Watching and waiting: European Sign Expo

European Sign Expo will co-locate with FESPA 2013 at London's Excel – but who is actually exhibiting?

European Sign Expo will co-locate with FESPA 2013 at London’s Excel – but who is actually exhibiting?

European Sign Expo will co-locate with FESPA 2013 at London’s Excel – but who is actually exhibiting?

European Sign Expo (ESE), organised by FESPA and the European Sign Federation (ESF), will open its doors in two months. But who will be on the show floor?

For those outside the print market, FESPA is a global federation of wide-format print associations with events running world-wide. In November last year it teamed up with ESF to launch ESE. FESPA acquired Screenmedia Expo (SME) at the end of January, adding digital signage to its new mixture of print and signage systems. Resultantly, it will now form part of the main FESPA/ESE colocation at Excel on June 25th to 27th, expecting to welcome 23,000 visitors; the majority will be print-related but 28 percent of those pre-registered have expressed interest in the new zone.

Neil Felton, managing director of exhibitions and events at FESPA, says the show will demonstrate the full spectrum of print and non-print display technologies, giving exhibitors the chance to reach a new key audience not addressed by other events. He also emphasises FESPA’s role as a not-for-profit and, therefore, an educational entity. This sounds like a promising proposition – so what support has there been from the digital signage side?

BroadSign has been confirmed as platinum sponsor for the event, and Felton says more than 20 digital signage companies have already signed up, with some 15 more in the pipeline. However, this is not yet apparent when looking at the floor plan: only BrightSign and Barco add to the list of heavyweights. A further dozen offers everything from embedded computers to digital scoreboards – products which may appeal at the lower end, but none is a major name.

For Brant Eckett, director of marketing EMEA at Christie, there is one concern that overrides all others. “In these cost-sensitive times, tradeshows need to deliver not only brand promotion and opportunities to educate the market – they need to deliver new business,” he emphasises.

Steve Robinson, product manager for Onelan, notes that the digital signage market is changing rapidly. “Once the hardware and services are fully commoditised, I strongly feel that digital signage will simply become part of the wider digital marketing landscape,” he warns. “If the ESE and FESPA can fulfil their goal of bringing ‘marketers, advertisers, brand owners, buyers and specifiers of advertising’ together, then this will be great for Onelan and the industry as a whole.”

Denys Lavigne of Arsenal Media is also cautious, but for a different reason. Arsenal Media was an exhibitor at SME but works broadly across the visual communications spectrum, and is a company indicative of the target audience FESPA and ESE both would like to attract. “I haven’t seen any event where print and digital have truly been successful together as an integrated solution context,” he says. “I think it hurts the digital side to be too closely associated with print because of the culture shock and different market interests.”

For two years in a row DOOH taxi-top creator Eyetease exhibited at SME, but its chief executive, Richard Corbett, doesn’t believe that a marriage with print is the way forward. “DOOH is a powerful medium and holds a key position in the consumer’s daily journey,” he states. “We should encourage the association of DOOH exhibitions with online and mobile – rather than with print.”

Jason Cremins, chief executive of signagelive, was one vendor ‘disappointed’ with last year’s SME; he says his company will wait to see how the new show performs. Others, however, are more positive about the combination – including NEC’s Northern Europe vice-president Simon Jackson, despite his company not intending to be present. “The purchase of SME makes some sense for FESPA, as the print world is rapidly being absorbed by digital media,” he says. “It will be interesting to see how many of the brands on board [with SME] migrate to the FESPA show.”

These observations from key stakeholders are ones that FESPA may very well answer. However, it has two other challenges. The NEC Showcase, now in its fifth year, lists 44 sector-relevant ‘solutions partners’ as exhibitors. Marketing Week Live, which runs at the same time as ESE, has added a new out-of-home section and appears to be more in keeping with the type of interplay the digital signage sector is looking for.

Digital signage vendors are looking for a real business proposition, and ESE must meet this in order to succeed. So far, the event hasn’t projected a clear enough profile or thorough understanding of the market to convince the major
screen, media player and software manufacturers onto the show floor.

