While the storm system now known as Icepocalypse stranded would-be flyers across most of the East Coast leading up to Valentine's Day, the majority of the digital signage world was enjoying shirtsleeve weather in the Nevada desert at Digital Signage Expo 2014. It was a whirlwind three days, with the progression of events and activities unfolding as expected.
As always, the folks from Exponation did a terrific and professional job of organization and execution. I did not have the time (thankfully) to walk the entire floor, so I will leave the reviews of what is new and what isn't to others. The rumors and gossip were as prevalent (and much more interesting) than the endless press releases. My own observation from it all is that leaders who have built and executed a great strategy, and more importantly focused upon creating a great company, have prospered. Those who have prioritized financial strategies and exits over customers, or have succumbed to opportunism, have generally found the brass ring to be out of their reach. That will become self-evident soon enough. Or maybe not soon enough.
At our own booth, we engaged in a number of very interesting conversations, and not just about the same old thing. People responded extremely well to the notion that small is the new big, and many new ideas and use cases came out of those discussions. We also talked a lot about Near Field Communications, or NFC, something that has been discussed a few times (here, here and here) in this space ... No, NFC is not new, as evidenced by the dates of the above-referenced posts. And yes, until Apple embraces NFC (iPhone 6, please?), the true tipping point of usage is unlikely to materialize. Nevertheless, it is being increasingly adopted, especially outside of North America, and the rate is accelerating. Ironically, the clamor over Apple's iBeacon and other BLE approaches may be helping to bring people around to NFC. Despite some apparent security issues, many of the Apple acolytes believe that iBeacon may be Apple's "answer" to NFC, but the jury is decidedly still out on that. In fact, if it becomes as pervasive as some expect, the default setting for most people's smartphone Bluetooth will very likely become "off."
Here's a big reason why:
Like the unavoidable, annoying purveyors of escort service handbills on the Las Vegas Strip (What is it with that slapping thing they do?), iBeacons everywhere will become tiresome. If you walk by a group of these analog spammers (iBarkers?) you will notice all the handbills that passersby have dropped on the ground. The only way to opt out of the handbill guy is to stare off into a place above his head and pretend you don't see him ... or his eight colleagues within a 10-yard walk. While many applications of iBeacon will be clever and useful, the thought of being bombarded as you walk down a street or through a mall is chilling. It will be like checking your spam folder in the morning for the overnight offers from Eastern Europe. Parenthetically, the spammers have featured a great many offers of Russian brides ever since the Sochi games began. You can't say they don't try to make their content relevant!
The fact is that NFC is 100-percent opt-in by definition: You see something of interest, and you initiate the transaction. This sets it apart from the BLE approaches. A great infographic published on MobilePaymentsToday.com provides good insight on all of the distinctions between the two technologies. It is well worth having a look. I should take a moment and give credit to Steve Gurley, with whom I have had philosophical differences over the years, especially with regard to the future of digital signage. Steve is now founder and CEO at Pyrim Technologies, where he is able to channel his passion for all things mobile, and he contributed to the infographic. Nice job, Steve ... and we are still here.
I talk so often about digital signage being a one-to-many vehicle that I occasionally wonder if I am getting senile and repetitive. But it is true, especially with large-format screens, that digital signage is generally meant to engage many people at one time. The ability to have a call to action on that digital display create an opt-in, one-to-one extension of the engagement on consumers' own smartphones is not new as a point of potential convergence. However, the ability to deploy NFC tags once and link them repeatedly to on-screen content in real time is potentially transformative. It creates opportunities and solves problems.
In the world of digital signage, mobile convergence is something that is talked about as often as industry consolidation is. Both have seemed inevitable for some time now, and both appear to be picking up steam. I'm all for it. If problems are getting solved, then it will be a good thing for everyone.
(This is a slightly condensed version of Ken's original blog post here.)
The CEO for Real Digital Media since 2004, Ken is considered a thought leader in the digital signage space and an expert in retail technology, operations and customer management. Before joining RDM, he was co-founder and president of CFT Consulting, a member of Answerthink's leadership team and a manager in Deloitte's national retail practice. He started his career as an equities analyst at Standard & Poor's, and had been an executive in a 21-store apparel chain.