Using superior outdoor digital signage practices to your advantage
By Ryan Moodley
Bar and restaurant patios are filled to capacity for a Friday Happy Hour. Golf course fairways are once again green and being carved up by high and low handicappers. Friends gather. The weekend has arrived. Now, besides great deals on food and drink or afternoon greens fees, how do you best keep your customers entertained and informed out in the great wide open?
Modern indoor digital signage is relatively easy to understand and install. All that is required is finding the right-sized flat panel and the appropriate mount and figuring out if the video signal will be coming from another location or directly from a computer or media player mounted nearby Then, run the cable (if necessary), and go. Installs can, of course, become a little more complex when you start getting into video walls and similar projects.
Semi-outdoor installs, such as those that reside in the aforementioned restaurant open-air bar patios, usually utilize run-of-the-mill indoor-specific flat panels and mounting accessories. They already benefit from the protection of the building’s structure itself and most likely have immediate access to power and cable runs. So, when the weather gets bad or it’s time to close, it’s just a matter of closing a security screen to keep Mother Nature and thieves and vandals out. Glare is usually the one natural element that has to be considered here.
But, how about outdoor flat-panel digital signage with no constructed cover protection whatsoever? Where do you get started? What are the best practices to make sure you are getting the most for your money, completing a legal code installation and making sure your customers are reaping the benefits of your message?
Patios vs. The Great Wide Open
Installing a flat panel underneath an overhang versus 20 to 200 yards out into the unprotected world is a huge difference in what natural elements can do to the unprotected flat panel, as well as in the required installation techniques.
It obviously gets a little more complicated when Mother Nature, as unpredictable as she can be, comes into play. Simply installing a flat panel underneath a building’s eave or dropping it into a self-made cabinet may void the warranty on the unit, and can even create fire hazards and security risks. Even if you are lucky enough for the unit to survive the elements and the security risks for any amount of time, your customer may not be getting the full use of the outdoor digital signage that they were expecting.
There are many considerations to think about when deciding how and where to install outdoor flat panels. In most cases, outdoor digital signage flat panels utilized for messaging and/or entertainment must endure all different weather conditions for extended periods of time, such as rain, snow, humidity, dust/dirt and even insects, especially if they are not installed underneath a patio or overhang. Also, will the unit be placed in direct sunlight where there is constant glare and, ultimately, UV damage to the screen may occur? Will the unit have to endure extreme cold or hot temperatures?
Power and Signal
Now, you’ve weighed the pros and cons and the cost versus ROI, and you’ve decided that digital signage away from home base and into the open air will benefit your business. First, consider whether you already have power and cable at your locations. Most likely you do not, especially for the necessary cable that will carry your AV signal.
If you need to run power and/or cable, installers should be 100-percent sure and have documented proof from the authorities that all live wires are trenched according to local and state codes. If this can’t be done, stop the project. Remember: Safety first.
The required current to power outdoor digital signage is no different than everyday, “normal” LCD flat panels installed indoors. You must be prepared for the investment of running electrical power to those points on your property where you want your message seen, if you don’t already have distributed power at specific locations.
Also, depending on location and need, some outdoor digital signage utilizes Bluetooth technology to wirelessly bring the information to the sign. But, just like any other technology, hardwired trumps wireless when it comes to the cleanest and purest possible signal from point A to B.
One of the greatest things about flat panels designed exclusively for the outdoors is their simplicity of installation once power and signal are present. They can be installed virtually anywhere. Of course you aren’t going to nail the flat panel to a tree, so outdoor-specific mounting and installation accessories are a must.
Besides non-corrosion metal accessories, some companies build outdoor housings for flat panels. But be aware if you use a non-outdoor-specific flat panel in one of these boxes, you may void all warranties. This is just another reason to consider outdoor-specific flat panels for these installations as they are designed specifically for outdoor use. In fact, their weather-tight cover protects all input connections from the elements, while internal temperature thermostats automatically self-control heat and air-cooled operation.
Day after day, the sun continually moves from the northern to the southern sky, and vice versa, depending on the time of year. A fixed outdoor flat panel that is in direct sunlight in May won’t be in October. Sometimes it’s a clear day, sometimes it’s overcast. All of these variables have to be taken into consideration when positioning an outdoor flat panel.
Shade is always better, but sometimes it simply isn’t an option. Again, Mother Nature, as beautiful as she can be, can also be a beast. Selecting a flat panel designed specifically for the outdoors is a key consideration in this situation. Look for a flat panel with specially purposed anti-reflective material screens to hamper sun glare and UV damage. You will also want a unit that utilizes a photocell that brightens the LCD when the sun hits the flat panel from virtually any direction and dims the LCD when it is dark. For example, at Toshinaer, the digital displays combine high brightness with the ability to be put in direct sunlight.
Ideally, build a small overhang to protect the unit. Remember to calculate the additional cost into your plan prior to execution. Not taking all variables into consideration can run up the initial estimate quickly.
Utilizing Audio with your Display
Audio is an interesting element when it comes to outdoor digital signage. Its necessity depends on the situation.
Audio utilized in a commercial install is unlike residential outdoor entertaining applications, in which customers install speaker systems throughout their backyards to complement video. For a commercial install, audio should be, in most cases, either relegated to the flat panel’s built-in speakers if the music or message does not need to be broadcast over large distances, or tied in with satellite speakers installed throughout the viewing area. Either way, stick with mono. Stereo and surround sound rarely work as intended outside.
If the application does warrant audio to be broadcast over a larger area, rock speakers are very popular complements to outdoor flat panels when traditional speakers mounted underneath the roof overhand are not an option. Rock speakers blend in very well to the landscape; even if the flat panel is placed well away from a covered patio, the rock speakers can be placed close by and throughout the facility for equal audio coverage.
Stereo or surround sound speakers can be very tempting for the “cool” factor alone. But more times than not, they are a waste of time, effort and money. Stereo and surround sound outdoors are quite ineffective. In order for these two audio signals to work as intended, they depend on a stationary listener who is in the one prime position equidistant from both speakers in a stereo application, or all five to seven speakers in a surround application. Otherwise, the listener would pick up the audio signals out of sequence and at lower or higher volume than intended.
Also, the lack of reflective material (i.e., walls, ceiling, tile floors, etc.) that helps “contain” varying audio signals in stereo and surround applications indoors renders these signals basically useless in outdoor applications. Therefore, mono is the way to go in outdoor applications because, generally, the listener is on the move and it enables the audio to be consistent. It may not be as “sexy,” but it works as intended.
Purpose-Designed Flat Panels
You want a flat-panel display specifically designed for the outdoors to protect against brightness/glare from the sun, temperature and moisture control, and insect and dust repellent. They’ve been designed specifically with these obstacles and potential issues in mind. Of course, these units are more expensive than an “indoor” flat panel, but in the long run they last longer and withstand the elements in order to enable your business to broadcast your message and, ultimately, grow your bottom line well beyond the initial investment.
Ryan Moodley is president of Toshinaer Outdoor Electronics and can be reached at email@example.com.