There’s no cheap ticket to the future

The increasing number of publications devoted to the burgeoning out-of-home electronic media market and recent industry tie-ups such as Mitsubishi Electric’s recent deal with Icion certainly add to a growing body of evidence that suggests that the long-heralded digital signage revolution is at last upon us. Most manufacturers and integrators involved with display technologies would, of course, welcome that as a potentially huge new market for AV technology. But just like any revolution, there are always losers as well as winners – most often, the guys standing in the front row as the first shot is fired! But today’s business relies on change and growth to survive, and this is particularly true in any technology arena. However this is not the first time business has faced these challenges, and there are some important lessons from display technology history that could do with being bought to the fore again.

Like any new technology frontier, there are always risks associated with being an early adopter. In this case, the risk comes not so much from the technology itself but from the practicalities of turning that technology dream into reality. The problem is, technology is expensive: In the case of display technologies, very expensive. There are always cheaper solutions, of course. But, like everything else in life, you tend to get what you pay for. Cutting costs and sourcing the cheapest equipment possible is usually a shortcut to catastrophically expensive mid-term failure. Those of us old enough to remember the early days of videowall have seen it all before: screen-burn, monitor failures, unintelligible control architectures and rapid obsolescence.

Yet, the demand for technology is unstoppable, and this places facilities like transport terminals, shopping malls and sport stadia into a very tricky rock-and-a-hard-place situation. On the one hand, they need the whizzy new toys to keep the customers happy, but on the other they need to keep tight reins on what is often and extremely significant capital investment. Some, unfortunately, take the path of least resistance using the cheapest technology available. A few years down the line, the cost limitations on the development and manufacture of budget products becomes all too apparent and the golden calf of technology rapidly turns into a white elephant. Or worse, a high-tech albatross that actually devalues the brand it was intended to promote. If you’ve ever squinted at barely visible POS display or tried to find that all-important departure time on rolling TV monitors at a train station, you’ll know what I mean.   

The truth is that there is no cheap alternative to quality products that have been properly developed and properly engineered to last the distance. A professional grade solution is the only solution that will work long enough to deliver a return on investment. The many false-dawns of digital signage have in part been caused by the unwillingness of the market to invest in properly engineered solutions. But let’s hope these lessons have been learned well, and that quality production and design will once again become the main driver for change.  

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