IoT and Environment-Aware Digital Signage

EPISODE 132 | Derek DeWitt, communications specialist for Visix

The Internet of Things (IoT) is increasing connectivity in new and interesting ways that will transform the way we interact with our surroundings. Digital signs with sensors and IoT capabilities will become environmentally-aware, and as circumstances around the screens change, they’ll be able to alter what they’re showing (and how they’re showing it) automatically, with no human intervention at all.

Digital signage is no longer just a one-way push communications tool. It’s become responsive in ways previously undreamed of. And this creates a number of exciting opportunities for communications and the viewer experience.

  • Hear the evolution of the Internet of Things and how it works
  • Understand how increased connectivity has brought about unprecedented changes
  • Discover how organizations are already using IoT in innovative ways
  • Learn how digital signage is becoming more responsive to external factors
  • Explore some of the possibilities in both the near and far future

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Derek DeWitt: Our world is becoming increasingly interconnected, and the marriage of the Internet of Things, IOT, and digital signage is not just a union, it’s a dynamic partnership that’s reshaping the way that we communicate information. As we witness the evolution of technology, digital signage is no longer limited to static displays, but has become an intelligent and environment-aware medium.

Thank you for listening to this episode of Digital Signage Done Right. I remind you that you can subscribe to the podcast, and you can review us on IMDB. And you can follow along with a transcript of the episode on the Visix website under resources/podcast, where you’ll also find lots of helpful links.

Even though we’re mainly unaware of it, the Internet of Things has already woven itself into the fabric of our daily lives, seamlessly connecting devices, allowing them to communicate with each other. Now, digital signage, which used to be a unidirectional medium, has now embraced IoT, and this has ushered in an era of interactivity, personalization and realtime responsiveness.

One of the key advantages of incorporating IoT into digital signage is the ability to collect and analyze data. Sensors embedded in signage devices can gather information about the environment, the audience, and even the signage itself. This data then becomes the fuel for intelligent decision making, allowing for content customization based on context and audience.

Now, the concept of the Internet of Things has a history that goes back several decades, evolving as technology and connectivity capabilities advanced. But here’s a quick overview of some of the key milestones in the history of the Internet of Things.

The roots of IoT can be traced back to the 1980s when the idea of connecting devices and enabling them to communicate with each other was really first conceptualized on a large scale. But the technology and infrastructure needed for widespread implementation were not yet in place. For that, we had to wait until the 1990s and the rise of networking and RFID. RFID is radio frequency identification, and this allows objects to be uniquely identified and tracked.

Advancements in networking technology, like the internet, which blew up in the mid-90s, also set the stage for improved connectivity. Then in 1999, British technology pioneer Kevin Ashton, while working for Proctor & Gamble, came up with the term “Internet of Things”. He used this to describe the connection of everyday objects to the internet, enabling them to send and receive data without, necessarily, human prompting.

In the Noughties, we saw the proliferation of sensor technology, which made it much more cost effective and practical to embed sensors in various kinds of devices. And this also facilitated the collection of data from the physical world to the electronic or digital world.

In the 20-teens, we saw rapid expansion of IoT. Sensors become even cheaper to use, which means more people use them. Advancements in wireless communication and the now ubiquity of the internet led to the widespread adoption of IoT in numerous industries.

Standardization efforts, like the development of communication protocols, played a crucial role in fostering interoperability and ensuring the seamless integration of all the different kinds of IoT devices that were starting to crop up. Today, it’s become an important integrated part of everyday life, impacting industries ranging from healthcare and agriculture to smart homes and cities. The proliferation of connected devices, wearables and smart appliances continues to reshape the way that we live and work.

We are on the brink of a massive shift in the communications age. Obviously, we’re gonna see greater connectivity and integration as things progress. 5G networks are becoming more prevalent, they are way faster, and their capacity for data transmission will further enhance these IoT capabilities.

Yeah obviously, there are some challenges that will also have to be met. Data security, privacy concerns, universally accepted standards; these are important considerations that will remain as IoT continues to grow.

But basically, IoT has evolved from a concept to widespread implementation in basically 40 years, driven by advancements in technology, connectivity and the recognition of the transformative potential of the connected world.

Back in 2015, Eric Schmidt, who was the Google and Alphabet executive chairman, told the World Economic Forum, “The internet will disappear. There will be so many IP addresses, so many devices, sensors, things that you’re wearing, things that you’re interacting with, that you won’t even sense it. It will be part of your presence all the time.”

The number of connected devices in the world is expected to reach over 27 billion by the year 2025. And so, everybody who has internet access will undoubtedly have some dealings with IoT devices, probably several of them at once.

