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Building Impressions: EMCs Change the Signage Landscape

Looking into the future of outdoor digital displays

The LED has certainly become a major component for lighting, signage and display. I’ve watched it happen over my 25 years in the business of providing brand and image solutions. Many of those solutions involve digital displays. There are many forms of these visual displays including the electronic message center, or EMC. There are also numerous manufactures of these EMC displays that supply and serve the sign industry. Among them are Watchfire, Optec, and Lightking Outdoor.

Watchfire, formally Time-O-Matic, got its start in 1932. Through the years they went from making control systems for chaser lights that went in theatre marquee signs to making the first time and temperature signs to now manufacturing a wide range of EMC signs. Optec began making their displays in 1985 and installed the world’s first full color RGB LED display in Washington state 20 years ago. Lightking Outdoor was founded in 1967 providing LED signs and billboards. With a focus on technology they continue to improve EMC signs with LEDs, including their patent-pending series of billboard displays.

Through a joint Q&A session these industry experts provide their insight and expertise about how the LED and EMC markets are building impressions today and in the future. Respondents include Watchfire’s David Wuellner, sales director; and Chris White, sales. Optec’s responses are from Caryn Melton, PR representative; Evan Sands, marketing; and Johnathan Floyd, sales. And Lightking Outdoor’s responses are from Timur Colak, president; Javier Oberti, VP of marketing; and Tommy Bogard, VP of sales.

How has the EMC digital display evolved or changed for the better?

Watchfire: Resolutions have gotten tighter, frame rates have gotten faster, signs are brighter and better than ever. The earliest EMCs were low-resolution light bulb units that could project words only. With the emergence of newer LED technology, the ability to project not only words, but pictures, animations, video clips and other messages are easily achieved.

 Engineers have worked over the years to perfect the art of placing electronics outdoors. With the huge temperature swings seen in many climates, varying humidity levels, and salt air along the coasts, EMCs have had to be manufactured to withstand whatever mother nature can throw at it.

Along with their construction, the demands of the marketplace brought about many changes in the means of communicating with EMCs. The communication evolution has gone from hard-wired to fiber-optic, radio, and cellular 4G communication that puts the sign on the internet with its own IP or MAC address.

Optec: LEDs and LED display technology has experienced unprecedented advances over the past 30 years. Like computers and consumer electronics, LED display technology continues to push toward lighter, thinner, brighter, higher resolution, more energy efficient, reliable network connectivity and greater design flexibility. The industry has gone from single color, character-only displays to large-scale, high-resolution, full color, spectacular displays.

Lightking Outdoor: Everything has changed, right down to the term EMC. The industry standard is now closer to an outdoor TV. LED signs have gone from single to three and now to trillions of colors. The pixel pitch, or tightness of LED clusters per module that makes up a display’s resolution, has also evolved greatly over the years.

How do EMC digital displays play a role with branding and building impressions?

Watchfire: An LED EMC sign is one of the most effective forms of adverting available today. The cost of each impression is much less than TV, radio and yellow pages. EMCs have gotten better and better resolution over the past few years. This evolution has made it possible to specify an EMC for basically any viewing distance, thus maximizing the value for the end user by making the sign readable in any application.

Optec: In recent industry research, a remarkable 63 percent of people actually notice LED EMC displays. LED displays play a vital role in increasing end-user visibility and impression. Attention-grabbing messages that target a driver or shopper have an impact and pull customers into the venue. Optec’s content creation and management teams work with our clients to maximize their display visuals and goals.

What are some new things to be aware of with EMC manufacturing, uses of the EMC in the market, and with the software or with cloud technology?

Watchfire: Software has gotten better and better over the years, and it has also gone from the PC to the cloud like so many other things. Cloud software reduces the cost of installation and takes the handcuffs off the end user with respect to their host computer. EMC signs can now be controlled from almost any device like a laptop, a tablet, or even a smart phone. Internet-connected signs can be diagnosed by the manufacturer’s tech support team to aid in problem resolution. This reduces costs for the end user as well as the installing and servicing sign company.

Lightking Outdoor: The cloud is already being used to control networks of LED signs and especially billboards. We offer both cloud solutions and wireless bridge solutions depending on whether the customer is controlling a network or just one sign.

