Technology Update: Digital display technologies give new options

It didn't take long for some marketing firms to realize that the cost of a billboard or premier advertisement panel in a heavily trafficked public space was much more expensive than placement of the advertisement on the lighted front panel of a vending machine. Similarly, vending companies are beginning to consider machine-hosted video screens to advertise on-board products as well as generate additional revenue from external product offerings.

One supplier is testing small screen placement above the machine's payment mechanism, another supports a larger screen across the top portion of the machine, a third experiments with linking wall-hung screens with an on-board display, while yet another focuses on implementing touch screen applications.

A variety of designs are being tested as manufacturers eagerly intensify experimentation with vending machine-based digital signage and video broadcasting. As digital display devices become more affordable and influential at the point of purchase, vending operators need to take notice.

LCD DISPLAYS EMERGE AS A NEW MEDIA

The leading developers of vending industry digital devices rely on liquid crystal display (LCD) components to effectively deliver, project, and maintain high-quality content. An LCD consists of an array of tiny crystals which can be manipulated to present data or images, such as letters, numbers and video graphics.

For some time, a variety of technology suppliers have experimented with touch-enabled interface devices positioned onto the front of a vending machine. Given the level of machine traffic and products offered, touch screen designs can be highly effective as they provide the user with unparalleled, self-guided video content, especially when the items offered for sale are non-traditionally vended products (e.g. iPods, cellular phones and cameras).

An important concern in the vending channel is the ability of a touch screen to easily be integrated with the components of the machine as well as maintaining a high level of responsiveness, reliability and simplicity.

CONSIDERATIONS FOR VENDING

While many of the advantages of touch screen displays are familiar, additional vending considerations include: 1) Replacement of mechanical buttons with graphic icons with longer life and reduced maintenance expense; 2) Replacement of static information with dynamic user directed content displays; 3) The computer required for touch screen applications also enables simplified machine networking for bi-directional remote machine monitoring; 4) Presentation of product information and advertising for upselling at the point of purchase; and 5) The ability to provide a competitive advantage. As vending equipment and kiosk devices continue to evolve into self-service devices, the touch screen may be inevitable in the vending toolbox.

INFLUENCING BUYERS AT THE POINT OF SALE

In the retail sector, it is a popular belief that a consumer makes a final purchase decision at the point of purchase. It is for this reason that promotional campaigns, signage, couponing, tagging, branding and related sales efforts have proven highly effective.

While a similar decision-making percentage for the vending consumer is unknown, it is likely the buyer's decision can be similarly influenced. It is for this reason that manufacturers are developing digital displays to hang on the machine and be part of the point-of-sale designed to impact product movement. In addition, digital content tends to create a perceived personal space that provides a basis for educating and entertaining while stimulating sales activity. Digital signage also enhances the vending environment and can be coordinated with other digital signage.

There are two key factors that render liquid crystals important for use in vending applications: size and weight. A liquid crystal display (LCD) consists primarily of two glass plates with liquid crystal material placed between them. There is no need for bulky picture tubes in order to display components as required by alternative image generation formats.

Digital display content is available through a variety of formats, including: video, flash, MPEG and podcast files. Content can be loaded locally (via USB or CD or DVD) or remotely (via telemetry networking) and can be changed on the fly.

Since the content is normally stored in its own dedicated hard drive, the digital display normally will not take space from vending machine product storage areas.

The content used in digital signage can be uploaded via transference from a handheld media device (USB, CD, or DVD) or remotely through Internet connectivity. So long as the vending operator has a bi-directional remote machine monitoring capability.

The management of digital advertising via telemetry offers another distance application, further strengthening the case for remote machine monitoring (transportation of transactional and operational data in real-time).

SPLIT SCREEN IMAGING

A digital display can provide the ability to create and display different customized presentations using a split-screen feature that enables the unit to display several media sources at the same time.

With a 60/40 split, for example, a vending company could be promoting area businesses on the larger, top portion of the screen while advertising machine-based products in the lower portion.

Two vending suppliers are experimenting with split screen displays both on the vending machine and alongside the machine. "Live" news feeds of television broadcasting are considered too expensive, too hardware-centric, and too invasive to effectively be placed on the front of a vending machine.

There are at least four industry suppliers developing digital signage for the vending channel. Following is a brief summary of their activities.

AVT OFFERS DIGITAL IN NEW MACHINES

Automated Vending Technologies, Inc. (AVT) digital screens are being configured in many of the RAM 4000 vending machines available from AVT. Digital technology is not available to buyers unless it is purchased as part of the machine bundle. There are no component sales, retrofitting possibilities, or modular units under consideration.

