Obey the Screen

This past week I attended the Customer Engagement Technology World conference here in San Francisco. It has an unfortunately dry title for an almost-as-dry conference. The expo portion however, is all about display technology including digital signage, mobile marketing, self-service kiosks and social media. For interior designers interested in commercial, retail and hospitality design these are must know technologies.

Digital signage is moving more and more into retail and public spaces. You’re probably familiar with the flight boards in airports, electronic billboards along the roadside and even the LED-wrapped buildings in NYC’s Times Square. We’re also seeing more flat screens above registers in fast food restaurants, iPads at dining tables for ordering as well as the obnoxious advertisements on gas pump video monitors. The benefit of digital signage is that facility owners can quickly, easily and remotely change their electronic displays without having to print and install new signs. Owners can customize messages to time of day, to specific customers within sign proximity and of course to promote specific ideas or products that vary by hour or even minute. However, recently there seems to be a slight ripple in the matrix.

Take a step back and take notice. How many people have their faces glued to their smartphone rather than their surroundings? The great majority do, including those who drive, walk or sit with others around a table. The smartphone is an eye magnet designed for one. This creates an interesting challenge for advancing digital signage. Do we really need more public screens feeding us less interesting and less personal information (airport gate signage aside) than we have on our own personal devices?

The key benefit of a smartphone is that it displays information that is relevant to only you. Your weather, news, email, texts and perhaps most important of all, your Facebook feed, is personalized and compelling to view. Retailers and public space owners now face the challenge to make content that is not only interesting and relevant, but targeted to those otherwise distracted by their smaller screens.

Some technologists are even trying to merge digital signage with smartphones. Walk into a store and up to a kiosk, tap your smartphone to display your store member ID to be scanned, the kiosk recognizes you and starts to display items you may be interested in and where in the store to find them. If you find a product that’s not available in your size or color, any adjacent kiosk can let you immediately order it and have it sent to your address on file. It could even transmit receipts and pictures to your smartphone. Is this a helpful purchasing assistance or an invasion of your privacy?

As for myself, I’ve yet to succumb to the temptations of the smartphone and soldier on with my flip phone. I know one day I’ll probably spring for the iPhone 9 or equivalent. So for now, I’ll just have to worry about being bombarded with digital signage outside my home. Somehow the facial recognition in the Minority Report’s digital signage doesn’t seem so far off. I just wish there was an opt-out program for it!

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