By Monica Heck
Special to InfoComm International
Interactivity is a human instinct. Toddlers have always explored the world using their senses but they now graduate from chewing their toys to gaming on a tablet.
Society may have sought to curb those instincts in the past, but recent evolutions in technology have turned tablets and screens into acceptable extensions of our hands, a trend that has transferred to digital signage.
“We are all delivering information, data and an experience in all those scenarios — it’s just a question of scale,” comments Stuart Hetherington, CEO at sensory experience design house Holovis. “Allowing people to interact with the environment in the most natural way is everyone’s desire.”
Interacting Through Touch
“Classical digital signage is becoming something of the past; the current trend is engaging customers and turning information into something which they can interact with,” said António Castro, CTO at multi-touch software platform vendor UNEDGED, who notes that most screens, whether large or small, are now being manufactured with touch in mind.
Nowadays, people expect objects with a display to be active. “One in five people globally own a smartphone, so people’s expectation for touch has changed. Their reference point sits in their pocket and they feel they are entitled to extend that experience to the public space,” said Ian Kimball, Americas Marketing Manager at 3M Touch Systems Inc. “If they can’t, it’s a reflection on the location, the brand or the store.”
Single-touch interactivity is one thing, but what about the rise of multiuser screens? “We advocate a multi-user approach, where glass and surfaces can be used by many people simultaneously so you can engage more than one person at the same time, using the same real estate,” said Hannu Anttila, VP of business development at MultiTouch Ltd. Kimball concurs. “Tabletop is a good fit for our technology; we provide sixty simultaneous touch-points which makes for a perfect collaborative surface for multiple people to interact.”
Stepping Beyond Touch
It’s easy to forget, however, that touch isn’t the only form of interactivity, which can also arise through cameras and analytics for gesture recognition, NFC, RFID or iBeacon for mobile device interaction.
Touch may be leading the charge, but social media and smartphone integration are not far behind, along with gesture control. Those solutions are attractive in scenarios where users may be unwilling or unable to touch a screen, for cultural or hygiene reasons. Hetherington, for example, thinks future growth in digital signage will come from allowing the human desire to naturally interact in a more intuitive way, through gesture recognition.
“Touch is the most natural way to interact with something,” said Castro. “If you want the user to engage deeply in the interaction, to consume content and have power over it, gestures are not as easy as touching. Touch is still the hottest trend, but gesture is rising.”
This of course places extra demands on manufacturers. To handle non-touch interaction, MultiTouch launched its MultiTaction Codice last year, which identifies individuals on public display walls through “QR-type markers” on physical items. “We can provide multiple input methods and the applications can also integrate remote sensors such as Kinect, to mix and match different interaction types,” said Anttila.
Meanwhile, BrightSign has been active in the interactive signage space for nearly a decade and can handle anything that triggers an event, according to CEO Jeff Hastings. “Whether a physical press on a button, a virtual press on a touchscreen, some other kind of sensor like an RFID or barcode all the way up to digital signage interactions over a network or GPS-triggered events,” said Hastings who also notes that a form of ‘passive interactivity’ can be generated by the movement of vehicles or objects.
And while the main focus for Grassfish Marketing Technologies GmbH is touch, CEO Roland Grassberger says the company also integrates interactivity through external devices like mobiles or tablets, e-readers or interactive product holders, QR code readers and camera-based interactive systems in shop windows. “Digital signage projects are often a mix of passive and interactive screens, mixing small and large screens from tablets to videowalls.”
Interactivity is about much more than just adding a touch-screen or an app to a traditional signage network. Delivering a truly interactive and successful signage experience requires planning, expertise and a deliberate thought process.
Focus On the User
The user experience is what distinguishes interactive digital signage projects from standard roll-outs. Hastings recommends the use of technology that people understand, such as physical buttons, to target older generations as well as an appropriate use of gesture-based interactivity. “People can end up waving their arms around aimlessly and that’s not a good experience for anyone. We see a lot of people trying to push technology before its time without thinking of the experience.”
To get lasting results, it’s important to evaluate which points in the network will be interactive, according to Castro. “People will only interact if there’s something to gain from it. It must be fun and not only available but in use all the time.”
Location of signage is another factor to consider, according to Anttila. “The higher the value of the location, the more valuable are those positions which are within the reach of users. Standing height for example can be wasted if used to just display one-way information. You have a lot more opportunity to get value out of the real estate by engaging those who are passing by.”
Plan for Interactivity
Planning a roll-out carefully is paramount. Oliver Schwede, senior analyst at invidis consulting GmbH warns that interactive projects are more complex than traditional digital signage networks. “The screens must be connected in some way, you need a content trigger and in terms of content concepts it’s more complicated. We have the technology for the most part, but on the content side you really must have a concept behind it!”
Understanding how retailers wish to engage the customer in the retail environment for example is crucial, as this prompts various solution options. “Each project is individual, there isn’t a general blueprint on how to build up a good interactive solution – it depends on strategy,” said Grassberger.
Making sure the technology is adapted to its environment is essential, as illustrated by BrightSign’s use of RFID at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. “We were dealing with kids at play so we made sure interactive components were packaged in objects that could withstand the environment. Here, the RFID was concealed within blocks of wood,” explained Hastings.
Use Technology Wisely
Interactivity should be an integral part of every aspect of a project and drive the hardware and software evaluation from the start. Recent technology advances have increasingly supported interactivity. The emergence of HTML5 for example has simplified the creation and flexibility of applications. However, the caveat is that it’s still in the earlier stages of development and doesn’t offer as broad a scope as older technologies like Flash.
Windows 8 has been native to multi-touch, according to Kimball who notes that designers are increasingly working with multi-touch-native platforms. “Going back even 3 years that was not necessarily the case,” he comments, adding that software is the hardest interactive nut to crack and that 3M has just launched a Multi-Touch Developer Network to address these software challenges.
Michael Ferrer, director of solution sales at NEC, works with CMS companies to address interactivity. “We are a small part of the solution but we’ll work together to develop each others’ products. There’s a lot of trial and error and sometimes we are working with five or six different CMS companies trying to solve the same issues.”
The displays are the easy but most visible portion of the project, according to Ferrer. “It’s about engaging with a CMS partner that can develop the solution, write the code and do the content. Sometimes, we just provide the hardware; other times, we are asked to provide the whole solution, which is different to some years ago where we just provided monitors and projectors.”
Grassberger notes that the interface to the data sources is one of the differentiators of an interactive signage network. “If you are creating interactive applications in retail spaces, you need to access information from the ERP systems or the IT landscape, which usually involves a long-lasting project with the IT department. The discussion around communications and marketing strategy is even more important than for a standard playback network.”
Currently, Schwede sees a hesitation in the market it comes to the cost of interactivity. “A lot of people consider interactivity but when it comes to cost, especially around content, they pull back. It’s still more complex of an integration than a straightforward screen.”
This article is reprinted with permission from InfoComm and originally appeared here.