Large LED screen advertising "party night" in an outside pedestrian area

We’re excited to publish a guest blog by digital signage industry expert, Dave Haynes. Spectrio acquired Sixteen:Nine, of which Dave is the founding editor. Dave remains an unbiased industry expert and we’re honored to be able to dedicate our blog to his unique and impartial opinions. This blog covers his take on LED coming into the evolving digital signage space.

One of the core tactics for making a big visual impact with digital signage is to, well, go big with the displays. The rapid emergence of indoor LED technology in the last seven years or so has made it possible to fill entire physical spaces with seamless digital displays.

But there’s steadily been a very tangible barrier to widespread adoption – high cost. When the first higher resolution indoor LED video walls came on the market, they were jaw-droppingly vast in scale and equally jaw-dropping in cost – as in $25,000 a square meter. So a big video wall in, let’s say, an Apple store, might have cost more than a million dollars to light up. Apple could afford that, but few other companies could.

That’s changed…dramatically.

LED Is Officially Mainstream

There are still super-premium new LED technologies on the market – like the microLED displays made by a small subset of display manufacturers – that are beyond the budgets of most businesses. But in broad terms, LED displays are now within the budgets of many to most businesses. I tend to describe this as LED displays being mainstreamed.

Two big moments had me reaching this conclusion:

First, when we all did things like business travel (I only kinda sorta miss that!), I would periodically go to Taipei, Hong Kong and China for trade shows and manufacturer tours. In those locales, you see big LED displays all over the place – not just for big advertising boards and on the feature walls of super-premium flagship stores. I was walking down one street in bustling Taipei and saw a football field-length, street-level LED acting as digital hoarding at a building renovation site;

Second, as someone who writes daily about this business, I get a lot of press material from manufacturers and service providers. One of the notes that dropped into my cluttered inbox had to do with a sports bar in Green Bay, across from where the Packers play, that had installed a substantial, multi-sided fine pitch LED display above the horseshoe bar. Let that sink in – a bar in (otherwise) small city Wisconsin!

I have since written about LEDs used as virtual, animated ceilings in shopping malls and office lobbies, as wall messaging in the parking garage (yes, the parking garage) of a Miami condo, and perhaps the craziest one – customer messaging inside an upscale car wash in Germany. Not in the lobby. IN the car wash!

Those kinds of projects don’t happen unless costs come down to a level that it makes business sense – whether the return is in bar patrons ordering appetizers or motorists opting in on up-sold undercoating treatment in the car wash. 

It does not mean LED displays are now so inexpensive they can be used wherever but does mean end-users and solutions providers can stop ruling that option out in the ideation stage because they were always too expensive to seriously consider.

Why Are LED Screens Becoming More Popular?

So why are LED displays gradually taking over from LCD video walls for high-impact digital signage jobs? There are a few reasons:

1) No seams: Commercial flat panel displays have, by necessity, thin frames at their edges, and when multiple displays are ganged together to create video walls, there are seams. Those seams have grown increasingly thin, but they’re still there, and noticeable enough that it bothers the people who design physical spaces. With LED, using good equipment and installed properly, there are no visible seams;

2) Design flexibility: With flat panel displays, everything is a flat surface rectangle. A video wall is a collection of stacked and tiled rectangles. With LED, depending on the product, a video wall can match the contours of a physical design. There can be curves. The screens can face down (can’t do that with LCD). They can be transparent. They can even embed in see-through film on windows. It’s a very different technology, though there are sometimes limitations on what’s possible;

3) Physical performance: Premium flat panel displays – both LCDs and OLEDs – still provide superior visual quality and can deliver 8K in a single display, while having enough light pixels to deliver 8K on an LED display might require a display that fills the entire wall of a corporate lobby. But LEDs can be much brighter than conventional flat panels, and they will typically last in the field for 10 years or longer. They also don’t require the same maintenance as LCDs, which regularly need to be calibrated so that the levels match across all the screens in a video wall. If you have ever seen a flat panel video wall that has a patchwork quilt of varied colors and brightness, that’s a wall that badly needs calibration.

What’s LED’s Future When It Comes to Digital Signage?

The other aspect of LEDs that has made them more feasible for digital signage jobs is durability. Conventional LED displays have individual light emitters that are micro-soldered to the display surface. They’re very easily damaged in bumps and scrapes, and repairs are finicky and expensive. But a new generation of LED displays have hardened coatings, so they can take a bump and even a splash of liquid, without incurring damage. That makes it possible to put big LED video walls within reach of their greatest enemy – the general public.

For digital signage end-users sourcing flat panel displays, the options were familiar and pretty simple. You could buy from a familiar brand like a Samsung or Sony, and perhaps pay more, or take a risk and go with unfamiliar, less expensive products that came out of China or Taiwan, and hope for the best. Lots of small jobs use TVs instead of commercial displays because upfront costs are lower. LED is mainstream, but

What’s the Best Strategy for Choosing a Good LED Solution for Your Business?

With LED, there are hundreds of manufacturers and many of the most active companies do not have familiar consumer names. While Sony was doing Jumbotrons decades ago, and Samsung is becoming a major player in LED, many of the big names in LED are entirely unfamiliar to consumers – like Daktronics, Absen, Unilumin and Leyard. Then there are countless more companies that also market in North America, and it can be very hard to sort out who and what to use.

A wholly unfamiliar overseas manufacturer can sell end-users and solutions providers a seemingly good-looking set of displays at a very workable price – likely much better than what the “big guys” can do. But, and this is important, the trade-off tends to be in the quality of components – which directly impacts how long they’ll continue to look good, and how they’ll be supported when or if things deteriorate. The LED video wall that was only 55% the cost of mainstream manufacturers can end up costing more if parts fail and customer support is 12 hours away in Shenzhen or Shanghai, and not very good because of language issues or indifference. LED is mainstream, but

It’s Official: LED is Mainstream

The bottom line on all this is that LED is mainstream. And it’s now at a state that it can and should be considered for digital signage projects.

But just remember, a display of any kind is just enabling technology. You should not be thinking in terms of putting in an LED display because it’s an LED display. Sort out what needs to be done and why, and then match the need to the most suitable technology – and maybe LED IS the most suitable for the job.