Digital Signage: Investigation Of The Usage Patterns

(excepts from the original article by Florian Resatsch and me: D. Michelis, F. Resatsch. Unlocking the Interactive Capabilities of Large Outdoor Displays, Information Display Journal, March 2007, Vol. 23, No. 3, Society for Information Display, San Jose, CA, 2007)

If digital signage is to achieve maximum effect, it must first grab the attention of the viewer. It can be fun too, but not just fun. Advertisers are in the business for one purpose only; to sell more product. Here we describe an experiment in attention grabbing. It works. It’s fun. But how will it translate into business advantage?

The changing face of interaction

Technological development is changing the ways in which viewers interact with displays and their content. In particular, the increasing availability of wireless and sensor technology makes a broader range of human-computer interaction possible. The development of improved video- and audio-tracking not only supports object tracing, but also enables the reception of wireless digital augmented information about objects. By using these new sensor technologies, we can develop new forms of interaction in “invisible” environments, using “smart” inhabitable spaces to interact with context-sensitive applications[1]. […]

Human love affair with reflection

Long before the development of the computer, the mirror was used as a medium for visual simulation. Virtual worlds have been simulated for hundreds of years. The term ”virtuality” was originally defined as the opposite of reality — the virtual distinguishes itself from the real and denotes a fictional world. The mirror was the central instrument for the creation of a virtual world and the creation of illusion was its inherent function. The virtual images that arise through the reflections reflect back the real image fictionally. The ability to capture the real world and reflect it back in a true to life or a distorted way could, for a long time, only be done with a mirror. Today, this ability is emulated by digital media technologies. Through the development of photography, film, radio, television, and computers, today’s world is inundated with images that imitate the virtuality of the mirror’s image.[2] With the introduction of new media, not only the mirror but all forms of representation developed by man in the last 5000 years can be translated into digital form. Consequently, a variety of digital techniques for visual simulation has taken root that operates within the tradition of past media. They consistently fulfil the same goal by satisfying the needs of the viewer and meeting his or her desire for visual simulation. The content and purpose of the presentation have not changed; rather the technique and form have. Through the use of digital technologies, new opportunities arise to satisfy man’s age-old desire for experiencing fictional worlds. Independent of content and fictional histories, the desire for immersion is at the fore. In striving to experience fictional worlds, we are searching for an experience similar to that of jumping into a swimming pool or into the ocean — the experience of being completely submerged in another reality. We enjoy leaving our familiar world behind and exploring the characteristics of a new environment. We want to swim around and see new possibilities arise. The feeling of experiencing a fictional virtual place is, according to Murray, “pleasurable in itself”.[3] […]

Investigation of the usage patterns

Based on our experience with previous implementations of services advertised in public spaces, most of them fail to attract the attention of people in the street. Many of the available digital services, such as mobile city guides, etc, are only used by people who already knew about their existence. The visual illusions we used exploited the basic interest of humans in the mirror. Once people see their distorted and enhanced reflection in the mirror they start acting. This has positive implications on the cost of providing content. Most screens used in urban areas need intensive content management with updates throughout the day to sustain the level of interest of the viewers. In this case, the attractor is the person him or herself and the interaction leads to an increased number of users looking at and using the displayed content. […]

In interacting, groups exhibit a very special dynamic. If a group of two or more people pass by the public displays, most often just one person becomes the active one who starts the interaction. This person pauses, then actively participates in the interaction drawing the attention of the other group members toward him or herself. Typically the others initially stand by and hesitantly observe the interaction. In the parts of the investigation in which more than one display was available the other members of the group began to use the free displays and explore the interaction possibilities. Little by little the entire group participated in the interaction. In the cases in which there was only one display, the group became impatient and the most active person was encouraged to rejoin the group and move on.

We also measured the effect when passers-by were no longer shown the mirror images. In clear weather, roughly 30% of passers-by used the Magical Mirrors installation when it was functioning normally. After turning off the mirror images less than 5% of passers-by used the displays. Thus it appears that dynamic interaction with the display increases usage by 600%.

If the visual illusion (in other words the reflection) is enough to make people aware of the screens and generate an interest that is high enough to stay and play, the content may change slightly into information. This means that in future applications, once the viewer interacts with the display, the image on the display could change to content such as advertising or information. […] When used for advertising, the interaction should be very unobtrusive and should not disturb the usage of the services. The advertising can be placed within the interaction, letting people play with logos or images of products instead of the artistic “magical mirror” interactions we tested in the prototype. […] The advantage is clear, but if digital display screens are to be used effectively as advertising media, they must be configured to be used in ways that grab the attention of their target audience. In today’s fast times, attention grabbing is one of the most difficult challenges and providing a means to interact with the screen is a solution.


Although many interactive technologies have been introduced to markets all over the world, more than 40-90% of all innovations fail.[4] Many failures occur because people are more likely to accept an innovation if they do not need to drastically change their previous behavior. An innovation tends to be successful if the product itself changes, but the way in which it is used follows familiar habits and patterns. The question we must therefore address is: “How do we proceed in developing human-centric applications in ways that do not force people to drastically change their behaviour?” The investigation showed that people are very likely to use new ways of interacting with displays in public spaces if the method of interaction is based on the familiar. By using advanced camera and software technologies, we have created the illusion of a mirror, but with additional and more versatile functionality by which viewer will see more than his or her own reflection, and can enter a virtual world and directly interact with it. The media facade is an example of a “Mediated Space” which attracts passers-by and motivates them to interact with the mirrors. The interaction was designed as much as possible to be intuitive and natural. A digital illusion generator can meet the demands of fascination, curiosity, and manipulation in ways that static mirrors and conventional advertisements could never have. The possibilities of this technology are something new; the desire of the human mind to travel into fictitious worlds through visual illusions is the same. As we have shown by the experiments presented above the use of mirror images as a familiar interaction style can lead to a significantly increased awareness of big displays in public spaces.


  • [1] Michelis, D., Send, H., Schildhauer, T. (2006a), Locative Data. Prototype Research with RFID i-com, Vol. 5, Nr. 2, S. 38-42
  • [2] Ryan, Marie-Laure (2001), Narrative as Virtual Reality: Immersion and Interactivity in Literature and Electronic Media, John Hopkins, Baltimore, London
  • [3] Murray, Janet (1998), Hamlet on the Holodeck, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass.
  • [4] Gourville, J. T. (2006). “Wann Kunden neue Produkte kaufen.” Harvard Business Manager: 45

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