Thursday, August 29, 2013

Digital Signage 'Need To Know': FAQ about LED Signs for IT Professionals, End Users and the Industry



- Scott Hofheins

LED sign technology is still new to many IT professionals who deal mostly with networks, servers, user computers and well documented software. It’s not that LED sign technology is overly advanced or complicated, but that it’s just not something they have to deal with every day. Additionally, the industry is growing and changing so quickly that it’s difficult to find any substantial “standards”. Blogs like ours are helping to improve this, but the industry as a whole is still blanketed with confusion and misinformation.


I would like to offer a basic FAQ for IT folks who often get pulled into an LED sign project and counted on to make an “expert” decision on one product or another. I've included as many links to related blog topics as I could find. Don't’ worry I promise they are not those annoying advertising links.


What are the basic components in an LED Sign?
There are some common components that every LED sign must have. Manufacturers use a variety of names for their hardware, so the names I’ve listed the names below according to their function.


  • Controller: The brain of an LED sign. This holds the files and raw data that will be shown on the LED sign. In the past, this was a simple embedded controller that sent text and simple animations to the display. Most manufactures are now using IPC Controllers running an actual OS. These are industrialized PC’s that are more powerful, easier to control, and easier for IT staff to manage.


  • Video Conversion Hardware: The video information supplied by the Controller has to be converted to a signal that LED system will understand. In most cases this is a separate piece of embedded hardware, with a video connection to the computer on one side, and a output connection to the rest of the LED sign hardware on the other.


  • Video Sectioning Hardware: This hardware splits the video signal and sends it to a specified section of an LED display; typically Rows or Columns of data. This allows manufactures to create larger signs by adding more of these “sectioning” cards for additional rows or columns of an LED display.


  • LED Modules and Drivers that hold the actual LED’s: These are the actual LED’s that light up and display the information on the LED sign. They are usually grouped into “Modules” containing multiple Pixels. Usually 8x8 pixels, 8x16 pixels, or 16x16 pixels. Each pixel on a color sign will contain at least (1) Red LED, (1) Green LED and (1) Blue LED. These LED’s are driven by the IC chips, typically incorporated with the module itself.


  • Communication System and Hardware: The end user must be able to communicate with the LED sign. In the past, embedded controllers were built to natively support Serial communications (RS232 or RS485). However as the need for more data increased, and networks were modernized, manufacturers responded with IPC based controllers that supported direct TCP/IP communication via standard RJ45/Cat5/6 cable. This is now the standard. Other communication options are easily implemented using Wireless Radios, Fiber to Ethernet Converters, etc…


  • Sign Software: In the beginning, these were command line programs. As the industry grew, manufacturers developed better GUI’s and more powerful software to control full color signs with animated media, text and video. For a long time these were just local PC based installations, but we are now seeing Cloud Based options too.


How does this all work together?
  • The user will create a message for the display, and add it to a schedule in the sign software.
  • The software (cloud based or local) will then communicate to the controller and update the schedule and files.
  • The controller then plays these files according to the schedule sending the video signal to the Video Conversion Hardware.
  • This converts the signal and sends it to the Video Sectioning Hardware.
  • The video is then sent to each LED module in the particular Row or Column where the IC chips tell the individual LED pixels how to balance their colors to create match the corresponding pixel in the video.
  • Put all those pixels together, and you've got yourself a full color image on the LED sign.  


What risk factors are involved for network security?
An LED sign with an IPC controller will have some inherent protections due to the fact that’s its sole purpose is to take content from the sign software and display it on the sign. That’s it. Nobody is surfing the internet with it, or sending emails, clicking on questionable links, or running questionable software. It’s a self contained system, with limited access over a network. The controller and communication devices for the sign should be encrypted and password protected by the factory. End-users can enhance this security by customizing these protections. This is done much easier on an IPC controller because it’s using a standard OS.


What are considerations to take when looking at LED sign software?


  • Local Software: This has been around for awhile. You install it just like any software program, then set the corresponding settings to communicate to the LED sign. Local software offers more physical control of the software on-site, but it usually limited in remote functionality and users. It should be well documented, simple, and developed by the manufacturer directly, preferably in the US. Avoid software that looks outdated or poorly designed. Most major manufacturers can demo the software, or provide good documentation with screenshots.


