The recent KioskCom/Digital Signage Show served as a metaphor for the discussion of the future convergence of interactive applications and digital signage. The interactive apps were on red carpet, with the digital signage crowd on blue carpet in a smaller area. Only two vendors made a convergent statement by literally straddling the two sides. Ironically, one (Netkey) had been sold days earlier to NCR, a major player in kiosks with their own booth squarely on the interactive carpet. Is there a market imperative for the full convergence of digital signage and interactive apps? Or is the future simply a matter of coexistence of related, yet distinct technologies?

Understanding the fundamental differences between interactive applications and digital signage provides some insight into where convergence might occur. This table summarizes the high level comparisons:

Digital Signage Interactive Apps
One-to-many One-to-one
Mostly dispensing information Collecting and dispensing information
Synchronus operation, driven centrally Asynchronus operation, driven by user
A call to action A transaction
Impressions and results difficult to measure Engagement and often results collected on the fly
Fundamentally, a presentation Fundamentally, an application

At a high level, digital signage is a one-to-many form of communication, usually executed with large format screens. Conversely, interactive applications are generally one-to-one in nature, and as such are more often found on smaller format displays. The objective of digital signage tends to be to inform, sell and reinforce brand, while interactive apps generally have a transaction as the end game. Digital signage tends to be a scheduled, synchronus presentation, managed centrally. Kiosks are asynchronus applications, operated by the user.

While there are distinct differences between the two technologies, there have been some hints of convergence, or perhaps adaptation. We have seen digital signage software co-exist on kiosk devices, driving the screen with dynamic, centrally-controlled content when the device is idle. Back end tools can manage digital content that might be used in either environment. On-demand capabilities have appeared in digital signage, whereby a content loop can be suspended and a menu of stored videos can be accessed with a remote control. User generated content (UGC), generally in the form of SMS messages or Twitter tweets displayed on a digital sign, have been hailed as a sign of convergence. But while it has its uses and some sizzle, UGC does not make digital signage one-to-one or truly interactive, and does not take it out of the presentation realm into the application realm.

Key non-technical reasons that the technologies are unlikely to evolve into one application stream are these: First, kiosks tend to be internally owned by operational functions, while digital signage is usually marketing-centric. As such, the budgets, buying cycles and objectives are quite different. Second, kiosks tend to be owned by the venue owners, where we still see a large number of digital signage networks owned by third parties. Again, this drives decision making into different hands. Additionally, it makes integration with corporate systems more likely for kiosks, as companies are loathe to integrate strategic internal systems with third party-controlled applications. Finally, privacy concerns, especially in health care and corporate environments, makes it less likely that interactive applications will be deployed in a one-to-many, digital signage type environment.

Mobile tools that leverage the smartphones carried by so many consumers have the potential to bridge the chasm between digital signage and kiosk applications from a content-centric angle. Digital signage content with calls to an SMS campaign or related URL can result in opt-in interactivity where the user is identified and receives additional information and offers. The emergence of 2D barcodes may be the best use of the often-controversial sidebar. Imagine the barcode displayed alongside a playing advertisement, allowing users to capture the code with their cell cams, and then receive coupons or other offers. These tools, perhaps along with Bluetooth (usage of which has lagged in the USA) will make digital signage active, but not fully interactive.

There are many reasons why digital signage and interactive applications are unlikely to fully converge. By their fundamental natures they strive to meet different objectives, require different development skills, and are generally implemented by different functional owners within organizations. Despite their differences, there are clear opportunities for each technology to learn lessons from the other. The market (defined as technology buyers) has not demanded that they converge, and the technical, organizational and functional obstacles to true convergence make such a requirement unlikely for the foreseeable future. Digital signage and kiosks will continue to coexist. Buyers who “force” or assume convergence may very well sub-optimize both their interactive and digital signage capabilities.