Digital Screens for Wayfinding Applications

What are the technology Options?

AI, virtual/augmented reality and Internet of things might be stealing the tech limelight, but for wayfinding designers, the pace of change in digital screen technology is equally enthralling. The robustness and resolution seems to be accelerating along with a relative reduction in price (and increase in acronyms). Are we approaching a tipping point when it comes to the cost of incorporating digital screens in wayfinding signs?

Current State of Play

Interactive digital screens with a  wayfinding component have been around for a while – I think it’s fair to say with mixed results. But more and more we’re seeing screens being used for communicating static and semi-permanent information. At a recent exhibition the number of stands promoting digital menu boards for fast food restaurants was particularly noticeable.

Are we nearing the time when the decision to incorporate screens within physical signs (rather than more traditional print based solutions) will be based on cost and not just the vibrancy of the medium? Enabling  shopping centres to update their mall directories at the touch of a button? Or signs to respond dynamically to emerging events?

Technology Options

In a market that seems to be characterised by acronyms – what solution is the smart money on? As with many things, it depends on the context.

LCD Vs LED – If the signs are located externally and at a human scale,  LCD is still the best option for protection against the weather and vandalism. But with LCD screens you’re limited to manufacturer specified options and don’t have the flexibility in size and shape offered by LED.

Then there’s the question of legibility. LEDs win out against LCD for brightness, so are ideal for locations exposed to bright sunlight. They also benefit further from a wider viewing angle. However even with the current Ultra HD 4K LED screens, images will be pixelated if viewing from a distance of less than 7ft. Not ideal if you need to communicate more detailed, fine-grained information, such as a map or plan.

Emerging Technologies – Which brings us round to OLEDs, the technology now seen in high-end TVs. Compared with LEDs, OLEDs have a greater contrast ratio. As  they don’t require backlighting they are thinner and more flexible too. Currently they are also pricier. The organic nature of the light emitting film means that they degrade quicker, resulting in a poorer colour balance over time.  The technology is also more susceptible to burn in and ghosting when displaying static images.

But don’t worry – QLEDs – a technology spearheaded by Samsung (that uses nanoscale photo-luminescent phosphorus crystals), offers all the high contrast ratio and colour depth properties seen in OLEDs.  But with a longer lifecycle and without the burn in issues. On the downside, the screens come in a limited range of manufacturer specified shapes and sizes. They also require back lighting so not so thin and lack the flexibility of OLED.

So yes there are some exciting developments taking place in the digital screen sector, but there isn’t an obvious technology choice. It’s about selecting the right solution for the context and particular application. As to the business case? Again looks like that depends too.