  • Cloud Based: This approach to sign management allows the sign to be controlled through a secure website. Because it’s internet based, users have the ability to access it 24/7. You have more control and options for users and permission based roles. Local access to the sign is restricted, allowing IT staff to control user access through the web portal. This type of system takes a bit more setup on the front end to get the sign onto your network and online, but is typically worth the effort.


What makes a quality LED sign?
As with any electronic device, it’s all about the quality of the engineering and execution of manufacturing with high quality components. The entire system should be designed and engineered in house. There are many so called “manufactures” out there who outsource the entire build overseas, shipped pre-built to the USA. These organizations have a severely diminished ability to implement QC and support the product long term.


Are there common “red flags” to look out for?
Signs manufactured wholly in Asia.
No documentation available for the sign.
Poorly translated documentation.
Difficult to reach a real person at the “Factory”.
Manufacturers not willing to provide a physical address, or who only provide a PO box.
Extremely low pricing for “the same” product when compared to other quotes.
Extremely high specification numbers that seem too good to be true.


What is a Pixel Matrix, Pixel Pitch and RGB?
Pixel Matrix is the physical pixel size of an LED sign, usually shown as Height x Width. Pixel Pitch is the physical distance between each pixel, measured in Millimeters (MM). RGB stands for “Red” “Green” and “Blue” and is a designation that the sign is full color.  For example, a 20mm RGB 48x128 LED sign would be:
  • 20 Millimeter Pitch
  • Full Color
  • 48 pixel high, by 128 pixel wide Matrix


Some manufactures offer Virtual Pixel Technology. When done correctly, this will enhance your sign, and allow you to use double the native Pixel Matrix in the content you program on the sign. For example, if your LED is 48x128, you would be able to use content that is sized to 96x256.


How do you measure the brightness and color palette of an LED sign?
Both of these specs are important, but have been very abused and over-inflated in the past and causing a lot of confusion for end-users. Keep this in mind when comparing specs.


The most brightness specs are listed as NITS. These are measurement of light directly from the source. You want an LED sign to be around 10,000 NITS. Extremely high NIT specs are typically an over inflation of the actual spec, or the LED’s are being driven harder with more voltage, causing premature failure over time.  


The color palette is measured like your computer monitor according to bit depth. Realistically speaking, anything between 16.8 million, and 281 Trillion is standard in the industry. Larger values are over inflated and don’t make any difference on the actual color quality of the LED sign. A typical monitor supports 16bit (65 Thousand Colors) and 24bit (16.8 Million Colors). 32 Bit is still 16.8 Million, but with 8 extra bits that give transparency values. However, 48bit does provides 281 Trillion colors.


Is a larger manufacturer always better?
No. Large manufacturers have to deal with many of the same issues as smaller manufacturers, but can be much slower to respond. Organizations like Wal-Mart are huge, but you’re not really getting the highest quality products. When you're purchasing an LED sign for $50k, you do not want a “Value Brand”. The size of the manufacture is a factor, and you want to make sure they are well backed, financially healthy and underwritten, but it’s not an automatic benefit.


I know I haven’t covered everything, but I hope the links I provided helped to expand the range of information. If you didn’t click on them, I highly recommend going back when you get time and read those posts. We have a great team here that strives to produce true and honest information about LED signage for both end-user and dealer alike. We are currently at 130+ posts and look forward to even more as the year moves on. So keep us bookmarked, and feel free to comment with any questions, ideas for topics, etc…we’re listening.


-SH


I hope this post has been informative and helpful. As usual, I welcome ALL constructive comments. Please feel free to comment and add anything I’ve missed, or additional tips you may have regarding this topic. Please visit www.vantageled.com for many other resources, white papers, and of course: Great looking LED Signs!

**All posts/thoughts/writings are strictly the viewpoint of me and me alone and do not reflect nor speak for Vantage LED’s beliefs, attitudes, thoughts, etc. unless specifically stated.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Digital Signage Sales 101: What does Digital Signage Cost?