Can you share an example of an EMC sign that incorporates one of your EMC digital displays that builds impressions?

Watchfire: The owner of Northcrest Shopping Center wanted to upgrade his aging plaza and project his center as being cutting edge and ahead of the curve for strip centers. Watchfire produced a 20′ x 16′ message center to completely replace the tenant panel portion of his tall pylon sign. 

Sweetwater Sound is located in a place along a highway that serves well as a gateway to the city where they are located. Being very community oriented, the owner built a massive sign that incorporated a 15′ x 27′ high-resolution message center. It serves to advertise his business as well as to welcome visitors their city.

 The Lebowsky Center is a historic theater that replaced their outdated and ineffective manual marquee sign with a Watchfire message center.

Optec: Optec has installed over 100,000 custom LED displays in a wide range of indoor and outdoor applications, such as restaurant and retail, entertainment, hospitality and casino, billboard and marquee, education and government, and worship. 

A project we were involved with that is truly a one of a kind sign was for Big Storm Brewing Company. To visually brand their new facility, the founder and principals wanted signage that was as outstanding as their craft beverage products. They worked closely with a local sign and awning company.

The cabinet, resembling a lighthouse, is round aluminum with a base width of 8′ tapering to 4′ and an overall height of 25′, which required special zoning approval. The EMC part of the sign is a 5′ x 10′ double-faced electronic 10MM RGB display with full-motion video board. 

With two Elliott cranes on site, workers were able to lift and set the lighthouse all in one day. Optec Displays pre-programmed the EMC so everything was ready simultaneously. Additionally, Optec trained the company’s workers on the EMC and also assisted in developing compelling messages to attract customers. Big Storm was amazed at the speed at which the sign was erected and ready to start promoting the grand opening.

Today the lighthouse sign is so popular that customers take pictures while standing in front of it.

Lightking Outdoor: The Miccosukee Resort and Casino in Miami, the World Congress Center in Atlanta, and the Salty Sues in Panama City, Florida.

In terms of branding and impressions, the Miccosukee sign offers a great example of how the tribe has refreshed its brand with crisp logos and a bright beautiful sign while driving revenue through more traffic into its casino, golf course and Indian Village by advertising passersby incentives to visit while providing information they didn’t know such as $30 free credit, 24-hour bingo and poker, alligator wrestling 19 miles west of the casino, and concerts and festivals such as one with Pitbull and Marc Anthony.

All told, within a few months of us installing their three-sided 17′ x 35′ LED EMC display sign, they have a stronger brand and more revenue. One well-done, well-placed LED sign has made a world of difference.

What do you see in the future for the LED or EMC sign?

Watchfire: The future can bring anything. Just look at our hand-held computers. What is for certain is that resolutions will continue to get better, quality will continue to improve, costs will come down like they have for the entire history of our industry. Imagine an entire storefront in the future being all LED as an alternative to channel letters.

I see the merging of a lot of separate industries and skill sets into a new breed of company that does more than just builds signs when it comes to branding. Companies will emerge that will work on every aspect of branding down to the look, design, color, placement, architecture, signage, communication and evolution.

Lightking Outdoor: The 400,000 highway billboards in the U.S. will go from 2% to mostly digital during our lifetimes. They have to do this in order for the out-of-home business to survive in the digital age. This transformation to digital out-of-home will allow billboards with beacons to communicate ads directed at the average profile of drivers passing in front of the sign using information from their smart phones to decipher their demographics and profiles.

Similarly, cities and counties will slowly relent and allow more LED signs since programmable advertising by time of day and target market will become essential for retailers to compete in the digital age. Static signs will be replaced, first on monument and pylon signs, code permitting, then on storefronts.

These outdoor LED EMCs will then be integrated with indoor LED and LCD screens into a full digital retail solution that micro-targets each individual with the right product/service at the right time. 

Franko S

Scott Franko

Scott Franko is a solutions provider for business, brand and image through his firm, Franko Design Concepts and Consulting. He formerly owned and operated a multi-division sign, graphics and custom fabrication business. You can locate and contact him online at www.FrankoDesign.com. 

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