Monday, August 06, 2007

The usefulness of HD content on digital signs

This New York Times article (brought to my attention via this article at Experientia) helps to make a point about something lots of people ask about, but few understand: the use of HD in digital signage applications. With every Best Buy and Circuit City salesrep singing the praises of "true" HD screens that can display a 1920x1080 resolution, it's easy to understand why so many people jump into a digital signage application thinking "we're going full HD on this." But the truth, as far as I've been able to tell, is more complex. While we've all seen stunning HD images of aquariums, sports cars and exotic tropical isles, and while these are certainly eye-catching in a home theater, they are decidedly less so in the retail store. Additionally, the kind of really impressive high-motion content that best demonstrates what HD has to offer is typically a poor choice for in-store sales and merchandising. Yes, sharp, high-contrast content is important. But I've yet to see a case where the benefits of using HD content outweigh the size and performance penalties associated with doing so (especially in non-trivial screen setups that utilize dynamic content).

But what about text, you say? After all, the best thing about all those pixels is that you can display ultra-fine details and hence use smaller, sharper text, right? That's where the aforementioned NYT article comes in, discussing the industrialized world's aging population, and specifically, their eyes:

As baby boomers grope their way through middle age, they are encountering the daily indignities that accompany a downward slide in visual acuity: trying to read a road map in a car at night; cellphones designed for 20-year-old eyes; the minuscule letters on a bottle of aspirin; nutrition information squeezed onto a bag of peanuts.

And unlike their parents and grandparents, they are not shy about expressing their displeasure, in some cases, taking matters into their own hands or prompting some companies to pay attention.

“Everything is so much more eye-oriented than it used to be,” said Phil Taunton, a 62-year-old optometrist in San Diego.

By their early 40s, many people are noticing the first symptoms of presbyopia, or “old man’s eyes.” As the eye ages, it is less able to take in light. At the same time, the lens inside the eye loses its flexibility. The result is blurred vision.

Every day thousands of the nation’s 77 million baby boomers turn 50, an age when reading glasses are perched with some permanence on middle-age noses.

So the next time you're thinking about installing some fancy new electronic posters, digital menu boards, or any other signage that's going to be showing lots of text, stop and think a moment about who your primary audience is. There may be some cases where the resolution that HD enables really does improve the performance of the sign. The rest of the time, though, it's a red herring that can increase production costs and reduce data transfer and display efficiencies without providing any real benefits.

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