-Deacon Wardlow
Lately it's been my great pleasure and honor to have the opportunity to speak nationally with several sign companies about growing their presence with Digital Signage (DS) sales. Some are just getting into LED Sign sales and others are getting their feet wet with interior LCD systems. One recent conversation in particular stood out. The sign company owner asked me, "What markets do these work with?" We were discussing sports arenas, racetracks and other "big ticket" venues.

I believe LED Signs and DS solutions benefit any organization (churches, schools, communities, B2B, and retail/commercial markets). The big question in many people's heads isn't whether it's good or not, the question they often have: is DS primarily a big ticket item which only the "big businesses" can afford? I don't believe DS is too expensive to afford for a business. If I were to sit with a client tomorrow to discuss LED Signage, the conversation would go something like this:

I'm going to make a guesstimate here, no need to tell me if I'm close or way off the mark. Let's say your business earns about $300,000 per year in total sales. At the end of the year, when everything is totaled up your business typically profits 20%. That's $60,000 per year after all is said and done. In my experience, an LED sign nets a return of somewhere between 5% and 15%. Let's split the difference and say your business will likely see an increase of 10% in business when using an LED sign, that's an additional $30,000 per year in business.

If I were to hold out $300,000 in one hand and told you I will happily give you the $300,000 in my left hand for $30,000 placed in my right, you'd jump at the offer, right? A gain of 10% ($30,000) in business means $300,000 over a ten year span and that's a conservative estimate. Not many things will give you a return like that. When a return on investment gives you that kind of gain for your business, why would you hesitate?

Think about advertising; what works, what doesn't... Liquidators spend a lot of money to have people stand on the side of the road waving the going out of business signs around. If someone had only thought to get a 24/7 roadside salesperson out there earlier, the liquidator wouldn't be necessary. Newspaper is starting to disappear, car radio has been relegated to a corner by MP3 players and satellite radio, TV is being replaced with Netflix and Hulu. On-premise advertising (that's signage) is the most direct way to reach a target audience. Dynamic signage (LED Signs/Digital Signage) is the best way to communicate with the public and let them know about services, product, or information the organization has to share.

A lot of salespeople are looking at the issue backwards. The question with Digital Signage is NOT how much will this cost the client. The real question is how much will be lost without a good DS solution in place! In the example given, the profit over 10 years would be $60,000. That's more than it would have cost the business for the LED sign and an overall gain of $300,000 in sales (realistically much more if they're actively using the solution). The real question to leave with the client is can they afford to not have an LED Sign?

-DH
*I invite you to comment here and/or email me directly with requests at deacon@vantageled.com. Vantage LED has white paper resources and more educational material on the website (http://www.vantageled.com), please check it out when you have a moment. Note all posts/thoughts/writings are strictly the viewpoint of me and me alone and do not reflect nor speak for Vantage LED’s beliefs, attitudes, thoughts, etc. unless specifically noted.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Digital Signage Need to Know- Custom Content -vs- "Stock" or In-House Content


“Sign, sign, everywhere a sign
Blockin' out the scenery, breakin' my mind
Do this, don't do that, can't you read the sign?”

This 1970 song from the Canadian rock group “The Five Man Electrical Band” was very popular “back in the day” and is really about intolerance and exclusion.

Today, the sign industry, with the help of a few aging hippies might re-write the tune to ask this question:
“Sign, sign, everyone has a sign
One on every street corner, burnin’ my mind,
Do this, don’t do that, who'll read the sign?”

You have to admit, there are many examples of very ineffective outdoor advertising messages in every city across America. Sadly, even "fumble fingers" typos can create chaos as evidenced by the above image from my Elementary School (decades ago).  

Even the use of decent “stock content” instead of “custom content” allows a missed opportunity to occur. This issue is not unique to the LED sign industry and is merely an extension of conventional outdoor media messaging.

Why does a business (end user) make this mistake? I suspect it’s for one of two reasons:
  • They do not see the value of custom content or know the true cost of spending a few extra bucks for a professionally produced message to really squeeze every nickel of effectiveness from their LED sign investment. They think it's much more expensive than it truly is.

