Time to replace your old Message Center?

Time to replace your old Message Center?

VCU Seigel Center

Digital billboard and electronic message centers are still relatively new technology, with LED signs starting to become more prevalent about a decade ago and digital billboards about seven or so years ago, according to LED sign manufacturer Watchfire Signs.

But the technology has come a long way since then, and the new capabilities of LED signs from companies like Watchfire, Daktronics and Formetco are quickly making older model signs outmoded — and making earlier electronic signs even more out of date.

“Our tastes are increasing for better and better resolution, as we watch what happens to our own home television sets,” said John Kunze, Watchfire’s director of sign division sales. Kunze noted that he just recently bought a new flatscreen TV for his home that is bigger, has a better picture and is more energy efficient than one he bought just four years ago, and it was cheaper too. “And in some cases that can even be true with the LED digital displays, the outdoor displays, that they can get improved resolution and image content and actually reduce their purchase cost from where they were even just a few years ago.”

Especially if someone is using an old light bulb- or incandescent bulb-driven sign, upgrading to a new LED sign offers “radically decreased” operational costs from reduced maintenance and power consumption needs, Kunze said.

Even compared to LED signs just a few years old, he said, newer LED signs have greatly increased resolution as LEDs have gotten more and more tightly packed; have gotten brighter and more noticeable as the LEDs themselves have gotten brighter; and have gotten cheaper as they’ve become even more energy efficient. And compared to older light bulb-based displays, the differences are even more starkly pronounced.

For instance, Kunze said, in 2004 Watchfire put in a 14-by-40-foot light bulb display for a client, and the energy requirements were so steep the power company had to run new service and a new transformer for the sign. “And today that same thing on a billboard would use a tenth of that, if they did it with an LED billboard.”

And the ways the signs can be updated has radically changed, he said. Kunze’s been with Watchfire for 23 years, and he says they used to have two communications options: Run a hardline between a computer and the sign, or use a standard analog line for phone modem service with dial-up phone service. “Today in our catalog our communications options take up I think six pages of choices.”

One of the newer ones, cellular broadband, allows billboard or sign operators to run their signs much the same way someone would run a network of signs inside a single retail store. “The operator can lay in bed and update his signs from home, calling up each cellular location and connecting to the IP address and downloading standardized content very easily,” he said. “So anywhere really in the world that they can get Internet service, they can get to and update their signs”.

That kind of connectivity also allows for remote diagnostics, even down to the single pixel or single LED level, he said.

But the change that’s most striking — especially to the important people, those who are seeing the signs as they drive by them — is the difference in image quality and resolution.

“Again to draw the comparison, improvements in [signs] have been phenomenal; I think in part driven by what we see when we go home at night on our TV and what we’ve come to expect out of displays,” Kunze said.

For instance, Kunze said he’d recently seen a mall replace its outdoor LED sign from a 35 mm display to the latest 12 mm display, with increased the number of LEDs per foot by about three-and-a-half times. The mall had a promotion recently that brought in local NFL players for an autograph session and used the sign to show images and video of the players. “Now it looks like they have an extension of their television campaign running on the sign in front of the very busy streets that run by the mall.”

And when it comes time to upgrade or replace an old sign, many sign operators are finding creative uses for their old signs instead of just discarding them, Kunze said. Some will place a new unit at the original, busier location and move the older sign to a lower-traffic location that could still benefit from some added attention brought by the old sign. “So there are a couple of things to do with that older technology besides just send it off to the scrapyard.”