One area that’s getting a lot of press is cars, specifically self-driving cars. But IoT’s being used in a bunch of different ways in the automobile industry. For example, Airbiquity uses software updates that are done over the air, or OTA, for their connected cars. People who use Airbiquity can choose to have family members or friends automatically, immediately notified if the car crashes.

A company called Zubie offers real-time GPS for rent and business fleet tracking, while also monitoring driver performance and the vehicle’s health. So, like if a driver has a tendency to brake hard and/or accelerate rapidly, that information can be used to track maintenance and avoid potential accidents, and increase fuel efficiency in the future.

Tesla has made a big splash by kind of revolutionizing, and some say creating, the electronic car market, and they use IoT for a number of things. People can access maps, navigation, music streaming, sure, but also you can access the vehicle’s charging history, climate controls. You can schedule service and roadside assistance, and a number of other things using WiFi or, with the Premium Connectivity option, through cellular data as well.

The whole idea of IoT is that things happen without humans having to prompt them. One example of this is the self-driving mode of new Tesla vehicles. You put it on, and the car drives itself. This is no doubt going to be picked up by a number of automobile manufacturers in the future. How will it play out? Well, it’ll probably be a combination of things. The computer inside the car will connect with and communicate with sensors on the roads and possibly via satellites to constantly update exactly where it is with pinpoint accuracy. But this system isn’t just one car connecting to the network, it’s all the cars connecting to the network, and so the network can optimize traffic flow for everybody in an area or even an entire city.

Many of us have sort of a primitive version of this now. Recently on a driving trip from Prague to Berlin, my wife and I found ourselves in very heavy traffic on the highway. The GPS we were using suggested an alternative route onto a small country road that we could use to kind of bypass the jam and then continue on our way. So, we took the next exit as suggested and got to that road. Unfortunately, our GPS wasn’t the only one that suggested this. A lot of people were on that road and yeah, it was a little bit faster, but it wasn’t that much faster.

There were a number of other roads that we could have taken as well, and in a truly connected network, where all the different machines are talking to each other all the time in real time, essentially, ’cause they’re so fast, everyone in that entire area could have been optimized for what they needed. People heading north to Berlin could have been routed onto this road. People heading north right now, but then soon to turn west heading towards some other place could have been routed onto other roads. Vehicles that were getting low on fuel could have been routed onto roads that took them very soon past some kind of gas station or something of the kind. This kind of comprehensive decision making is not very far in our future.

Another place we hear a lot of people talk about is with smart home appliances. The classic example is a refrigerator that knows, hey, we are outta eggs, because there are no more eggs in the egg bin. So it automatically adds 12 eggs to the shopping list that it maintains on its computer chip. Once a week, or however frequently the people who own the refrigerator have told it to do so, it will automatically send an order to the local grocery store. That grocery store delivers the goods, and just like that, there are eggs. The humans had to do nothing. They may not even have known that they were out of eggs. This sounds science fictiony, but there are already refrigerators that do this.

And many people today can do things like change the temperature or lighting scheme of their homes simply by using an app on their smartphone. I know someone who can actually enable or disable their alarm by using an app, and they don’t even have to be in the same city or country to be able to do it.

We even are starting to see things like smart ovens, like what the company Tovala is using. They pair smart ovens with a meal kit delivery subscription service. So, consumers get a meal kit delivered to them; here, this will be something you can eat soon. The oven itself scans the barcode or QR code, and connects to WiFi and then figures out what the best temperature and time to cook the food would be, so that it doesn’t get burned or undercooked or what have you. The people don’t have to know how to do anything. They just scan the code, and the oven sets everything up all by itself. They then place it in there and when the little bell goes off, dinner’s ready.

We’re seeing IoT in smart security cameras, security systems, glass break sensors. John Deere Equipment has started to use IoT to monitor things like moisture levels, air and soil temperatures, wind speed, and relaying all that collected data to farmers so that they can better use their equipment in what’s being called precision farming.

The medical field is similarly getting connected up using IoT. There’s a company called Endotronix that has a heart failure system monitor connecting patients to doctors through what they call proactive monitoring. So, the system can find early detection of heart failure or blockages. Therefore, the doctors can make better informed medical interventions and more efficiently manage their patients’ care. All the doctors do is plant a tiny little sensor to monitor arterial pressure and they have access to all of that information. It’s much less invasive than say, heart catheterization.