  • They are over-confident in their business’ ability to produce usable and effective in-house content or willing to risk losing sales with a stock message. And they do not look at the true cost of making their own slides or animation- it's not FREE.

Perhaps the business owner is proud of their new LED display but they forget it’s not the LED display itself that’s important, it’s the message. Bright, shiny and flashy does not guarantee an increase in sales. “WIFM- what’s in it for me?” is the question in each passerby’s mind and the LED display has to step up and answer that question to be effective.

The LED display is “on stage” and it has to deliver something great to be seen in the vast sea of other outdoor media. Remember 5 years ago when you could run any content on the LED display and be a standout? Those days are gone!

If the message does not “grab” the audience, the animation does not catch their attention, or if the colors turn them off then the LED display is not any better than a conventional sign.

As I wrote this, I thought about identifying the many rules of developing better in-house content:

Short and sweet. Not too wordy. Size of the characters appropriate for the distance viewed.  Good color. Good animation. Correct message for the target audience. Correct grammar, spelling, punctuation. Call to action!

That's it. But really- who cares? I’m not an advertising design professional, so trying to provide usable detail on the rules of design and trying to evaluate which Adobe product is required to create the ad copy or animation is beyond my keen. I can’t do it either! 

If you need to learn these basic rules and the other 100 that also exist, now is not the time to do so. Now is the time to find a way to provide custom content designed to “wow” your customer as he or she drives by at 50 mph- TODAY. Hire a professional content service that can deliver something "eye-popping" and unique.

Explore the market. Do your due diligence to identify a source for custom content to optimize the effectiveness of your LED display and make sure that the original investment in the hardware isn’t wasted by running an ineffective message.

Thank you Rick Ostman for the use of your LED sign image from our old K-6 school!
 

 
These comments belong to me, Mike Prongue, and do not reflect the views, opinions, hopes or dreams of anyone else, anywhere else and this includes Vantage LED. I appreciate your constructive opinion which may be sent to me at michael@vantageled.com.   



Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Digital Signage Need to Know: CMYK vs RGB and Other Design Factors for Digital Content on LED Signs.



-Scott Hofheins

There is a reason why we talk about content so much on this blog. Content is the driving force behind your viewers ability to notice your sign, retain the information, and act. You want them to do this quickly and without confusion or delay. This is why investing in a content creation service who specializes in LED signs, or training your own in-house designers on outdoor content is worthwhile. The days of text only signs are going away, making way for full color advertising machines, ready to take whatever you can throw their way.

What is CMYK and why won’t it work on an outdoor LED sign? Why do some signs look great and others look blurry and hard to read? Content for print media is different in many ways than content for digital media. Additionally, content on an outdoor LED sign is different than content on an indoor Digital Sign (LCD Monitor). Knowing how to handle these differences is key to providing a dynamic readable message on an outdoor LED sign.

CMYK vs RGB
This is a common difference that comes up a lot when designers familiar with print media are working on digital media. The bottom line is this: CMYK is for print media, and RGB is for digital media.

  • CMYK: Stands for “Cyan (blue) Magenta (red) Yellow and Kent (black)” These are the colors of the ink that printers mix together to created printed media.
  • RGB: stands for “Red, Green, and Blue”. These are the colors of light, that mixed together can create all the different colors we see on TV Screens, HD Projectors, and of course outdoor LED signs.


Any content made for digital displays of any type is being converted to RGB in one way or another. CMYK works for print media because you are ‘coloring’ the paper with ink. This ink will reflect light to produce a certain color. However, displays are physically producing this light to create colors, so they work in terms of Red Green and Blue. When mixed together in equal values they create white light. When they are all off, they create black.

In most cases you need to physically change the ‘color pallet’ of any files you send to a digital device from CMYK to RGB. This embeds the correct color information into the file so there is a direct translation value for the colors in the file, and the corresponding Red, Green and Blue light values.

DPI Value
This is another common term used in print media. It stands for Dots Per Inch and measures the amount of data the file contains “per inch” of the printed page. This is an important value in print media because a print with 300 dots per inch is going to be higher resolution than a print with 72 dots per inch.

