Digital Sign Expo 2011: Las Vegas New & Old

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The Digital Sign Expo (DSE) is the world’s largest international trade show and conference dedicated to digital signage, interactive technology, and Out-of-Home networks. I went along to Las Vegas, saw the future, got inspired and then pined for the days of old.

Digital signage holds a special place in my attention right now. Not only does it sit at the crossroads of two of my core disciplines (wayfinding and web development), but it’s at a wonderfully adolescent stage. It’s old enough to be taken seriously and even get a real job, but still young enough to look a little physically awkward and have a certain predisposition to garish and tacky displays. DSE was the prefect environment to check in this emerging industry.

DSE is largely populated by the folks that hold the phrase “digital signage” synonymous with “digital advertising”. These are basically the screens (large and small) we find populating the environment with wonderful tidbits of information like horoscopes and weather in the hopes that we’ll also pay attention to the advertisements sharing the screens with this information. Think of it what you will, it’s a booming industry. What is immediately apparent is that digital signage (as wayfinding) will be built from the hardware and infrastructure this industry creates. As such DSE was a great opportunity to check out the latest kit and see a glimpse of the future of digital signs.

Two themes I saw on the show floor that caught my interest were unique form factors and transparency.


When designing digital wayfinding signs, it’s sometimes hard to maintain good proportions in the sign while accommodating the limited range of LCD (or other display hardware) available on the market. The square-ish size of most displays tends to lend to “chunky” signs. The good news from DSE was that nearly every display manufacture has (or is coming out with) a whole range of displays with less-square proportions. Also on display was a flexible LED display made by Nanolumens. These large-format displays are less than an inch thick and are completely flexible. It’s the only display I saw at the show capable of taking a convex shape. Finally I saw plenty of ways to accommodate everyone’s favorite device, the iPad. Basically if you want to mount an iPad to the wall (or anything else), there is a whole industry out there ready to sell you mount.

I saw two great examples of transparent displays. This of one of those ‘Sci-Fi technologies’ I’ve wanted since watching the Rebels plan their assault on the Death Star. One vendor used a combination of transparent touch sensitive foil and ‘light-bending’ film on laminated glass to achieve the display. The ‘light-bending’ film was key as it allowed the projector that actually created the display to be off center from the ‘screen”, thus not blinding the user when looking at (through) the screen. This combination was interesting in that they said they could make the displays up to 120″ and could build them into storefront windows.

My favorite find was a true transparent LCD showing at the LG booth. This 40″ display was just a prototype, but I was blown away by how sharp it was. The big difference here was that the screen actually produced black pixels. In the video above the little buildings you see in the background are a little diorama they had set up behind the screen. (Not a background graphic.) The screen could actually go fully black and block out any impress of what was behind it. The people at LG say this technology is ready to go, they just need someone to order it.

DSE provided the inspiration and the few choice discoveries I went there for. But by mid-afternoon, my eyes burning from all the digital radiation, I found myself pining for good-old-fashion signs. I’m a huge proponent of digital technologies, but after so many hours I started having apocalyptic visions of a future were every sign is just a flat lifeless terminal oozing ‘spinny logos’ and horoscopes. A real ‘fear and loathing’ moment.

Fortunately I was in Las Vegas, which is also the home of The Neon Museum. This museum is a massive sign graveyard filled with generations of signs pulled from the rubble of Las Vegas’ perpetual rebuilding of itself. I decided I’d take few hours of ‘sign therapy’ and go see the stuff that made Vegas signs great. Or so I thought. A quick trip to their website left me confused if they were open. I called and found out that the museum only does set tours (for now) and I had missed the last one. The woman on the phone, who was the absolute nicest person I’d spoke to all day, explained that once they complete a renovation of their facility they’ll be able to accommodate walk-in visits. See also told me they had a few of restored signs down at Fremont St.

I opted for a stroll around Fremont St and I think it was just the thing to round out the trauma perspective of DSE. The restored signs provide by the Neon Museum are wonderful: metal, paint, incandescent lights, neon…and a bit of soul. I’ll stop the romanticizing, but I will say seeing these signs in context of DSE left me a unique perspective on what truly makes a landmark. These signs defined a place and time, were cast aside and then came back as art. I wonder if the digital signs of today will be able to do the same.