Some companies are even adding sensors to inhalers, so that users can learn more about what triggers their asthma attacks while still staying connected to friends, family, and their healthcare providers through an online app. It also collects usage data, and so medical professionals can more accurately determine, for example, how many inhaler puffs are needed to control a particular attack, which that in turn can influence usage guidelines and improve patient health and a number of other things.

Manufacturing is certainly getting in on IoT from warehouse management to production monitoring to temperature and moisture sensors.

And more and more we’re seeing cities actually get in on the whole idea of IoT. There’s a company called Superpedestrian that is all focused on human-powered mobility for cities. So, they offer e-scooters, bikes, wheelchair-compatible bikes and other such things that users can link to using an app on their smartphone. Because the usage of each particular kind of vehicle is optimized, they don’t need charging as often, and this saves an enormous amount of money and electricity.

An entire city, Madison, Wisconsin, enlisted help from the company UrbanFootprint to model the impacts and benefits on things like transit accessibility, public health and emissions, and so on, of enhancing its bus rapid transit system as part of their 2040 Comprehensive Plan update. And this is just the beginning for IoT.

When it comes to digital signage, IoT is just starting to really take off. Let’s say for example, you have a digital screen that’s hooked up to a traffic monitoring system that tracks bus patterns and car traffic using mapping and other things, and the screen pulls all of that together using an app. So now what used to be three independent systems – a screen, a traffic monitoring system and a tracking system – they’re all now together on a single digital sign. This sign shows what’s going on in the streets around it and the traffic patterns that might affect commutes and things like this.

So, a person doesn’t need to get up and check the news on TV or check their app or look at bus timetables and hope that everything’s gonna be there on time. All that information is right there on the screen in real time. A live travel dashboard being fed data that only needs a single glance to give you everything that you need to know.

Or let’s say you have a restaurant and you have a digital menu board. So your top menu item sells out. The fridge that stocks that item realizes it’s sold out, so it automatically transmits a message to the digital screen, and that item is removed, replaced with something else. No human intervention needed. Customers can see what’s available immediately, and nobody has to be disappointed. It saves them time and it saves the workers’ time.

Some forward thinkers in the digital signage space are already developing different IoT-based applications that can be used in digital signage. For example, branding signage that puts your organization’s name and logo in front of viewers as they go by, directories and wayfinding applications that let people get to where they need to get to.

Motorists can see emergency messages and roadside alerts. At, say, a sports stadium or a conference center, venue information and event announcements get automatically updated in real time. Brick and mortar retail stores can have time-sensitive promotions that don’t require a person sitting next to the computer saying, okay, now go, now stop.

Information on employees in different organizations, including metrics like sales wins or company social media, welcome messages for travelers and customers, and even holographic virtual greeters. All of these things have been talked about in previous episodes of this podcast, either as things that actually already exist or that could easily exist right now.

But where it really gets exciting is in this concept of environment-aware digital signage. Again, the basic hardware is simple. You got your digital sign connected to its CMS and connected to the web, probably via WiFi though it doesn’t have to be, and a number of sensors. One obvious way that this can be used is if it’s raining outside and the digital sign is in, say, a shopping center, it can start pointing people to where they can buy raincoats and umbrellas.

But in any kind of an environment, if suddenly it becomes overcast, the screen brightness can adjust automatically to make it easier to see. Sensors might even detect if direct sunlight is glaring on the screen, and again, adjust contrast and things like that, or possibly even the layout, in order to avoid the glare until it passes. And the system knows when it’s gonna pass because this happens every day.

Retail environments, obviously, will be one of the very first ones to start really using environment-aware digital signage, because content can immediately be adjusted based on factors like foot traffic, time of day, day of the week and so on. If it’s winter, hey, we’re gonna show warm jackets and socks. If it’s hot, hey, here’s where you can go get an iced coffee. Weather-triggered content is already being used in some places, notably in Japan.

Foot traffic analysis is another way that IoT sensors can help out. These sensors track the flow of people going past the screen, and the digital signage can adapt its content accordingly. During peak hours, it might emphasize quick and convenient purchases. During quieter periods, it might display more detailed information about products or promotions in order to capture the attention of potential buyers. If foot traffic is particularly high at this particular moment, the digital signage system could even adjust how long it leaves a particular message up.

Now, of course, everybody’s walking around with a smartphone, and the use of beacons that allow communication between the local digital signage network and that smartphone are increasingly becoming more and more attractive. IoT-enabled digital signage can offer personalized product and service recommendations.

