Interiors – Will Farr

Digital signage has the potential to transform building layouts and revolutionise internal wayfinding systems. The technology is almost there, but costs – and old-fashioned, inter-departmental office politics – mean that its time hasn’t quite arrived

For the past few years, many people have been predicting the coming of age of digital signing. I don’t mean the endlessly looping digital advertising or point-of-sale sites that are now commonplace. I mean signs that help people to navigate a building; signs that help to explain how an organisation fits into a space; signs that can explain procedures; signs that you can interrogate and can provide real depth of information; signs that can offer multiple languages at the touch of a button (on a touch-screen of course); signs that can display personal mapping; signs that can connect to the Internet; signs that can display schedules and events; signs that can be updated remotely; and signs that have audio content.

Digital signing will make beautifully crafted bespoke signing or well-engineered signing systems all old hat – pretty soon, if it hasn’t got a plug on it, no one will want to know.

Don’t hold your breath
However, the digital revolution hasn’t happened yet. It will not happen next year and it may not happen in another five years.

Well, first, digital signs look pretty rubbish at the moment. They either look like televisions or a souped-up version of the sort of cash machine you find in 24-hour mini-marts. Who wants to fill their buildings with either of these?

Second, they are very costly. A digital door sign or a directory will cost ten times more than a conventional sign, and the additional functionality is so paltry that it’s simply not worth it. You can display the name of the person who has booked a meeting room on a sign outside the room. Big deal.

Who will be responsible?
Then there’s the issue of responsibility, given that digital signing falls uncomfortably between several stools. A digital signing project may involve a client organisation’s IT department, marketing department and facilities management department. One of these will be the driver of the project, and the other two will be reluctant participants.

This comes into sharp focus once a project is installed and someone needs to be responsible for the maintenance of the hardware and the upkeep of the editorial content. On a more fundamental level, when a building is under construction or a building is being fitted out, it’s not clear which of the trade packages digital signage should fit into. Does it fit into the electrical package, the IT package or the signing package? Assuming that a contractor has shoehorned the digital signing into a contract package, and that someone on the client team has taken responsibility and the client has swallowed the cost, we then get down to the practicalities.

The principal practical problem is probably connectivity. Each sign will require to be hardwired to a power source and probably a local area network. That’s two cables to be dealt with. If you’re working on a new-build or a substantial refurbishment, the cabling can be hidden in wall voids or partitions, assuming that you’ve juggled the contract packages correctly. If not, you’ll have to put up with the cables or hide them with a bit of conduit. Neither option is particularly attractive.

Marketing and IT must co-operate
Then there is integration. If the digital signing package has any sort of interactivity or function, like a scheduling activity, then it will probably have to be integrated into an existing network. People who design and manage IT systems like hermetically sealed networks. They do not tend to embrace someone from the marketing team coming along with a couple of dozen monitors and associated unfamiliar boxes to be integrated into their network.

One day, of course, all these issues will be resolved. Developments in flexible screen technology will permit digital signs to have more elegant cases or be built into the building structure.

A question of power
Screens of the type used in electronic books only require power when the screen is refreshed, cutting power consumption enormously. This, together with initiatives like the University of Missouri’s Nuclear Batteries, claimed to have a million times more capacity than conventional batteries, will negate the need for hard-wiring for power.

Bluetooth will continue to make complex wireless connections and technical addressing more reliable. Phones are already being built with 2D barcode receivers that can transmit data directly.

Continued hybridisation between GPS, telecoms and Internet service providers will mean mobile telephone-type devices will become real-time, personal wayfinding devices.

Open-source mapping has already loosened the stranglehold held by the Ordnance Survey and gives people the ability to edit, personalise and update maps in real time.

One day, the potential of digital signing will be fulfilled. In the meantime, I’ll be happy to provide you with beautifully crafted bespoke signing or well-engineered signing systems.

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