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Create Immersive Experiences with Multi-Sensory Digital Signage

Claude Debussy said, “Beauty must appeal to the senses, must provide us with immediate enjoyment, must impress us or insinuate itself into us without any effort on our part.“ Our senses tell us what is real and what is not, and we rely on them for information about the world around us. They also trigger emotional responses in us.

We know the five physical senses – sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell. Digital signage mainly focuses on sight, which makes sense since over 80% of the information we take in comes to us through our eyes. But what about the other 20%? Can our other senses be leveraged in a way that creates a lasting impression and is emotionally satisfying to an audience? Here are some tips on how to create immersive experiences to engage your audience:

Visual

The first thing is to create beautiful content – if it’s appealing, people will stop to look at your screens. Motion draws the eye, which is why video is so effective on digital signs. Attractors like weather, date and time, news feeds and local traffic also grab attention.

Some organizations try to ramp up the visuals with larger displays, like 4K high-def and video walls. These can add a “wow factor” and, when used correctly, can be quite breathtaking. In addition to video or streaming feeds, cinemagraphs are becoming popular on the web and can be easily incorporated into digital signs. These are still images with a single moving element (for example, woman sitting in a field at sunset with the blades of grass slowly blowing in the breeze).

Yet visuals should be secondary to the actual information being conveyed. If too much visual information is presented at once, digital signage messages become clunky, and can be irritating to look at or even confusing. Plus, the more text there is for your audience to read in a message, the longer that message needs to be on screen. Which means it can take a long time for a particular message to cycle back through your playlist.

Designers and content creators might want to take inspiration from the phenomenon of pecha kucha. This is a patented presentation format created in Tokyo that uses 20 PowerPoint slides which display for 20 seconds each, resulting in a dense but concise presentation of information. The idea is to have a compelling visual with few words, and to let the presenter give a richer explanation.

Although a digital signage message should only be displayed for 7-10 seconds, we can apply the same methods. Use beautiful imagery with an attention-grabbing title, and then use a call to action to route people to more information.

Try to design your messages with an image that conveys at least half of what you are trying to say – let the image carry some of the information content. So, a typical digital signage message might be something like this: “Sign up for the 401K program today. Go to HR or email 401k@orgname.com to get started.” and also shows a picture of a smiling employee (who, we assume, has followed the instructions and is now very happy). But what if the message is a picture of a smiling person handing another smiling person a form that says “401K” on it, and the text just gives the email address and maybe a QR code to a webpage with more information? It’s the exact same information, but presented with the image carrying more of the meaning.

Auditory

We get around 10% of our information using our hearing, but think about how important it is to comprehension. A little audio to attract attention, if used correctly, can enhance digital signage impact.

Whether or not you use audio depends on the content and the environment the digital sign is in. If the space is a noisy one, a crowded lobby, for example, then audio is probably just going to add to the chaos. And if the space is a quiet one, like a library or meeting room, then again audio would be unwelcome and intrusive. However, there are plenty of other areas where audio can add value to your visual communications.

If your digital signs show a streaming newscast, it’s always better to have the sound on – otherwise people are left watching a talking head without knowing what’s being discussed. If you can’t use sound to go with your newscast, be sure to show closed captioning so people can follow the story. In this case, show the stream full screen (going back to visual), so the eye doesn’t get confused.

Music can evoke emotions in people (we all know about calming ambient music being piped in to hospitals and airports), as well as draw their attention and reinforce your brand. A study by Mood/Sacem shows that 76% of customers in financial institutions felt time passed more quickly when music was playing in the background, and 56% felt more comfortable discussing confidential information when there was ambient music playing.

Even a short moment of sound can add value to a message. Let’s say you have a message about “Adopt a Pet Day” that shows a photo of a kitten playing with string as the reinforcing visual component. A quick audio clip of a kitten softly meowing is sure to make people look around when they hear it, and then they’ll notice and read your message. Or a message about opening hours could have a quick clip of a creaky door opening to get attention.

Some holidays lend themselves to particular sounds – sleigh bells for Christmas, a spooky ghost moan for Halloween, clinking glasses and party noises for New Year’s, fireworks for Independence Day, etc. This is a way to have some fun and interject some new life into annual announcements.

