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Comment: Nikk Smith of Pixel Inspiration asks if digital window displays have come of age

The shop window has long been among the retailer’s most potent weapons for driving footfall. Creative window displays commonly capture the attention of passing shoppers and create theatre.

When digital signage first emerged as a viable technology, it offered retailers a completely new, vibrant and high-impact alternative to traditional, static window displays. The ability to broadcast dynamic content to passing shoppers represented the most significant innovation in shop window displays in over a century. But it wasn’t without teething problems.

Retailers who were keen to integrate digital into their storefronts quickly learned two lessons. 

Firstly, cost was a major barrier to entry. Even relatively small high brightness displays cost much more than standard brightness counterparts. . 

The second major issue was performance. Many of the early displays offered lacklustre results, especially on brighter days where ambient light has the effect of washing out images. This is completely opposite to the impact of bright light on traditional static displays.

For years these barriers remained unchallenged. But a number of key developments have come together to suggest that digital window displays may finally have come of age.

The key innovation is in the lower price of higher brightness of displays, which now offer enough light output – measured in candellas per square metre - to work in ambient daylight. The the cost of such screens has reduced in some cases by over 50%, making them a much more affordable option, especially for multi-store rollouts.

The highly competitive mobile phone market was one of the first retail sectors to embrace digital window signage on a national level, using signage networks to instantly broadcast the latest deals and handset offers.  Today the majority of O2, Vodafone, EE and Three stores feature some form of digital window display.

In the last two years there has been a real improvement in the quality of LED based technologies, traditionally used for very large format outdoor displays at high level such as those at Piccadilly Circus. New displays can now offer pixel pitches (the distance between pixels) of 1mm, which finally makes close up viewing of very large format window displays a practical proposition.

In some cases retailers have been reluctant to introduce digital signage into stores where the hardware could have a negative impact on the overall design aesthetics. 

However, one of the most interesting recent developments has been the emergence of ‘transparent’ LED and LCD technologies, where the audience can see the image being presented while also being able to see through the canvas itself, both from inside and outside the store. These technologies, especially LED ‘curtains’, lend themselves to window use in high footfall areas, where the retailer still wants to retain visibility from the inside out.

Through technologies such as touch foils (which turn a window display into a fully interactive surface), NFC and beacons there are now far greater opportunities to use digital window displays as touch points through which to engage shoppers, especially when stores are closed.

Retailers can now use digital window displays to promote links to pure digital channels such as Apps and mobile sites, offering an exciting and engaging experience for passing shoppers.

Projection in windows offers the ability to create very large, uniquely shaped window displays. It looked initially to be the solution to digital window POS, but early adopters found that the cost to maintain units was too high, with bulb changes often costing in excess of £500 and being needed every 6 months. A very recent innovation has been the release of projectors that do not require any bulb changes or maintenance. These typically use LED or laser light sources rather than the traditional incandescent bulbs and offer excellent reliability. Using a suitable rear projection film, retailers are just starting to embrace projection as a viable platform once again.

Nikk Smith is chief technology officer of Pixel Inspiration