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. In this blog, Dave takes a look at how large digital signage displays have evolved into room and building-size visuals.

Digital signage technology has advanced to a level now that the architects, engineers and design pros who dream up and specify built environments can now think about displays as finishing materials.

For the longest time, screens were either added after the fact to empty spaces on walls, or schemed into the walls so they didn’t, at least, look like add-ons.

Now, large digital signage displays can BE the walls, room dividers, or ceilings. Even the floors.

It’s a big shift in both design and operational thinking for professionals tasked with dreaming up the visual experience of new commercial builds, or renovating and transforming existing spaces.

If granite is the finish of choice for a lobby wall, for example, that’s a design decision that then has to be lived with for many years, because of the costs and complexity of changing it to, let’s say, hardwood.

With digital, changing the finish of that lobby wall is fast and easy and relatively inexpensive – no more involved than scheduling and uploading a new creative file.

The History of Large Digital Signage Displays

It’s a concept that’s been around for years – with the telecoms giant Comcast being a high-profile early adopter in the late 2000s, turning the lobby of its Philadelphia head office tower into an amazing multimedia experience.

The entire back wall of the vast lobby was lined with seamless LED units, and creative screens were developed that carefully matched the wood panels of the lobby sidewalls.  When people came into that lobby, it looked like the whole thing was wood-lined. Suddenly but with subtlety, animations would appear atop that digital wood finish – like people walking or even dancing above the elevator lobby entryways. Then the whole wall transformed to show a variety of visuals. At the end of the timed “show” piece, the digital wall would revert back to its faux wood state.

The wall was so popular it became and remains a tourist attraction, and has already been through a full technology refresh and update of the multimedia show.

Years later, the resolution and color reproduction capabilities of LEDs have dramatically improved, and costs have also dropped to levels that make large-format LEDs a feasible design material.

The Impact of LED Technology on Built-In Environments

It also helps, a lot, that as LED technology has matured, manufacturers have done the R&D work to harden and protect the display units. LED display modules involve thousands and sometimes millions of micro-soldered, fragile light emitters that are easily bumped, scraped, and damaged. However, new versions coat those little lights in specialized glues that harden and make the displays impactful and water-resistant. That means the owners don’t have to worry about building tenants or visitors getting too close to their big, possibly multi-million dollar screens.

Building owners and operators are using LED as a finished material, as a way to deliver experiences from the moment people walk inside. With building lobbies that have big curtain walls, that experience can start from outside, on sidewalks and plazas.

Some companies use these big digital canvases to reinforce their brand and tie in with broader campaigns. One of the Salesforce office towers in San Francisco, for example, ties creative on a vast LED wall to fixtures and the overall lobby décor.

In Madrid, what would otherwise be a bland, cavernous corridor for a bank instead has a full wall and ceiling clad in LED, delivering ambient visuals.

The people cutting checks for these projects tend to have clear-eyed objectives that are a lot more sophisticated than simple aspirations like eye candy or wow factor. It’s about leasing and retention. Building owners see memorable digital experiences as a way to attract new tenants and hang on to the ones they have, while building tenants believe delivering compelling visual experiences attracts and retains employees, and creates a positive impression for visiting customers and partners.

LED can not only be the walls and ceilings, it can also be other surfaces. If you watched the opening or closing ceremonies of the recent winter Olympics, the stadium floor was all LED – using hardened LED tiles as a temporary, full-motion surface people could walk on.

Tiny light emitters and micro-thin wiring is also making it possible now to adhere LED displays in a transparent film to window glass. There is at least one Korean company putting that film layer inside commercial building-grade glass – turning an outside-facing window into a display. That enables building owners and operators to do everything from branding to making their buildings public art pieces, particularly at night.

Additional Technology Behind Digital Signage Displays

But LED is not the only design option. Advances in projector technologies have made it much more feasible to use projector arrays to bathe walls and floors in visuals, without needing physical hardware on those surfaces. That’s technically been possible for many years, but the big difference now is an evolution from lamps to lasers as the light source. Designers were turned off by lamp-based systems that needed costly and complicated bulb switch-outs every 2,000 operating hours, but laser-based systems are rated for 20,000 operating hours, or 10X that of lamps.

The attraction of projection is that the design materials already on the walls and floors, or the materials being contemplated, can be retained. Projection is just a mixed reality overlay.

While the possibilities are constrained only by budgets and imaginations, it’s very important to reinforce that creativity has to be at the core of any of these initiatives. Without a solid creative plan and budget – for launch AND for ongoing refreshes – that wall is just going to be very expensive paint or wallpaper.

Looking Ahead at Built-Environment Digital Signage

There are some amazing visuals like virtual waterfalls that spill down an LED wall, or super high-resolution nature videos, that can quickly populate a large video wall. There are also mind-wobbling, data-driven generative art pieces that can be set once and constantly changed based on real-time data inputs. But end-users need to think through if those visuals just solve the problem of what to put on a big visual display surface, or truly address the design objectives, whatever they may be.

Whatever the case, the digital signage industry is well past the days of looking at a built-environment, and sorting out where a screen might fit in.


This blog was written by Dave Haynes. Dave is the Founding Editor of Sixteen:Nine, an online publication and podcast that has covered the digital signage industry since 2006. Spectrio acquired the title in Sept. 2021, and now both Sixteen:Nine and Haynes are part of the Spectrio family. Along with writing Sixteen:Nine, Haynes has worked as a digital signage consultant for many of the world's most familiar companies, including Samsung, Sony, LG, Google, Adobe, Toyota, Nike, Intel, and Bank of America.