig. 3 shows, Eddystone technology administers the beacon across any nearby API or application and subsequently sends relevant information to a shopper’s phone.

Fig. 3:  The Eddystone protocol administers a beacon across nearby APIs or applications and sends any relevant information to a shopper’s mobile device.  Source: developers.google.com/beacons/overview?hl=en

Using technological developments, such as the ones listed above, retailers and venues with existing mobile applications can easily adopt beacon technology in a cost-efficient manner.  Increasing mobile engagement in bricks-and-mortar locations has become a top priority; retailers are trying to find the easiest and most effective way to target customers when they visit their store.  By eliminating the need for shoppers to download a retailer’s mobile application, as long as they have opted in to receiving beacon notifications, retailers can begin communication with shoppers as soon as they walk through the door.  Because this approach also eliminates the need to promote a store’s proprietary mobile application for users to download upon entry, retailers are also able to enjoy additional savings on marketing dollars.  Companies will be able to aggregate all of the data from participating customers in real time, which will allow for better more-targeted live advertisements.

We expect that as HSA in particular continues to create more efficient data structures by allowing coders to write one set of code that will run across all platforms and devices, we will see widespread adoption of this new interactive technology.

Future Impact

Developments in proximity networks, both in terms of technology as well as retailer and venue implementation, are happening quickly.  Retailers and venues are creating applications that fully utilize the information and advertising capabilities that come with having one-on-one real-time communication with customers.  This rapid innovation, fueled by HSA, will give rise to a new era of digital signage, where it will increasingly become more economical to install beacon or beacon-type technology and develop in-store applications that go beyond covering a venue’s walls with conventional screens.  Connected consumers expect to have real-time information available whenever and wherever they want, and HSA innovation will help venues and retailers deliver something more than digital signage – intelligent visual communications.  •


Mark Boidman is a Managing Director at Peter J. Solomon Company, a private M&A investment banking firm.  He can be reached at mboidman@pjsc.com.