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Signs of the Times

Big screens at a tipping point between toy and tool.

by / May 2, 2006

Some may argue that the first and best use for a 60-inch plasma display is in a home theater. Others will say that large plasma or LCD units are for making real command centers look more like the ones in the movies. These usages, however, may overlook the potential of the nascent, digital-signage segment of the IT industry -- a segment actively cultivating new uses for these big, beautiful displays.

The Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) in Richland, Wash., installed 14 50-inch displays -- seven displays wide by two displays high -- to obtain a total image area of nearly 185 square feet. This giant display is used in some of the lab's most advanced projects to visualize huge volumes of data.

All Mayo Clinic locations, including a satellite in Arizona, have found many uses for digital displays, such as for self-guided patient education, a "way finding" system that guides patients and visitors through the hospital, and an in-house entertainment system for patients. Digital displays are also hung in hallways as "digital posters" informing passers-by of upcoming events.

Digital signage is now being used for nonemergency way finding, entertainment and information in convention facilities, arenas, stadiums, shopping centers and bars for advertising beer and trinkets.

The justification for using digital signage in the private sector is the mirror image of that used in public settings. The primary purpose in commercial settings is optimizing revenue by focusing on "impressions, engagement and experience," whereas transit and other public agencies approach revenue generation within narrow legal authority.

The primary purpose in government settings is emergency response -- especially through message signs that keep highways safer. Commercial entities, however, shy away from liability by restricting public safety messages on their installations. For them, the marketing material never uses the words "emergency" and "way finding" in the same sentence. That's unfortunate because citizens may expect the network to tie formerly discrete communications channels together at the edges.

Unless marketing is your only mission, there is a simple question to determine if digital signage is becoming mission-critical in your organization. Is it included in your disaster recovery and business continuity planning?

If not, you should consider that the power, computing, network and human resources that support such signage could be better used for more important things in emergencies. If so, perhaps your organization has understood the importance of digital signage during emergency responses.

Rather than the thousands of digital screens surrounding us every day going black -- or worse, going blue -- imagine public spaces where the displays actually do some good when bad things happen. Without serious engineering and coordination with emergency management professionals -- many of whom are still dubious about plasma displays in their own command centers -- this preferred future would appear to be a parallel universe where:
  • advertising would be replaced by critical information and directions;
  • focus would shift from "impressions, engagement and experience" to "community";
  • nonemergency "way finding" signage would support emergency evacuations and safety-related messages;
  • consistent, intelligent and targeted multi-channeling messaging would be controlled from the palm of your hand; and
  • return on investment would ultimately be measured not in optimizing revenue, but creating public value at times of crisis as part of an ad hoc civil defense network.

    None of this is out of reach, but such a future is not guaranteed. Ironically enough, the picture just isn't clear.

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    Paul W. Taylor Contributing Writer

    Paul W. Taylor, Ph.D., is the editor-at-large of Governing magazine. He also serves as the chief content officer of e.Republic, Governing’s parent organization, as well as senior advisor to the Governing Institute. Prior to joining e.Republic, Taylor served as deputy Washington state CIO and chief of staff of the state Information Services Board (ISB). Dr. Taylor came to public service following decades of work in media, Internet start-ups and academia. He is also among a number of affiliated experts with the non-profit, non-partisan Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) in Washington, D.C.

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