Every story has a backstory that started with a spark or an idea. Better known as history, these stories spur us to go beyond our humble beginnings and into a place where we create more history. The more history we create, the more stories we have to tell.

Digital signage has such a story. One probably wouldn’t think there’s much to it, but there is. It’s a good one, too.

I’d better start by saying the origin and history varies depending on what your definition of signage is. For this post, I’m going to start at the beginning of communication on signage, not “digital signage.”

So, no nitpicking over definitions.

In The Beginning

Way back before technology was born and signs were merely etchings in stone, people sought out better means to find their way. The world is big, after all, and we can’t possibly know where we’re going all the time.

When stone walls weren’t available along paths to etch on, settlers took to bending young trees a certain way to point travelers in the direction of an important place. It worked for a while, but like most things we create, the technique soon begged an upgrade.

Some time after cavemen shed their animal skins and dusty roads were laid down, the motorcar was built. People everywhere basked in the richness of the electric vehicle.

But without proper signage, they were as lost as the early settlers were.

The chaos of unmanaged traffic preempted the need for traffic engineers: Smart people willing to take the time to think of a process that could show people the way.

The engineers began to create sign systems that consisted of road signs, arrows, and other Wayfinding methods that took the pain out of exploring unchartered territory.

As engineers were creating arrows and painting lines, a car salesman was ordering the first ever neon sign. It was 1929. Created with the newly invented neon tube that could be bent all sorts of ways, the success of the neon sign was an early indicator of what was yet to come in the world of digital signage.

The Next Phase

At the same time Ford was rolling out the first motorcar, other industries were taking advantage of signs on the sides of buildings and in newspapers to share their products with the world. Billed as sharing “goods on hand” with consumers, they often appeared in the back of magazines or as a very narrow sidebar in newspapers.

As the early 1900’s rolled into the mid-1900s, the psychology of why people buy began to assist ad agencies when they created hand-drawn ads for the back of magazines like Vogue or Bazar.

Ad men learned quickly that hitting the pain points of a consumer was key, and advertising took off like a shot.

Remember the hand drawn ad that Ralphie from the movie ‘A Christmas Story’ so admired? It was for the Red Rider BB gun. He tucked it into the back of his mother’s ‘Look’ Magazine so she would be convinced it was the perfect gift for a young boy.

That ad hit his pain point for sure, because, without it, he couldn’t kill the bears that were seen behind Pulaski’s candy store.

Soon, photography took over the hand drawn ads. Soon thereafter, TV and radio showed up, bringing marketing and advertising into a completely different space, and reaching millions more than magazines or newspapers ever could.

This is the space where digital marketing began to show up. Only it wasn’t called digital marketing and digital signage was an untapped idea somewhere in the Universe.

It was also the space where the origins of the Internet were quietly born.

Dubbed the Galactic Network, computer scientist J.C.R. Licklider wrote about a concept he envisioned where computers were interconnected globally and data could be shared. The year was 1962.

Digital Signage is Born

As television grew in popularity and technology began to bloom, hardware like the VCR was born. People went wild. Not only did the clunky machines allow us see a favorite movie over and over again, it was also the first indication that video could be produced, stored, and played back for promotional reasons.

To clarify, a VCR connected to a screen for promotion is not digital signage. But I mention this evolution because it was the precursor to what became digital signage.

It was the retail industry that first took advantage of the ‘produce and play information again and again’ idea. By the 1970’s, retailers were using the now ancient machines to play commercials or advertisements in-house for customers to see as they meandered through the store looking for good buys.

It was when the Internet really exploded in the 1990’s that the concept of broadcasting on a larger footprint outside of a store or business started to turn in the minds of techno-geeks and advertisers everywhere.

From here, an even bigger idea was born: Use video, commercial displays, and players to spread advertising and messaging everywhere via the Internet, and those that utilize the technological concept shall reap great financial rewards.

The Backstory Creates a New Story

The term ‘digital signage’ was born in early 1992 in a UK shopping center. Apparently a security guard didn’t know what the network of video walls he was looking at was called, so he referred to them as digital signage. From there, it is alleged that Neil Longuet-Higgins from SIS Digital was the first to use the term.

I can’t help but think that security guard is kicking himself for not trademarking the name. But as it goes with any technological development, there are many players, some of whom participated in the creation of the hardware, others who participated in the creation of the software, and a few security guards here and there that were busy unintentionally coining phrases.

