There have been several significant improvements recently in outdoor LCD displays used for digital signage and menu boards. Outdoor LCD displays have been available for several years, but at such a high cost they were used mostly in the out-of-home advertising market where the revenue from ads has been high enough to offset the cost. Cost and reliability have been the two major factors in preventing them from being used widely as outdoor menu boards in the U.S.
My involvement in outdoor LCD screens started almost 20 years ago when I developed the order verification product now used in QSR drive-thrus. I wanted to use small outdoor LCD screens because of their high resolution, but initially had to settle for small LED displays.
At that time, I found a couple of companies that made small outdoor LCD screens for the military. However, they were only available in black-and-white. They were also very expensive, not bright enough to use in the sun and did not last long if used all day outdoors. We had to stick with the LED screens until outdoor LCD was more developed. That prevented us from using good quality food shots on the order-confirmation screens.
The development of indoor digital signage was much easier and quicker because we did not have to deal with the harsh outdoor environment. Also, as with many new products, there was a huge consumer demand for indoor displays that drove the development of indoor screens. They just had to be altered for commercial use. There has been no consumer demand for outdoor displays so the demand has not been high enough to drive development, keeping many of the large screen manufacturers out of the market.
During my search for outdoor LCD screens, I have worked with one of the large screen manufacturers and several of the smaller enclosure manufacturing companies in that effort. At the beginning of my effort, the enclosure companies took mostly indoor components and altered them for outdoor use by increasing the lighting and beefing up the components, then placing them in enclosures with heating and cooling to protect them from the environment. There was LCD glass available for outdoor use, if protected, but everything else had to be reworked. This process was too costly because of all the double work and extra mark-ups.
In July 2009, I gave Samsung my proposal and started working with Jinhyun Cho, head of Samsung's engineering department, on developing an outdoor digital menu board. Samsung would produce the complete product from scratch. I gave them the requirements, including a price range we needed to meet based on feedback I received from management of several of the major QSR chains.
Three months later, Samsung shipped a prototype digital drive-thru menu board with three 46-inch screens to a trade show in New York. The prototype complied with all the requirements, including the price. Very soon after that Mr. Cho informed me Samsung decided they would not pursue production of the display because the market was too small.
Shortly thereafter I signed a consulting contract with Vertigo Group in Toronto. I worked with the company for one year in the development of outdoor digital menu boards. Vertigo Group did a lot of work in the OOH market but could not get their cost down enough for the QSR market. They filed for bankruptcy soon after that. During that time period, a couple other similar companies filed for bankruptcy.
Following are four major improvements that were necessary in order to develop an outdoor product that would be acceptable to the QSR market with the progress made on each, mostly in the past two years.
- Brighter screens — The normal brightness of most indoor screens is 400-500 nits. In order to compete with the bright sunlight, outdoor screens need to be 1,500-2,500 nits. This level of brightness was not practical using fluorescent lamps as was the standard lighting method at that time. The development of LED backlighting has solved this problem, along with some contrast and color improvements.
- Lower cost — The most significant reduction in cost has been the recent development of outdoor components that no longer require heating or air conditioning in most areas of the world. Another reduction in cost has been the production of the complete unit by the original manufacturer, eliminating most of the rework and extra markups. An additional cost reduction has been a result of the developments made in LED backlighting and the huge increase in worldwide LED production volume.
- Longer life — The components of outdoor LCD displays have been beefed up and made for outdoor use, significantly increasing the displays' life. For example, a couple years ago the standard warranty was one year. It is now easy to get a five-year warranty. Also, there is at least one company I know that builds the displays so all individual component parts can be replaced as they wear out, which can give the displays a perpetual life similar to the old menu boards. Prior to this development, the complete display would have to be replaced. Additionally, the life of the lighting has been significantly increased with the use of LED lighting.
- Lower operating costs — The operation of heaters, air conditioning units and extra lighting gave end users a large increase in utility bills when the search was on for ways to reduce these costs. The lack of need for heating and air conditioning has significantly reduced this cost. Again, the hugely increased efficiency of LED lighting has also lowered this cost even while providing more and better lighting.
The solution for these four problems has made outdoor digital signage — especially digital menu boards — much more practical to use. Steven Hathcock with USSI has a large amount of experience in the installation and maintenance of these units. "The new outdoor displays are much more efficient which lowers operating cost and easier to install," he said. "They also perform better than the older displays."
Looking back at the developments in outdoor LCD displays illustrates the developments in LED lighting have provided much of the improvements. It also shows how improvements in one industry can improve products in several other industries.
/ Vertigo Group USA president Scott Sharon has decades of experience in the sign and menu board industry, and nearly another decade in digital signage. He's a longtime proponent of, and innovator in, expanding the deployment of digital menu boards in QSRs. Sharon also is a Team Leader for START, the Strategic Technology Alliance for Restaurant and Trade.