However, it means absolutely nothing for digital media. Digital media is being displayed directly on a display with a set number of pixels that will not change regardless of how large the display is in inches. Saving content used for digital media with a high DPI only increases the file size, not the quality of the file.
Content Pixel Resolution
Monitors are typically 1024x768 or higher. This means 1024 pixels wide by 768 pixels high. However, outdoor LED signs are much larger and viewed from a distance, so they don’t need that many pixels. They range from 16x48 pixels all the way up to digital billboards that push 200x400 pixels.

Designers who feel comfortable with web design, or print media won’t usually have a hard time with billboard content. However, most outdoor LED signs are not billboards and have a lot less space to work with. Knowing how to use this space effectively can mean the difference between a viewer saying “Wow, that’s a great deal!” or “What did that sign say? I couldn’t read it.”

Font Size and Style
Font’s take up a certain number of pixels depending on their size. Sizing these fonts correctly according to the size and pitch of the sign is important. Fonts that are too small won’t be readable, or appear blurry.

Font style is important as well. The quick readability of a font is important and there are some that are good for LED signs (thick and bold) and other that are not (fancy and thin). Knowing how to use a variety of font styles while maintaining readability is extremely important for LED sign content.


These are just a few of the factors that designers need to take into account when creating content for outdoor LED signs. There are many others including pixel pitch, road speed, color matching, viewer distance, and a host of others that must be taken into account. This is why I feel the investment in a content service or an in-house designer is worth the cost. It’s not enough to just have funny quotes and smart text on an LED display anymore. Viewers expect dynamic, colorful content that is readable and memorable. Let a pro handle it, and give yourself a little more time to focus on what you do best, operating, building and expanding your business.

-SH



I hope this post has been informative and helpful. As usual, I welcome ALL constructive comments. Please feel free to comment and add anything I’ve missed, or additional tips you may have regarding this topic. Please visit www.vantageled.com for many other resources, white papers, and of course: Great looking LED Signs!

**All posts/thoughts/writings are strictly the viewpoint of me and me alone and do not reflect nor speak for Vantage LED’s beliefs, attitudes, thoughts, etc. unless specifically stated.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Digital Signage Need To Know: New technology making things simpler with LED Signage

-Deacon Wardlow
Depending on your age and or location, you may have come across a piece of living history either through personal use or at an antique store or flea market. At the company's peak, Underwood typewriter sales equaled (in quantity) the sum total of all their competitor's typewriters and they were churning out typewriters in Hartford, CT at a rate of one per minute. many of the classic Underwoods (specifically the No 5 model) are still around and work just as well now as they did when they were fresh off the factory floor. Simple elegance.

Technology is complicated, but manufacturers are constantly striving for simplicity. Smartphones have few, if any, buttons and rarely come with instruction manuals as the interfaces are very intuitive. At one time, computers were massive machines for business or science and now a powerful PC can fit in your back pocket (just be careful when you sit down). The driving force behind this systematic simplification is both ease-of-use and to lessen points of failure.

SSD (Solid State Drives) were developed to lower the weight and power consumption in computers, increase efficiency, and decrease failure rates (as "regular" hard drives contain spinning discs which can become damaged corrupting data and possibly outright making a paperweight out of a decent computer). LED and Digital Signage (DS) systems, are constantly moving towards streamlining and simplification taking place as well. Controllers take advantage of SSD technology, photo cells are being replaced with software programming (no more photo cell failure at midnight "blinding" passer-bys). Where are manufacturers going from here?

Temperature probes are dinosaurs. Asphalt and Concrete cause temperature readings to spike during the day and wind/rain can cause actual temperature readings to drop down. Manufacturers are starting to rely on national databases for accurate readings. Even software (the old standby) is going away and being replaced with Mobile Device Apps, cloud-based controls, and more universally accessible "anytime, anywhere" driven control systems. It's interesting how the more our technology is driven forward, the "simpler" and more streamlined it gets.

Keep an eye on the market, you'll see changes for the better with manufacturers who care about influencing the direction of the industry. The dinosaurs will likely fall behind, but that's how technology works. Typewriters are replaced by computers, computers are replaced by tablets and smartphones, old technology makes way for new. Make sure you're working with a manufacturer who's ahead of the game and not falling behind.