The AVT vending machines feature a 7-inch wide screen format square LCD screen playing a looped scheduled sequence of 10- to 15-second advertisements for products available through the machine.

Digital content can be accomplished at the machine or via remote machine monitoring. Content is loaded into the system's flash memory where it resides until deleted or replaced. File size capacity averages 3.5-Mb per advertisement.

In addition to the machine embedded screens, AVT is also testing large screen formats (32-inch LCD) that are wall hung beside the machine and feature advertisements promoting local area businesses and/or business related products.

The firm is also trying a 60/40 split screen format in which the larger section is carrying live television and the smaller area is displaying vending machine product advertisements.

The large screen is linked to the vending machine and controlled by its digital technology components. AVT screens are not touch screen by design, but are available. The company is conducting field tests on about 10 units of varying size and content.

JCM OFFERS DIGITAL THROUGH PARTNERSHIP

JCM American Corp., in partnership with Tovis Co. Ltd. of Korea, offers a line of high-quality, digital display units. In terms of digital displays, Tovis is a leading supplier of application specific LCD fields, and claims to have applied advanced technology uniquely to produce an array of LCD monitors, multi-sync monitors and CGA monitors.

With respect to LCD technology, Tovis claims units are ergonomically designed and built to be slim and ultra flat. The screens feature low-power consumption, wide temperature range, long life, high right LED backlighting and customizable screen frames. LCD screens can optionally be touch screens.

The company supplies LCD technology to a variety of industries. Vending machine mounting is possible, and JCM is contracting OEMs and conducting field tests.

SOLARA TECHNOLOGIES COMBINES A RANGE OF TECHNOLOGIES

Solara Technologies brings together the vending and kiosk industries, debit and credit card processing, and digital signage in the form of a touch screen point-of-purchase terminal. Unlike AVT, Solara will customize a retrofit kit for its digital display system. Its first retrofit was placed into a USI Technologies Combo II vending machine.

This unit features remotely managed, multi-language, multi-vend, cashless transactions with dual-screen, digital signage and has touch screen capability.

All Solara products are proprietary and are designed to work together in assorted configurations or as stand-alone devices. The remote management technology (RMT) solution offered by Solara provides the basis for managing the content and operation of distributed vending machines via Internet connectivity.

Digital files are transported using TCP/IP protocol and self-install for immediate application.

Solara screens tend to be touch screen in nature with sequential, lead-through logic. Solara views digital content as a movement toward new revenues through advertising and promotional opportunities.

Remote-managed, digital signage on Solara screens can be divided into multiple zones, thereby allowing several viewing and advertising options. On the large 42-inch screen, for example, a television feed can be presented as a public service in one zone while scrawling news or sports in another zone as other information is strategically positioned in additional zones.

Media content does not require manual servicing as the RMT software provides content and sufficient data to self install. Income can be gained from national, regional or local advertising, as well as point-of-sale promotion.

Solara relies on a video format that ensures exclusive control by the vending operator. Solara also offers content in multiple languages (English, Spanish or French) and features a shopping cart metaphor for reviewing purchases. A bottle deposit or state tax can optionally be applied to purchase transactions.

Solara also offers single- and double-sided, hi-definition LCD screens designed to maximize the visual impact of paid advertising (even at a busy airport location). Solara also produces a unique, self-service map dispensing machine labeled MapVend.

3M TOUCH SYSTEMS OFFERS DIFFERENT TOUCH SCREENS

3M Touch Systems manufactures touch screen devices in its Micro Touch division and is among the first company to successfully implement touch screens in the vending industry. 3M has led the way with enhancements to screens, including ruggedness, durability and spill-resistance.

3M offers both resistive and capacitive touch screens, although capacitative is recommended for vending applications. 3M describes its capacitative touch screens as environmentally robust, durable, highly sensitive and possessing superb optical clarity.

The 3M application involves a small electronic controller attached to the LCD display panel and specialty software. The main emphasis has been the replacement of vending machine buttons with graphic icon representation and drill down product information.

Vending applications are built on the ClearTek II capacitative touch screen design with patented micro-touch electronics and software featuring optimized optics to facilitate display integration for touch-enabled transactions.

DIGITAL FLOOR COVERING PRESENTS A NEW OPTION FOR VENDING

While vending suppliers continue to perfect digital display units, it is interesting to note the recent introduction of a different form of digital presentation, a digital floor covering, which may be considered at a vending location.