So, again, in a retail setting, let’s say that a shopper frequently goes to sports stores. The person’s smartphone knows this because it tracks them on GPS, it tracks its purchases, it knows the person’s browsing history and so on. So, when they enter into an area that has a sports store, the digital signage in the area says, hey, Joe, did you know that there’s a really cool sports equipment store in the area? Or comic books or shoes or cinemas or whatever. This level of personalization truly enhances a customer’s journey and fosters a sense of connection between the brand of the consumer.

In theory, once this sort of thing becomes truly networked everywhere, this would apply just as well in any location. A person who lives in Los Angeles who then travels to Boston on business will start to see personalized digital signage messages that are targeted to their specific interests.

We previously mentioned that inventory management can be facilitated by IoT, but it’s going to become even more so in the future. Staying attuned to external factors and customer behavior lets retailers create a shopping environment that not only meets people’s needs, but anticipates their needs, and preferences, as they evolve.

As people travel around, we’ll see more and more realtime updates for just about anything at say, transportation hubs – live data feeds for trains, buses, flight schedules, taxis, delays, cancellations, platform changes, all of this stuff will be instantly communicated, so people don’t miss what they’re trying to get.

Wayfinding is going to go way beyond static maps. It’s going to become dynamic, and will even adapt to the ebb and flow of passenger traffic. The signage will start to become less of, oh, there’s a map that is more interactive than say, a paper map, and instead will start to become something more like an intuitive companion as people move through a space.

It might even get so personalized and have so many sensors that let’s say you’re following what you thought were the right directions from the wayfinding map back in the lobby, but at the end of the corridor, instead of going right, you turned left. Well, just down the corridor to the left is a digital sign that knows that you made a mistake, and it reminds you, hey, you should have gone right, if in fact you’re trying to get to this room.

Digital signage is already super useful for security incidents and natural disasters with its emergency notification capabilities and the ability to tie into CAP alerts. IoT sensors will make this even better, being able to detect anomalies and trigger emergency notifications on screens immediately, guiding people to safety and giving instructions on evacuation procedures and so on. Speed is truly of the essence when it comes to emergency notifications.

Accessibility is another thing that is going to be improved in all areas by IoT. IoT-infused wayfinding already takes into account accessibility requirements, providing directions that consider factors like elevators and ramps and wheelchair accessibility. If it knows, or is told, that a particular user standing in front of it has, say, a vision problem, the digital sign can automatically adjust its contrast, automatically, but temporarily, make the font size bigger and so on.

Local events will also get a boost from environmentally aware and IoT solutions. Local events, festivals, business activities, will get realtime updates on what’s happening, informing people of any changes immediately, fostering a greater sense of community engagement.

The kind of information that will be available to the digital signage system will depend greatly on what kinds of sensors you put on the digital signs. As sensors of all kinds become smaller and smaller and smaller, more and more accurate, and less and less expensive, we’re gonna start to see digital signs with dozens of different kinds of sensors on them. They might even have ones that monitor environmental factors like air quality or temperature, or even the energy consumption and internal temperature of the digital sign itself.

Anything that’s relevant to people walking by can be displayed on the screens to raise awareness among visitors and citizens. And when it comes to internal things, different systems can be adjusted so that, for example, that digital sign doesn’t burn out because it happens to be sitting outside on an extremely hot day, and that internal temperature is climbing.

Law enforcement also sees a boost. Realtime crime alerts, community policing updates, and safety tips can all get efficiently communicated through displays with IoT and environmentally-aware solutions.

Businesses of all kinds will get a huge benefit in this. Job opportunities, local economic trends, promotion opportunities and so on, can all be fostered by a dynamic and connected business ecosystem.

And we’ve already seen some progress on hands-free digital signage with voice-activated interfaces and so on, but these are going to just get better and better and better as time goes on, and more and more of this technology is adapted. People who are physically disabled or blind, or even children who might not be able to reach up and touch an interactive screen, suddenly have full access to everything that that interactive digital sign solution offers. Let’s say you’re a marketing manager in an office, you can actually just tell the screen what you want it to do instead of having to enter it all in on a computer somewhere.

Digital signage is very much changing from a one-way communication medium to one that is activated by changes in circumstance, that is affected by sensors and devices and other systems, that is sensitive to its surroundings and is reactive to instruction. The convergence of IoT and digital signage marks a significant leap in the evolution of visual communication.

From retail spaces to college campuses, and healthcare facilities to smart cities, the adaptability and intelligence brought about by IoT are already transforming static displays into dynamic, highly engaging, responsive mediums. As we continue down this path of innovation, the future of digital signage will become even more intelligent, more connected, and more in tune with the needs and preferences of its specific audience members.

So, get ready for a visual revolution that is as smart as it is captivating.