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Learning to Follow The Digital Signage

Scene: A small manufacturing firm, circa 1906. The owner speaks with an employee:

"Ellsworth, I'm afraid I'll have to let you go... looks like Mr. Edison's invention has pretty much ruined the market for oil lamps."

Across town:

"Tarnation! I can't believe it, Martha! Used to be a man could make a fair living selling washtubs and washboards. Who'd have thought these electric washing machines would catch on?"

Flash forward, about 100 years, to a conversation at a small video production company:

"Geez, John, I don't know what we're going to do. Looks like hardly anyone is doing those role-play sales training videos any more. And our video news release business has gone straight down the dumper. Looks like we'd better sell the Betacams and look for a new line of work."

This is the sound we're hearing more and more these days: the death rattles off old-line TV production businesses. More correctly, it's the sound of once-clever people failing to adapt--failing to recognize that nothing lasts forever, and that change is periodically required.

LANE CHANGE AHEAD

So you find yourself the victim of a shift in production trends. Think you're left with no transferable skills? Think again. There are, without a doubt, dozens of related products and services which draw upon your years of experience3/4experience in communicating different messages to different audiences using a variety of media.

One of my favorites is the still-blossoming world of digital signage. The more I see digital signage systems around me, the more I want to explore, and exploit, their potential. I see the electronic billboards inside my local bank branch, hawking loans and checking accounts and investments; and I picture a network of 50 plasma screens in cafeterias and common spaces at my largest clients' various corporate, manufacturing and sales locations.

I imagine a 42-inch screen packed with crawls, text boxes, headlines and, of course, a big 'ole video window. Better yet, I imagine needing to feed this beast with a never-ending stream of informational programming. Some of us would be out shooting, others managing the ingest of new material and still others programming the play-out, pushing MPEG-2 files down the public Internet to our far-flung fleet of screens. Sounds like a lot of work, right? You betcha... the kind that clients pay for. So how do I get a piece of this action?

I asked some friends over at VertigoXmedia to loan me one of their Xpresenter digital signage systems so I could experiment a bit. Vertigo is a fascinating company, with ingenious, graphically driven products for complex television graphics, capable of creating and programming entire broadcast-quality informational channels. Powerful but more modestly priced, Xpresenter is a close cousin of that primetime graphical family.

One of the real fascinations with the Xpresenter system is that its operation and programming is greatly simplified thanks to the underlying application--Microsoft PowerPoint.

Vertigo has added plug-ins and extensions which put a powerful programming dashboard at your fingertips, and allow the addition of dynamic elements, such as crawls, moving backgrounds and live video, to your compositions.

If I were a full-fledged VertigoXmedia client, I'd have a whole suite of tools to manage creation, playout and network status, right down to the electronic health of each plasma display. I'd be able to set kill dates for my features and news items, and route more marketing shows to the sales offices than to the plant floors.

It wasn't long before I was able to breadboard a few templates and formats for an imaginary client network. I added a live ticker for the company's stock price; a locale-specific Community Bulletin Board set to run at six, 26 and 46 minutes past the hour; and, of course, a few corporate video programs, scattered around the hourly programming wheel. It's a little like building and programming your own cable TV network, except there's no initial risk--your client pays the freight.

Imagine my surprise when I learned some months ago that my old pal, Tom Shrader, landed a digital signage contract for his Portland, Ore.-based production company, BetaBay. Shrader uses InfoCaster from Inscriber, now part of Harris Corp., to program a digital signage network for the State of Oregon that provides traffic and travel information to motorists at various locations. Interestingly, one of the system's most-viewed outlets is its Web feed, drawn from the signage system's content. But why stop there?

MOVING TARGETS

There's no limit to the applications for this technology, and Shrader describes a use for digital signage that I'd never have imagined. Pick your local large-venue special event--a golf tournament, for instance. Obtain a feed from the broadcast outlet covering the event, but extend and enhance it by building an informational screen around that feed, one which includes personalized welcomes to corporate sponsors, conveys key facility information, runs features on the event's history, and, most importantly, offers sponsorship opportunities.

Shrader's been a video production maven longer than I have, which is saying something. That ought to mean that he's firmly mired in "the old ways", but not so. "You can't limit yourself because of the technology," Shrader told me. "Technology is a moving target."

While some folks are stuck on composite analog versus component digital signals, Shrader takes the big view of communication. By controlling and managing content, he says, "...you'll have two stronger legs on which to stand the next time the big wave of technology splashes over you."

I haven't decided yet which route I might take in selling one or two key clients on a digital signage network. I could prepare a formal, cold pitch for one of their execs; I might approach a few friendly faces within the organization, and have them open one or two strategic doors for me. Another interesting approach is to join forces with a local systems integrator, someone who needs your creative juices to sell big boxes of expensive hardware.

But the real message here is that we already have these skills, as writers, shooters, editors and producers of informational programs. We own this turf, and we shouldn't be so willing to give it up just because the method of delivery has changed. We once again have an opportunity to make ourselves indispensable, and that's very good for business.

Walter Schoenknecht can be reached via e-mail at walter@mmgi.tv.