IntelliMat is a wireless, Windows-based PC designed to work on the floor. It is less than an inch thick, and is designed to be walked on and support shopping cart traffic. The IntelliMat is designed with a gently sloping ramp that makes it easy to walk on or roll a shopping cart across.

The IntelliMat is composed of four, 15-inch LCD screens powered by a single, small voltage electrical cord that plugs into a standard wall outlet. No special installation or preparation is necessary.

The four LCD screens create a zero-inch, diagonal display that projects multi-media content, video, flash, MPEG files and virtually anything a PC can play — complete with full audio and wireless directional speakers. Pre-existing or custom content can be downloaded onto the IntelliMat from a local server, PDA or USB drive, and since each IntelliMat has its own specific IP address, content delivery can be mat-specific.

IntelliMats offer LAN, wi-fi and infrared connectivity and are designed with scratch-resistant tempered glass for long life. IntelliMat is the only network-capable digital media floor display that has been shown to consistently generate increased sale revenues.

DIGITAL KIOSKS WITH AUDIO AND VIDEO CAPABILITY

Another option is the digital kiosk display with full audio and video capability. Janus was the first company to create multi-unit display system components for the hospitality industry.

The devices were installed to provide guests event information and directions through a user friendly interface. Many of the early units only broadcast text, but newer components provide a state-of-the-art platform for seamless integration with event management software, downloaded video files, or network-based content.

Janus' high-tech LCD kiosks can broadcast customized advertisements for both on-premise and off-premise businesses — thereby creating the potential for an additional source of income. The vending industry can likewise benefit from this approach by having its screens handle in-machine as well as nearby business promotions.

A more detailed analysis of some LCD technologies follows.

LCD COLORIZATION

In order to project an LCD object, electronic pixels are turned on and off to create the image. Color LCDs use two basic techniques for producing color. The technologies are: passive matrix and active matrix (also referred to as thin film transistors (TFT)).

Passive matrix is the less expensive of the two technologies, but does not produce color images that are as distinctive or clear. Active matrix formatting, on the other hand, produces color images that are as sharp as traditional CRT displays, but is expensive.

VISIBILITY SOURCES

Since LCDs are non-emissive displays and therefore do not self-generate a light source, visibility results from an external lighting source. The three types of visibility technologies are:

  1. Reflective. The display relies on an external light source, placed in front of the display for visibility. A reflective display uses a diffuser to control the supply of ambient light entering the front of the display (e.g., inexpensive calculators and wristwatches)
  2. Transmissive. The display relies on positioning a light source behind the LCD panel. Backlighting projects light colored objects against a dark background to produce a sharper, more contrasted image, often referred to as negative mode broadcasting (e.g., measurement instruments, portable audio devices, automotive components, and laptop computers).
  3. Transflective. The display uses both reflective and transmissive technology to enable light passing through the back as well as reflecting from the front. The back light is normally attached to a rear polarizer, thereby allowing light to flow through the back and front of the display. Transflective is the most popular format (e.g., cell phone, PDA, GPS and related displays).

Depending on application, the external light source may be the sun, a lamp or alternate form of projected light. Oftentimes, LCD readability is aided by backlighting.

BACKLIGHTING TECHNOLOGIES

Backlighting is a technique used to make an LCD display easier to read. There are three common backlight technologies used with LCD displays:

  1. Electroluminescent Lamp (EL). The backlight is very thin and offers a form light source. EL is popular due to its relative low cost, as compared to the other backlight sources. Although the EL has some great benefits, there are some drawbacks to its technology. The EL does not perform very well under high humidity conditions. When the display is subject to high humidity, the EL begins to delaminate and starts to malfunction. Another problem with the EL includes the need to have a DC-to-AC converter, also known as an inverter.
  2. LED (Light Emitting Diode). This is the most commonly used backlight for cellular phones. The LED backlight offers some benefits over the EL backlight. To start, the LED backlight does not require an inverter, just a DC source of +3VDC~+5VDC. Secondly, depending on the backlight configuration, the brightness can very bright, and thirdly, the life of the LED exceeds 50,000 hours.
  3. CCFL (Cold Cathode Fluorescent Lamp). This type of light source is most common in graphics and color displays. It provides a uniform and bright white light. A common application that would use a CCFL backlight is a laptop computer. Some other applications that use this type of backlight include gas pumps, medical instruments, industrial PCs, etc. The CCFL has a drawback that is similar to the EL backlight; it also needs a DC-AC inverter.

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