Digital signage relies on different pieces of hardware to deliver content. Typically they are the display screen and the media player (what the VCR in the 70’s acted as).

The content is created with software, often referred to as a Content Management System, or CMS.

Anyone using digital signage to market their product or business typically uses one of two different hardware screen displays:
LCD (liquid crystal display)
LED (light-emitting diode)

In some cases, projectors are still used.

Interestingly, the development of the LED and LCD happened in the same year:

1962.

Well, sort of.

The LED screen came about, thanks to the invention of the LED light bulb by scientist Nick Holonyak, Jr. in 1962. These screens emit images using several small diodes. When you look at a digital clock, you’re looking at LED lights.

The LCD screen has origins dating back as far as 1888, but the development of the actual screen started with an RCA researcher named Richard Williams. Williams discovered that liquid crystals exhibited some interesting electro-optic characteristics. Unfortunately, Williams doesn’t often get credited for his scientific work with LCD, thanks to the likes of a man named George H. Heilmeier.

George H. Heilmeier, PhD, ended up in the National Inventors Hall of Fame and was credited with inventing the LCD screen. While Williams originally discovered what the liquid crystals could do, Neilmeier claimed he “stumbled” upon the same discovery in 1964.

Media players were born when computers were born, essentially. Media players were originally computers, but today they are much smaller and more compact, still resembling a VCR in some cases.

The job of the media player is to power the content displayed on your screen. So again, think VCR. These media players talk to servers, which direct your content via the Internet.

As far as digital signage software, it’s hard to say when the first piece was created. But once the phenomenon of networking media players to screens in various locations began to take off in the 70s, the software wasn’t far behind. Today there are software choices abound, all of them catering specifically to the niche requirements of the company and the needs of the end user.

Where We Are Today

Today it seems that if a business or organization isn’t using digital signage, they are behind the times. While this isn’t necessarily true, what is true is that more and more industries are using the technology to share their message with the world.

With the prices of LCD and plasma technology coming down, it’s safe to say that yet another chapter in the history of digital signage is being written. Historically, the barrier to entry was pretty big for a lot of industries. The digital signage technology advanced beyond market penetration in the early to mid 2000’s, so the majority of companies using it were early adopters.

But now, prices for hardware and software have lowered drastically, making it an option for many companies. Of course there are many use cases whether it’s back of house employee engagement, digital billboards, QSR digital menu boards, and a retail display advertising a product…

It’s affordable and it’s all the rage. And with so many options, it makes for a colorful, digital world out there.

What would Times Square be without digital signage?

Outdoor signage is bigger than ever. Now with waterproof options for large screens, we’re seeing more and more digital pop up outside. Sometimes with billboards, other times at stadiums and amusement parks.

Nonetheless, it’s there.

Today the possibilities are endless. Small businesses use digital signage in their brick and mortar establishments to share promotions and sales. Some go above and beyond and take advantage of the Internet to broadcast their sales in various stores.

Quick serve restaurants use digital signage to upsell products and make ordering easier. By using digital menus that show video of a refreshing drink or sizzling burger, restaurateurs can sway a thirsty or hungry customer to buy more. They also make ordering easier with self-service kiosks at tables or that stand alone.

None of these options would have come to fruition without the movers and the shakers we talked about. All of it adds to the rich history of one of the most profound technological advancements we’ve seen to date. 

Conclusion

It started with sketches and drawings in magazines and newspapers. Over time, it grew into neon signs. Today, you really can’t go anywhere without seeing digital signage that uses an LED or LCD screen.

Digital signage started in the 1990’s when the VCR model evolved into a dedicated media player and a commercial display.

With the growth of the Internet, brands understood the power of expanding their reach, and the concept of digital messaging was brought to fruition.

Digital messaging became digital signage when a security guard in a UK shopping mall described a wall of video as ‘digital signage.’ The phrase was coined in 1992.

No matter the business, no matter the need, digital signage is now integrated with many industries and will continue to add to the incredible history that started with the bending of trees, followed by the bending of neon tubes.

Today the only thing digital signage bends are our minds, with its constant technological advancements.

I’m looking forward to the next chapter. Are you?

What tidbits do you know about digital signage history? Does any of it surprise you?