First published 25 April 2013 – Output

Android: digital signage for the masses

Caption: Android might offer a cheap route into digital signage - but is that its only advantage? (cc Compfight // Kham Tran)

Caption: Android might offer a cheap route into digital signage – but is that its only advantage? (cc Compfight // Kham Tran)

Both players and software have developed significantly during the two decades that digital signage has existed; technology has become smarter, smaller and cheaper and this has, in turn, driven adoption. A new surge is starting now thanks to Android, the Linux-based operating system owned by Google. Yet, while often identified as a cheaper alternative, Android’s real strength doesn’t lie in its price.

“Many DS software companies have launched support for Android and in some cases, bundled their software with Android HDMI sticks and boxes,” explains Jason Cremins, chief executive of Signagelive. “The vast majority of these devices were intended for the consumer market and, even with optimised software, were never built for unattended 24/7 use in digital signage.

“The reliability and robustness of the player being managed by Signagelive is hugely important to our reputation and the ability to scale our business globally with minimum support issues. For this reason, we have decided against re-branding a cheap Android device as Signagelive. Instead, we created a player API that enables reputable device manufacturers, such as Dension, to develop dedicated Android devices from the processor up that work with our Signagelive platform and replicate the capabilities of our Display Edition licence.”

Martijn Bakker, sales and marketing manager at Dise, corroborates that being obsessed with Android as a low-price option can backfire: “Sure, there are big savings to be made on player hardware – but you get what you pay for.”

Dise has been eyeing Android up for a few years. Its small form factor and fanless designs allow installation flexibility, but it was the operating system that really enticed the Swedish software developer. “The open source approach gives us as a software vendor a sense of confidence, since problems are easier to investigate, solve or circumvent than with proprietary operating systems,” adds Bakker.

Dynamax’s founder and director Howard Smith agrees, identifying the simpler operating system as a major reason for his company taking the Android route in September last year. “The biggest challenge has been finding a hardware solution that is robust enough for digital signage, and cost effective enough to make a real difference,” he comments.

But Android doesn’t present an obvious development path for every manufacturer. After initial research, BroadSign realised that it could have a hardware conundrum on its hands. “In 2011, BroadSign decided to invest time and money testing several dozen Android devices,” recalls Brian Dusho, the company’s chief executive. “We quickly saw that we had a decision to make: either we built a universal app for Google Play, or we integrated with a small list of certified hardware devices. It was necessary to modify the firmware, so we abandoned the App Store approach and settled on the device direction.” Coinciding with the company’s tenth anniversary, it launched, this April, its own Android-based player, applying functionality from other products to create a more affordable but nevertheless fully-featured option.

An Android-enabled device, however, is not enough. As screens increase in resolution and size, sharper images are a must; the hardware needs to have at least 16GB of hard drive storage, play 1080p HD full motion video and the latest Adobe Flash and HTML5 content. Plus, wifi is not always available, or reliable enough, so devices must include an ethernet port as a redundancy.

“Android, as an operating system, is not designed for digital signage,” Dusho continues. “It’s missing basic configuration parameters that allow you to set it, then forget it. These include hiding the task bar, dedicated boot into the signage player and administrator access in order to perform auto-upgrades. All of these require modifications to the firmware. Due to Android’s security model, you cannot modify the firmware from an App and that is why you shouldn’t install digital signage software from the Google Play Store [which provides apps for Android].”

Yet Israeli company NoviSign wants to prove this theory wrong. It promises to make any Android-based device digital signage-ready; end users can buy into its media player app for $15 (£9.30). Avi Vashkover, founder of NoviSign, says that Android opens up digital signage to everyone: “Until now, digital signage has failed to provide a simple, cost-effective solution for SMEs. We believe SMEs should enjoy almost the same capabilities as the big players, such as McDonalds, but at a fraction of the cost. Android is the answer.”

Android-based digital signage hardware connected to mobile technology can provide a more fluid communication with customers using GPS locators, voice recognition, face-detecting cameras, wifi hot spots, 4G connectivity and gyroscopic sensors, thereby changing the industry rapidly and for the better. We have only seen the beginning of it. It’s not just about cheaper options – it’s also about the wide range of choices and applications that Android has to offer.

First published 3 October 2013 – Output