Ask the Board – May 23, 2016 | THOMAS KUNKA

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What does the future of eco-friendly digital signage look like in terms of power consumption?


Until just a few decades ago, print media was considered the platform of choice for most of our communication and advertising—magazines, newspapers, catalogs, fliers, posters, and billboards. Over time, we have seen print give way to digital media and the most dramatic shift coinciding with the arrival of the World Wide Web. Indeed, the introduction of NCSA Mosaic in 1994 began a revolution that would deliver a new digital world to anyone having access to the network from the workplace, homes or on their person.

Digital signage has been seen by some as part of the same revolution, but it has a key difference. Unlike the World Wide Web that is designed to bring us directly into a digital world, digital signage is designed to bring the digital world into the physical world where we can view and even interact with it as part of our environment. Digital signage requires investments in hardware and infrastructure Displays and media players require power to function so we need to deliver power to our digital signs.

In regards to power consumption itself, history suggests that our technology will continue to advance in capability while requiring less power. Focusing primarily on displays, it is intuitive to think that larger displays will require more power to run than smaller ones, and that is generally true. We might also guess that the type of display technology may impact power consumption. Indeed, the latest OLED displays have lowered the energy consumption bar set by their LED and LCD forerunners while also providing better image quality in nearly every way. This same argument can be made for digital signage media players. Small form factor computing has and will become increasingly more capable while at the same time shrinking in size and consuming less power.

All this said, can we honestly say that energy efficiency has been a primary driver in regards to our choices in display and player hardware? Of course not. Energy efficiency matters, of course, but it doesn’t make its revolutionary impact simply by incrementally lowering the average energy costs to power our hardware by a few dollars per year. Do not misunderstand, energy efficiency is always a good thing, but in and of itself, it is not a game changer. It must be an enabler in some way.

Many thought that POE (Power Over Ethernet) was the future. The idea behind POE was that by reducing the power requirements of devices, they could be powered by the same cabling as they were using for data rather than standard electrical services. The issue I’ve always had with this concept is that it still required specific devices and specific infrastructures to function. These POE networks may be expensive to implement and maintain over time. We are still incurring costs that some would say are hindering the growth of our signage networks and preventing that “digital signage revolution” from occurring. Furthermore, with wireless networking becoming nearly ubiquitous in many environments, one would have to question why network cabling should be run at all.

What we really need is wireless power, or more to the point, the benefits that we would have if there were such a thing. To enable a revolution that brings the digital world into our physical spaces and becomes part of our architecture as easily it is available to our desktop and mobile devices, we need to remove the barriers of infrastructure altogether; networking and power. Today, the industry seems to be heading this way. Advances in e-paper technology, the type of displays used in e-book readers and mobile computing platforms are beginning to make an impact on digital signage. One of the key use cases for this type of technology is for room signage. Installed outside of a conference room or classroom, room signage, can be used to display a schedule of events and other information specific to the room. These signs can provide great value as they can pull data directly from an electronic calendar automatically and is never out of date. This is certainly an improvement in appearance over a paper schedule taped to the door, and unlike paper, scales well to accommodate a large number of rooms and changing schedules.

The problem however is that with traditional digital signage, there are significant infrastructure costs associated with each location for power and networking. For an academic building with several hundred rooms including classrooms, conference rooms, labs, administrative and faculty offices, having room signage for each would be prohibitively expensive. If the costs related to infrastructure were not present and it was just hardware, software and mounting something to a wall, the costs become more reasonable.

Displays based on e-paper display technology require power only when the image on the screen changes, and that makes them far more energy efficient than the type of displays that most of us use today. This is a niche technology appropriate for specific applications such as room signage where information on the screen will not be updated often and no/limited color is acceptable. For simplicity, we can imagine an e-book reader mounted to a wall with an e-book reader-type battery that can last for weeks or even months on a single charge.

Therefore, the future gain of energy efficiency may not be in the energy efficiency itself but in the fact that by reducing power consumption to the extreme, it can impact something else in a more meaningful way. Digital signage is all around us, but it needs to become more ubiquitous. To be fair, a university campus may be a little different than the average environment with hundreds of classrooms, (whether or not there is signage outside of every classroom) but the perspective of scale is important to emphasize when considering eliminating and not just reducing obstacles.

Of course, there must be some power. Those batteries need to be charged somehow, right? That is a real conundrum. Someday we will have wireless power. Perhaps it will be inspired, not from new breakthroughs in science but from application of old principles. Perhaps all we need is a solar panel just big enough to power the next generation of digital signs from indoor ambient light alone. We never know exactly what the future will bring, but by constantly improving our technology – better performance, improved efficiency, smaller form factors – we will eventually make something good happen, even if it is something unexpected; and that next revolution will begin.

About Author

Senior Application Specialist
University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign

FORMER MEMBER OF THE DSE ADVISORY BOARD
End User Council

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