-DH
*I invite you to comment here and/or email me directly with requests at deacon@vantageled.com. Vantage LED has white paper resources and more educational material on the website (http://www.vantageled.com), please check it out when you have a moment. Note all posts/thoughts/writings are strictly the viewpoint of me and me alone and do not reflect nor speak for Vantage LED’s beliefs, attitudes, thoughts, etc. unless specifically noted.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

LED Signs, Need to Know: Insurance and Warranty



History:
In the time of King Hammurabi the first hint of today’s modern insurance appeared, carved into a Babylonian obelisk monument. It came to be known as the “Hammurabi Code” and offered a type of basic insurance when a debtor couldn’t repay loans due to a catastrophe- death, flood, disability and more.

Insurance underwriting appeared in the 1600’s as shipping interests between Europe and the Americas started to develop.  Edward Lloyd, an owner of a coffee house, was one of the first to explore this new concept as he provided a meeting place welcomed ship owners and merchants seeking insurance. Does the name Lloyd seem familiar? It should be as Lloyd’s of London is now universally known as a provider of insurance across the globe.

Today fire insurance, property insurance, health insurance and life insurance provide protection and, in the case of life insurance, establish immediate estates for the surviving family.

The basics are simple- spread the risk around, so everyone pays a little to prevent any one person from losing it all.

LED Signs:
If anyone has been involved in the LED sign industry one truth should be clear- stuff breaks. No argument there. If you sat on a pole, 24/7, through storms, heavy traffic, power surges and other insults eventually one of your LED modules might give up too!

What separates a quality LED display from a poorly designed LED display is how often it breaks.  Is it okay for an LED display to fail once per year?  While you may see a service truck out monthly repairing an imported LED display, that high frequency of repair is not common on USA produced products. So, let’s assume one service call per year on your quality LED sign.

Assumptions & Calculation of Service Cost for a Quality Sign Ownership:
Average length of time the sign is owned- 8 years.
Average man hours per service incident- 4 hours at $100/hour.
Average parts cost- $150
Lifetime service cost of ownership = 8 x (($100 x 4) + $150) = $4,400
That’s a lot of money. Wouldn’t it be better to help defray that cost with a 3rd party insurance plan that had a guaranteed life even beyond the life of the manufacturer or the insurance company?

Warranty versus Insurance:
Is insurance a warranty, or is a warranty some kind of insurance? I think the answer to both questions is “yes”.

It’s smart to ask “what iron-clad assurance can you give me that your LED Sign warranty obligations can be met?”

What if the manufacturing plant slides into the ocean? What if an F-5 tornado hits the plant and wipes out everything?

Did you know that many warranties extended by LED sign distributors and so-called "manufacturers"are not even legal technically? State law tries to help determine how warranty execution is guaranteed in the event the company offering the warranty fails. Many companies ignore these laws against "self insuring" and attach some ridiculous warranty period to their product at the same time they are struggling to pay for their next imported project from Shenzhen, China. They may be one sales deal away from failure as their cash flow approaches zero.  The warranty is as good as their next sale.

Remember the old game of chance where you have 3 cups and a ball? What cup is the ball under? Don't let the old chancy game of "self-insurance" make you guess who's paying for the service.

Having a 3rd party warranty provider, an insurance company, one deeply involved in the industry who conforms to the legalities of warranties, with reserve funds established is the best way to go. This way service execution is guaranteed even if the 3rd party warranty provider’s company were to fail. The warranty, or the “insurance” has a life of its own.

Many sign companies and certainly many end-users of LED displays never consider this. However when the time comes for warranty servicing and the upstart "flying by the seat of their pants" LED sign "manufacturer" has long ago closed its doors and folded its operation, the installing LED sign company quickly realizes it has to service that cheap LED sign over and over again. Live and learn, huh? Not too many times however to stay solvent.

Ensure that your project is insured, and that a warranty creates true added value for you and your customer. A 3rd party insurance protection plan provides that assurance.

These comments belong to me, Mike Prongue, and do not reflect the views, opinions, hopes or dreams of anyone else, anywhere else and this includes Vantage LED. I appreciate your constructive opinion which may be sent to me at michael@vantageled.com.