Mobile integration with digital signage networks and displays is certainly a hot topic, and is likely to remain hot for the foreseeable future. After all, highly sophisticated smartphones have become the norm for consumers and business users. In March, 2009, iSuppli reported global smartphone sales at 173.6 million units and predicted an increase to 192.3 million units in 2009. That is a lot of computing power in the hands of very mobile and economically viable users worldwide. The standard web browsing and email functions are augmented by increasingly available and fast 3G networks, integrated cameras, third party apps and GPS capabilities, to name a few. Even more advanced functions are most certainly on the way. To ignore all of that capability in the pockets of digital signage audiences would be, at best, a missed opportunity. The questions of “if” or “when” related to mobile integration appear to be moot. Steve Gurley has done an excellent series of posts on the Digital Signage Association website that provide great background on the “why” and “what” related to mobile technologies, and they are worth a read. The goal of this post is to look at high value and high likelihood integration points and how they are likely to appear in the marketplace.

The motivation to integrate mobile technologies with digital signage must go beyond the simple idea that we can. Ideally, leveraging the power of all those smartphones would enable network owners to engage, inform and even identify and/or measure viewers in a manner that adds value to their networks. The timing of how individual mobile technologies get integrated with digital signage will be directly related to how easily that can be accomplished. That in turn is related to two factors: consumer penetration of the underlying technologies, and the cost to implement them within a digital signage context. For the purposes of this discussion, four mobile technologies have been examined: SMS, Bluetooth, QR codes and near field communications (NFC). GPS-related technologies and applications have become increasingly common, but seem less relevant to digital signage, since any media player can be reasonably assumed to already be location-aware. For that reason GPS is left out of the discussion.

Given the high penetration and low cost to implement SMS and Bluetooth, it is not surprising that they have been seen already in some digital signage environments. But are they going to be long term players?

As Bluetooth is essentially a passive technology, the level of customer engagement is low. The very nature of NFC makes measurability and transaction potential very high. A look at each technology provides some insight.

SMS, more commonly known as text messaging, is a staple feature of consumer handsets, even on less advanced phones. It can be used within a digital signage environment in a few ways. A simple way is to embed a message to text a keyword to a short code (“text ‘specials’ to 12345 to receive coupons on your phone”) in order to receive information, links to web sites, or even coupons. We have also seen the use of SMS as a gateway to user generated content (UGC) in bars and public venues through text-to-screen applications. The beauty of SMS is that user cell phones can be identified, and users have opted-in to engage with an offer. In some cases, this may become a drawback, as privacy concerns may limit participation from some consumers. Texting as a method of interaction may fall behind due to the level of manual effort involved in utilizing smartphone keyboards and the fact that SMS is primarily the domain of the under 40 crowd, although that will change over time.

Bluetooth is also a widely installed feature in a large percentage of cellular handsets and smartphones. For the most part, Bluetooth’s short range data transfer capabilities are used by consumers for wireless headsets, hands-free calling in cars and quick data transfer between devices. The ability to broadcast information via Bluetooth requires only a little bit of hardware, a little bit of software, and a discoverable phone on the other side. Viewers could easily be informed that additional information can be downloaded via Bluetooth from as far as 30 feet away from the source. Applications of this capability are numerous. However, there are two challenges to attaining a high number of discoverable (Bluetooth-on) devices in any given environment. First, leaving Bluetooth on drains phone batteries faster than using it on an as-needed basis; and second, consumers have demonstrated a wariness to leaving their devices discoverable and open to unwanted “Bluespam”, even though most legitimate Bluetooth marketers would offer an opt-in to discovered prospect phones. As a result, Bluetooth may never achieve that “always on” status that would make it a prime candidate to drive integration with digital signage.

QR Codes, those customized 2-D barcodes that have recently appeared on storefronts courtesy of a Google promotion, provide another way to engage the viewer through their mobile phone. Upon using their phone camera to “scan” an image of the code, the web browser of consumer’s smartphone is automatically directed to a specific URL. The applications of this technology are interesting. Customers can be directed to web sites that can both provide and gather information, build brand, make offers, or conduct ecommerce. QR codes can be displayed within relevant content, or in a sidebar alongside the video window. (Finally, a productive use for the sidebar!) The customer interaction is opt-in, and involves launching an app on the smartphone and aiming the camera… nothing else. Customer identity is secure as the phone is used as a read-only device. Measurability, however, is high, since click-throughs to QR web pages are very quantifiable. Of course the QR app has to be on the phone, and the consumer has to be willing to use it. As mentioned in a post last year, the issue of built-in app standards may come up, but last week I was able to find a free app for my iPhone, BeeTag Pro, that worked fine.

You won’t see much of this in 2010, but you can bet it is coming. A lot will depend upon how fast smartphone users load software onto their devices, and when phone makers decide to include a QR reader app as a core feature of new phones. QR’s success in Asia and the apparent support of Google will likely accelerate its adoption in North America and Europe.

NFC is an extension of an RF technology that many people have already used, although not in conjunction with digital signage. Contactless cards and fobs used for retail payment (think ExxonMobil Speedpass, contactless credit cards) have been around for some time and have a significant installed base. NFC will enable data exchange and even transactions between an NFC-enabled smartphone and either active NFC devices or passive RFID hot spots. It is set to emerge as a new standard feature in smartphones early in this decade. The concept of the cell phone becoming a transactional device is not a new one, and is highly accepted in Asia, where one can wave a phone at a soft drink machine and receive a cold beverage immediately, with the charge being processed through a credit card previously set up for such transactions. Now imagine a “smart spot” adjacent to a digital sign where one can swipe an NFC-enabled phone (whether it is powered on or not) and receive information, coupons and offers. The content of the digital sign presentation could make the viewer aware of opportunities to “wave and save” at the designated hot spot. Again, this opt-in technology puts control in the hands of the customer, and provides for many potential applications in a variety of environments. It is highly measurable, and geared toward transactions. As with QR, adoption will depend heavily on phone makers adopting it as a feature to include with their phones. Consumer acceptance will be likely be less problematic, given the success abroad as well as security concerns being addressed in a simple manner.

There are attractive alternatives for network owners to consider in their plans to integrate mobile technologies with digital signage. Each has benefits and drawbacks, and each will have its place in certain environments. Cost and consumer penetration would point to near term integration being centered on SMS and Bluetooth. The level of customer engagement and the potential for measurability and transactions bodes well for QR codes and NFC becoming the preferred mobile technologies for integration over the next 2 to 3 years.

Technology moves fast, and marketers and advertisers will begin driving mobile requirements in the near future. The ability of digital signage network owners to make their place-based displays both more engaging and relevant to their viewers and more compliant with the needs of advertisers may separate the winners and the losers.