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Are 4K Displays for You?

Stay competitive with ultra-high definition screens.

In the world of dynamic signage, stagnation is never going to be a problem. Neither screen manufacturers, content creators, nor other industry providers simply rest on what’s in the marketplace now. Screens get larger. Bezels get smaller. Content becomes sharper. In an attempt for brands to stand out, we use dynamic signage to set them apart. But what happens when everybody has 50-inch screens with crisp imagery? The stakes get higher, and this competition for your attention breeds the next big thing.

So, what is the next big thing? How will dynamic signage evolve? Hands down, the trend everyone is talking about is 4K. This technology premiered in 2013 at the Las Vegas airport with an 84-inch LG wayfinding station, seemingly a good fit for a trial because everything’s bigger and brighter in Vegas. Since then, screen manufacturers and software providers have been in a rush to roll out new products and get buy-in from industry experts that it’s viable at scale. So after some thorough research, the following attempts to answer three questions: How does it work? Where does it work? And is it worth it?

What is 4K and How Does It Work?
4K monitors are quite different from their HD predecessors. They have four times the pixels (4000), and the description of their resolution refers to a horizontal measure of pixels. Previously, resolution was described in terms of vertical. Simply put, there are four times as many pixels both horizontally and vertically as HD screens. The aspect ratio is different as well at 17:9 as opposed to 16:9. The color depth has also been enhanced. It has 10-bit color depth (HD has 8).

What does that mean? It means a 4K monitor has 1024 combinations per color (red, blue, and green), trumping HD’s 256. Thus the total color possibilities equal 1,080,045,576 – more than one billion! Looking at the range of color combinations, 4K significantly expands the options with much richer greens than HD. And all these additional pixels translate to the ability to make images larger without pixilating them.

These new, powerful, image-inspiring screens are amazing, but how do they work with other hardware and software?

With quadruple the pixels of HD monitors, 4K screens offer a more realistic visual experience. The quality is overwhelming to the senses, but it’s more than just the pixels. The content format has to change as well. 4K videos on 4K screens continue to enhance visual clarity. 4K video plays at 60 frames a second (HDMI is only 30), and with better video come larger files. The answer is H.265 encoding, also known as High Efficiency Video Coding (HEVC), which reduces the data size while preserving the image quality. The size of the files matters because most dynamic signage systems are run over wifi networks, and bandwidth can be a concern. H.265 encoding keeps file size down so as to not endanger bandwidth.

However, to play 4K video and take advantage of H.265, you need media players that are built for 4K. Media players are really the key; not computers. The use of 4K really represents a shift in the preference of high-quality media players versus computers. In fact, IHS Technology reported in a research report on the world market for digital signage that “media players will demonstrate stronger growth potential in future years than PCs, as many companies are launching appliance-based media players with similar functionality and longevity, at a noticeably lower cost, than traditional PCs.”

These new, sophisticated media players have greater graphics capacity and CPUs than even high-end computers. They successfully decode the 4K H.265 encoding and play at 60 frames per second. They can even deliver standard 1080p content, and it can all be in the favored HTML5 format.
Luckily, there are many new players on the market, including Haivision’s CoolSign, Visix, and BrightSign. These players have multiple options that, depending on your setup needs and based on advertised pricing, aren’t outrageous.

In addition to upgrading media players and the content, you will need to check every other piece of the dynamic signage schematic: components, cables, and everything in between. It doesn’t mean you have to start over, but be prepared to check out every aspect of the system when determining if 4K is right for your project.

Where Does 4K Work?
4K has not been rolled out extensively. It’s only been roughly 18 months since its first installation. With all that it brings to the customer experience, there are also major drawbacks – cost being the most glaring one. Not to mention that it’s still a new technology, so there are bound to be kinks to work out.

In which real-life applications could 4K impact the customer experience? First, let’s look at how 4K changes the visual experience. Images look more realistic. Fine print is more legible. It’s been called “print quality on a screen.” But more pixels don’t always mean better pictures. It still matters what you are starting with; it’s all about proximity to the signage, which allows viewers to appreciate its detail.

With wayfinding installations, you have proximity and even better interaction. Maps or schematics have unbelievable detail, so 4K is often worth the upgrade. Imagine the advertising and customer recall opportunities for brands. Large shopping centers should consider 4K for directories. Then, allow brands to add promotions for high margin or popular purchases. It sets up the experience the shopper will have before it begins – and it’s measureable. Add text or social media codes for discounts to track engagement.

Speaking of retail, there’s a great way to use 4K as the new window display. To maximize the effect, large screens would be required. Consider this: Don’t most things purchased at mass retail – clothes, home goods, gadgets – look better onscreen? When retailers embrace the use of 4K screens facing outward, they bring consumers into the experience. Wouldn’t you love to see how clothes fit on a person rather than a mannequin, or view how a gadget works versus staring at a picture of it on a box? And, of course, 4K screens with the weekly flyer would look more impressive than prints pinned to a bulletin board.

Another promising function for 4K is in P-O-S displays. This is also a cheaper investment because the screen size would be smaller. Point-of-sale is about impulse purchases, last-minute upsells, and add-ons. Crisp, sharp images that hold a customer’s attention as she stands in line could persuade her to add a candy bar at the convenience store. Users would easily be able to test its success by looking at trends of sales based on items promoted.

Finally, 4K seems to match perfectly with video walls and could be an area where the screens are being used the most. Video walls can almost become art with a great emphasis already on beautiful imagery. It’s much harder to determine real ROI from the use of 4K screens versus HD in a video wall. But if it’s simply about going big, then 4K certainly creates that experience.

But 4K does not enhance every dynamic signage display. If screens are to be viewed at a distance of 10 feet or more, stick with HD. The image crispness won’t be recognizable by the human eye. It also won’t improve displays that are not consumer related but more informational.

Is 4K Worth It?
We live in a world of sensory overload. Signage is everywhere we look as soon as we step out our doors. To grab our attention, it helps to be the biggest and the brightest. After looking at some possible applications, a good case can be made that 4K could significantly improve dynamic signage displays. However, 4K isn’t some magic screen that will elevate bad content or poor strategy.

4K is probably not the best place to look for those just starting out in dynamic signage. Still, for veterans looking to present the next big thing to clients and remain competitive, it’s a trend worth following. Study the process of putting together a full turnkey system from hardware to screens to content. Start with a project that makes sense and an end user who is willing to invest in the consumer experience. 4K isn’t ready for full scale and may never be needed in a large percentage of dynamic signage, but when you do experience it, whether as provider or consumer, it won’t be so easy to look away.

“There’s a great way to use 4K as the new retail window display. Don’t most things purchased at mass retail – clothes, home goods, gadgets – look better onscreen? When retailers embrace the use of 4K screens facing outward, they bring consumers into the experience. Wouldn’t you love to see how clothes fit on a person rather than a mannequin, or view how a gadget works versus staring at a picture of it on a box?”
 

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