Just be sure to use audio sparingly. If every message includes a sound, nothing will stand out. Audio should be an “extra” for your message – don’t rely on the sound to carry the burden of information. If your message doesn’t also work with the sound off, then you are relying too much on audio.

Language is also an important part of the human experience. Perhaps your organization has messages in multiple languages. What better way to let people know that there’s a Spanish-language message on the screen that a quick “Hola” sound clip? This is especially true for multilingual interactive screens and kiosks – any language supported on the screen can also have a short welcome message in that language.

Most sounds we like fall into the 300-3,000 Hz range (which is also the range of the human voice), while sounds we find unpleasant are often in the high-frequency 2,000-5,000 Hz range. A study at Newcastle University found that the most pleasant sounds for humans are:

  • applause
  • a baby laughing
  • thunder
  • water flowing

Other sounds people find pleasant include:

  • a crackling fire
  • rain
  • a champagne cork popping
  • a vibrating cell phone
  • certain sports sounds, like a baseball cracking on a bat, a basketball going through a hoop and a golf ball dropping into a hole
  • walking on snow
  • food cooking (especially a steak on a grill)

Just a short audio moment in some messages (not all, and never two together) can add a lot to your messages and get more people paying attention to your digital signs.

Olfactory

Smell comes in third, conveying around 3 or 4% of information. And we know from psychological studies that smell is deeply connected with memory. There are even a few scientists who postulate that smell was our first primary sense, and that the brain grew larger in order to extend smell’s capabilities (until sight and hearing eclipsed it).

Scent marketing is on the rise, especially in the food industry and in public spaces like shopping centers. In terms of organizational communications, smell, like audio, needs to be used rarely and judiciously. All the caveats about sound apply doubly to smell. Simple, non-complex scents used once in a while might have a positive impact on your audience, but too much too frequently is almost certainly going to confuse them at best and annoy them at worst. Smell should never be distracting or overwhelming, and you want to give any previous scents time to disperse before introducing a new one into an environment.

Modern technology makes introducing scents into spaces fairly simple these days, and recent studies show that smell can be very effective for stimulating desire and encoding brand awareness. There are even small devices that allow scents to be messaged to people using their smartphones from companies like oPhone, and scent diffusers with AI-like interfaces from companies like Scentee and the ONotes Cyrano.  

There’s also the rather well-known case of promoting the MIXC shopping center in the Shanghai subway system. Global advertiser JCDecaux created a complex display of flat-screen cubes with images on all sides that you could walk around (and huge QR codes to take people to dedicated webpages). Each side incorporated scents that complimented the images on the screens. For example, one screen showed images of the ocean, and also had ocean sounds and a tangy salt water scent. Other multi-sensory displays featured flowers and a forest.

This is a way to extend the entire concept of interactivity – creating an entire mini-environment that, for just a few moments, takes people out of the ordinary world and transports them somewhere else. This is sure to be a memorable experience, which reinforces your brand immeasurably.

When used correctly, scent can be a powerful brand enhancer, especially when combined with visual and auditory cues. Imagine a message on a digital signage for a car – there’s a picture, video clip or cinemagraph of the car, a quick sound clip of the car door opening or closing, and then a quick puff of the scent of leather or the famous “new car smell”. All these together, in the right environment, would almost certainly make many people stop for a moment and pay attention.

There have been numerous studies conducted about scents, and some of the smells people like best are:

  • fresh baked bread
  • bacon
  • freshly cut grass
  • coffee
  • the sea
  • fresh laundry
  • flowers
  • Christmas trees
  • vanilla
  • wood fires
  • lemon
  • babies’ heads
  • chocolate
  • vanilla
  • old books

No doubt just when reading that list, you had some nice memories pop into your head. Try and imagine the impact actually smelling them in concert with a digital signage visual would have.

Tactile

Touch accounts for 1-2% of the information we receive from the world around us, but again the emotional impact is far greater than that. Touch is already incorporated into smartphones and tablets with haptic responses – slight vibration when a finger touches the screen. People who use haptics on interactive screens are more accurate with where they touch, and feel like they are accomplishing something more than if they just feel smooth glass under their fingers.

