Electrical Spotlight: Going Beyond the Digital Display

Tools that drive digital content can unleash amazing possibilities.

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Just having a good LCD or digital billboard screen isn’t enough anymore to wow customers or consumers. Content is king, and those who can deliver content in the most compelling ways often come out on top. This holds true for operators of interior digital signage as well as large outdoor LED displays and message centers.

The content tools that are available-for developers and operators seeking to create impressive and immersive content presentations-are nothing less than astounding.

The natural progression of these technologies is leading to systems that are capable of pulling and analyzing data from disparate sources and displaying that information in real time. Some are turning traditional advertising mediums on their heads by offering interactivity or even customer data acquisition.

It can be overwhelming to contemplate, but let’s pull back the mask of some of these technologies and break down how they fundamentally operate by focusing on two common concepts that make many of those compelling display experiences possible. They are RSS feeds and APIs.

RSS Feeds

Many people have at least heard of an RSS feed. RSS stands for Rich Site Summary. There are virtually limitless amounts of information that can be found throughout the Internet in this format. RSS feeds allow a publisher to syndicate data to a large variety of individuals or applications instantly.

One of the advantages of the RSS format is its timeliness. Information is distributed instantaneously. RSS is designed for content that is constantly being updated. Practical and common examples include weather forecasts, news headlines or stock quotes. As the source information changes, those changes are picked up and displayed by an RSS feed in real time.

RSS feeds are distributed in a simple and standardized format. Therefore, applications can be programmed to do whatever a user would like to do with that data on a consistent basis. In other words, when it comes to integrating into a display project, the medium can be very straightforward and easy to work with.

RSS Feed Application

Let’s look at what this could actually mean for a signage application. One example of the use of an RSS feed that stands out for me was an LED Billboard put up in London, outside Heathrow Airport. British Airways created an ad that was placed beneath the flight path of the airport. As planes took off, a little boy would walk across the billboard and point his finger into the sky at a passing plane. Text would read, for example “Look, it’s flight 123 going to New York City.” This infinitely creative advertisement is technically quite simple and can be pulled off by implementing a simple RSS feed into the billboard’s software.

RSS feeds showing flight arrival and departure times are quite common. We use them every day to check the status of flights or to find out if a loved one is ready to be picked up from the airport. With that flight information provided by the RSS feed, a looping video of a child pointing into the sky, and a place to put a couple lines of text, the whole system can be implemented. All one must do is connect the pieces together to create an experience that is so attention grabbing that it makes news worldwide.


API stands for Application Programming Interface. Essentially, an API is the way that two programs talk to one another. An API is all about communication and in a secure way. It serves as a bridge or common boundary between two separate systems. APIs are especially good for exposing and making available certain parts of applications while keeping the rest protected.

A basic use case is an application that you use on your phone. That application may need to communicate with a service or an account that requires you to log into a website. Those two programs-the one on the phone and the one on the server in the website-need to talk so that if you make a change in one it is reflected in the other. Using the API built into the phone application is a great way to pass data and information back and forth.

API Mashup

More complex uses of APIs allow for applications to “Mashup” with each other. Imagine in your digital signage display where you wanted to display store locations on a map. Developing a mapping application would not be practical. You could instead mashup your data with a Google Map API to have your locations mapped out in real time within your display’s software.

So what does this mean to you and your indoor or outdoor digital sign? The answer is: Whatever you can dream up!

APIs can allow users to connect to and interact with a displayed message or advertisement from any Internet-connected device. APIs can allow viewers or operators to interact with a screen, play a game on it, respond to an offer or discount coupon, just to name a few possibilities.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Connecting the right content in the right way can create powerful experiences and set apart those providers who are willing to learn how to implement a system. With so many opportunities in the world of signage available, integrators are just scratching the surface on what is possible with existing tools like RSS feeds and APIs. However, technology waits for no one and the next generation of tools will soon broaden the possibilities even further. At their core, RSS feeds and APIs are about communication. Things start to get interesting in signage when we look at the inputs that trigger those communications. Today and in the future, those inputs can range from motion sensors and infrared sensors to cameras and touch devices.

Today digital signage equipped with cameras and the right software can count faces, determine the target’s mood, gender, race, approximate age and several other characteristics. They can track a person’s location, the speed they are moving at, or how long they are dwelling in one particular location. With the amount of data that can be generated from a single camera and some software, the opportunities are becoming profound (and perhaps a little scary). Add complementary sensors into the equation and the built environment, and the signage that is an integral part of it begins to take on a whole new dimension.

Where Sign Guys Fit In

Computing power has fully gone mobile with the proliferation of smart phones. Moving beyond the smartphone, computing power is becoming more and more embedded into the environment around us. An environment that is, in many settings, designed and built by sign industry professionals.

No group is better positioned to capitalize on the changes than those individuals. Just as sign industry pros have successfully transitioned from paintbrushes to four-color large-format printers and CNC routers, so too will they move into the realm of software, screens and sensors. The rewards for those who evolve quickest will be worth the effort.

David Rycyna

David Rycyna III is the CEO of Cirrus Systems Inc., a manufacturer of outdoor LED displays. He is an expert in digital display technologies and product development.

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