The Next Generation of Digital Signs Will Interact With You

Beyond Grabbing Attention, New Technologies Will Respond Directly to a Viewer

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In an age of content, nobody cares much about how it gets to us. But the recent Digital Signage Expo in Las Vegas showcased the thinking -- and hardware -- that is reshaping the way we, as brand managers and marketers, are engaging consumers.

The most important thing right off the bat: the signage industry has come a long way, and that growth is only going to continue. Some estimates put the number of digital signs at 20 million by 2015. That's a whole new world of brand interactivity on the streets, and it's just around the next corner.

It's important to understand where we've been. Signage evolved quickly. At first it was about grabbing attention and awareness, but as the number of brands shouting for our attention increased, awareness alone didn't cut it. Next came commands: turn here! And the neon rush to be bigger and brighter. It didn't last very long. You can see some of these a few miles from where I was speaking at the Expo: a museum on the outskirts of Vegas that serves as a graveyard to neon.

Just as citizen journalism has allowed anyone to report the news, technology has put the individual at the center of the new signage experience. It's not look at me anymore, but interact with me. If a board or sign doesn't change the game, if it doesn't directly engage as it entertains, the finicky consumer will walk on by . And if it isn't on brand, marketers will pull the plug.

In Times Square, American Eagle broke new ground with its 15-seconds-of -fame LED display. As technology advanced, both Forever21 and Disney found innovative ways to make individuals the real stars of Times Square. Right on! Don't we all like to see ourselves on screen? Doesn't the sight of a camera make even the youngest kids sit up, smile and perform? It's human nature.

At retail, touch screens have evolved a long way, thanks to what we've learned from human experience. Early ATMs taught us how to navigate touch screens chapter by chapter, but the innovation today is about how and where information is served to the consumer.

We've become a self-serve society where we want information at point of sale -- even on the shelf. Connection speeds, high-resolution screens and 3D are offering invaluable opportunities to engage the consumer in-store. Content pushed directly to their mobile devices can help drive sales without even a team member nearby.

The fast-improving science of facial recognition was also on display in Vegas. The debate about privacy is still in full swing but, as marketers seek new ways to serve up customized messaging and track behavior, this technology introduces a whole new era of ultra-target marketing.

Some early applications of this were recently launched in a London interactive bus shelter that recognizes gender and serves appropriate content The most interesting example at the Expo was from Rhonda Software. MyAudience measures variables such as gender, age group, emotions and time spent. No images are stored, only statistical data, thereby protecting privacy.

The use of mobile devices to control messaging has already founds its place. We don't typically associate the dog-food industry with digital innovation, but it's happening. Take GranataPet, a personal favorite. Here a simple poster billboard has one unique twist: the board is hung on the side of a building with a bowl at dog height. When the owner checks in on their phone, a sample of dog food is dispensed for the pet.

As the marketing industry continues to wrestle with the third screen, we should really figure out how the sometimes overlooked digital sign itself factors into the equation. The messaging ecosystem will grow rapidly, consumers will get a lot more personal with interactive brands -- and who knows maybe one day we'll all be using our mobiles as personal billboards.

Marcus Fischer is CEO space150, the digital agency with offices in New York, Los Angeles and Minneapolis. He can be reached at [email protected]
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