Obviously, interactive touchscreen digital signage is already a tactile medium, and is just crying out for haptics. Each time a person makes a selection on the screen, they are “rewarded” with a tactile sensation. It gives them a sense of achievement, and verifies their choice for them instantly.

The University of British Columbia finds that touchscreens encourage more impulsive decision-making in retail environments, and people spend more time standing at a touchscreen than they do at a non-interactive screen. This means they are exposed to your brand and your content for larger stretches of time.

Something about touch also feels intuitive, and there is some scientific evidence to suggest that it is vital in memory-encoding. So, when it comes to interactive digital signage, haptic triggers are almost certainly a must. But also consider other aspects, such as the physical frame around the screen itself – is it smooth, or pleasant to touch? What about rounded corners?

Then there’s the space people stand in when using the screens. Yes, you can have a touchscreen or interactive kiosk just standing on the floor, or you could increase the tactile experience by putting a soft pad in front of the screen for people to stand on. This would not only visually enhance the kiosk (since there’s a clear place to stand to use the screen), but also be more comfortable, which in turn might create a more positive experience for the user.

Of course, you also have to consider ADA regulations, and make sure touchscreens are wheelchair accessible, and that any padding you add doesn’t interfere with the operation of a wheel chair or trip visually-impaired people.

Touch elements are also useful when creating and deploying gamified digital signage campaigns. Whether your screen is used for a game, a survey, a quiz or some other gamified element, you can include haptics to give your audience instant tactile feedback on their responses.

Gustatory

Last but not least is taste. It may only give us around 1% of the information we get from the world, but it’s a powerful sense. It’s linked to smell – in fact, around 80% of our sense of taste is actually smell (as an experiment, taste something with as strong flavor, like coffee, while holding your nose, and then without holding your nose). The sense of taste has evolved to let us know, among other things, which things are probably good for us and which things we should avoid.

In order to bring taste in to the digital signage experience, you might have things to sample right near the digital sign itself. A table with tasting samples of food or drink is an obvious idea. If that’s impractical, have part of your call to action be to go somewhere nearby to try it, and rely on imagery that evokes the memory of tastes your viewers are familiar with.

Thinking about the sense of taste in regard to digital signage brings up two important ideas. The first is how all the senses work together to create a sense picture or map of our surroundings, and how you can use many techniques to create a full sensory experience for your audience.

As an example, let’s say you’re advertising burgers at the on-site café. Your digital signage message could have a high-quality picture of a juicy hamburger (and maybe it’s a cinemagraph showing steam rising from it, or a short video of a burger being grilled), then there’s a 1-2 second sound of sizzling meat, add in the smell of grilling beef, and finally, include a discount code for burger specials at the café (which is only shown on digital signs, so your ROI is built right in). This uses three of the senses to motivate your audience to action.

Which brings up the second idea – extending an encounter beyond the screen. This is probably the primary way you can incorporate taste into the viewer’s experience. You can start the process by suggesting taste with visuals and smells, but then have something tangible complete the experience for the audience. (In our example, when they taste the burger.) Remember that the digital signage experience doesn’t end for your viewer until they finish the action you prompt them to take.

Don’t Wait

All this may seem like something from science-fiction, but the tech is already developed and being improved at a rapid pace. Communicators for all types of organizations can start using these techniques to craft rich experiences for audiences and differentiate their messaging.

These multi-sensory communications create neural connections in the brain that in turn associate the positive experience with the brand making it possible. But make sure your visuals, sounds, scents, haptics or flavors are high quality. Low-quality images, irritating sounds, and smells or tastes that are unpleasant will have the opposite effect from what you’re trying to achieve and leave a negative impression of your communications efforts.

Even if you only add in just one of the sense suggestions here, it will greatly enhance the impact of your digital signage. In a world of constant distraction and information overload, engaging more than just one sense is an effective way to cut through the noise and get your messages noticed. If you’ll pardon the pun, using the senses just makes sense.