What improvements have you seen in hardware that have made it easier to install, operate and maintain displays in outdoor locations?”
Of the 350+ digital signs comprising our campus network, a grand total of zero are outdoor. I would suspect that campus environments, particularly those in non-optimal climates, have fewer opportunities to deploy outdoor digital signage. Even so, the technology itself would appear to be a challenge that is; to borrow a phrase from video gaming circles, “a level or two higher” than most of us are accustomed to deploying and supporting. Our local mass transit district has deployed exterior signage and delivers real-time arrival information directly to its own outdoor bus stop signage network with locations throughout the campus area. While the same real-time bus schedules are being communicated throughout the campus digital signage networks, having the right information available to the right people in the right place would seem to give outdoor digital signage additional value worthy of investigation.
I cannot help but to cringe when I walk past the one outside the building where my office is located because of the very loud buzzing noise produced by the fans used to keep the hardware inside the enclosure cool. I find this ironic considering that it was the dead of winter in Central Illinois when I wrote this and even more so that the fans are just as loud today as they are in the heat of summer. In contemplating the improvements in technology, one would think we have come farther than that. I believe that the robustness of the computing platforms has come a long way. Solid-state hard drives with no moving components are less prone to failure than are their antiquated spinning disk ancestors. Digital signage players (aka “computers”) have shrunk from small form factor PCs to devices as small as stick PCs that provide similar functionality as their larger counterparts but with far less heat generated. Displays have evolved from plasma displays to LCD displays to LED displays, with increased brightness while producing less heat.
Perhaps the challenge in outdoor display technology is not in the traditional components we know, but rather in developing environmental control systems that keep our system safe. Heat, of course, is not the only enemy; cold and moisture can also cause our components harm. What we really need is an evolution in our environmental control systems that are solutions to monitor and protect our installations against these outdoor threats. We need solutions that are cost effective, readily available, small enough to be placed inside any enclosure, and if possible, integrated with our digital signage management systems.
As I pass by the bus stop kiosk each day, I cannot help but think, “Isn’t there a better way? Why are those fans constantly buzzing at full force – day and night, through all four seasons? That noise alone may be deterring campus leaders from even contemplating outdoor signage of our own!”
As I write this article, I am dictating it using voice recognition software to a PC I recently built. This PC has a high-end processor with six cores operating at nearly 4 GHz. This system can generate a great deal of heat yet runs quite silently. This is helping my voice to be converted to text with near perfect precision. The key is in the water-cooling unit used to cool the CPU along with an abundance of sensors and variable speed fans. Water-cooled computers such as this were rare just a few years ago and limited to hard-core computer gamers who were capable of overcoming the challenges inherent in pushing computer hardware to their environmental limits. My home-built system is new and its potential still largely unexplored. Even so, the concept is quite clear. The system generates a significant thermal load that increases with heavy CPU usage. The many system fans adjust speed dynamically, and while I can hear them, they are virtually silent in comparison to the outdoor bus-stop sign that nearly drowns out the sound of the passing traffic. With the proper software, I will have access to dashboards containing real-time hardware data and advanced controls.
For all the investments, we make content management systems enclosures display hardware and players for outdoor installations, might we not want to consider investing in similar concepts? After all, if my PC, built from off-the-shelf parts ordered online and put together in an evening can have this much functionality, why can’t similar concepts be thoughtfully ported into the realm of digital signage? Advancements in specific technologies will only take us so far. This is true in any practical application but especially so in the case of outdoor digital signage where the whole is certainly much less than the sum of its parts. Anyone who walks past the bus stop outside my building would certainly say so …if you could hear them, that is.