A History of Digital Signage

Table of Contents

Digital signage is a powerful technology, and you may have been involved with it for years, but do you know the origin story of this technology? What about how it has evolved over the years?

We’ll dive into the origin in just a second, but first, let’s look at an example of what digital signage is today. There are a lot of real-world cases to pull from, and a lot of interesting innovations, but here’s a small taste.

In late 2014, Nordstrom installed a digital denim kiosk in one of their stores so that customers could find out which jeans would look best on them without actually trying them on. Think back to nearly a decade ago. Could you have imagined such a campaign?

Nordstrom did.

And their sales skyrocketed.

By answering a few key questions on a touchscreen, any customer could find out what style and size was ideal for her body type. The customer could then go fetch those jeans from the rack, try them on, and head to the checkout happy.

No more struggling to find the “perfect” pair for entirely too long in the confines of a small dressing room. Now the customer could discover what she needs quickly and spend more time on the store floor instead of in the back of a dressing room.

This kind of customer engagement is a game changer. And Nordstrom’s digital denim kiosk is just one of thousands of potential digital signage campaigns, each targeted to a certain kind of user and designed to leverage unique strengths of different pieces of hardware.

From holograms to jumbotrons, campus wayfinding, to tableside ordering kiosks, there’s a truly dizzying array of digital signage out there. But all these uses of the technology have a common root.

The Birth of Digital Signage

You could say that use of digital signage began in fashion houses in the 70s. You could also say it first appeared at banks and trade shows in the 90s. How this tech started is really affected by how you define digital signage.

How it started is really affected by how you define digital signage.

It’s difficult to define digital signage because the term covers an ecosystem of uses.

Our definition of digital signage is: software content management system that drives communications to a variety of screens.

The term “digital signage” has been around for a long time. As the technology evolved and the market penetration grew, the naming conventions evolved with it. You might know it as “screen media” or “interactive customer experience” or “visual display.”

To understand the roots of digital signage, you have to look back – way back! – to the beginnings of sign-based communication itself, not necessarily to the beginning of how we think about digital signage traditionally.

The Road to Digital Signage

The Way, Way Back History

Way back before technology was born, when signs were merely etchings in stone, people sought out better means to find their way around. 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 for an upgrade.

The difficulty of navigation only worsened when the motorcar was built. People everywhere stood in awe 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 uncharted territory.

As engineers were painting lines and arrows, 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 neon sign was a roaring success – and 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”[2] with consumers, they often appeared in the back of magazines or as a very narrow sidebar in newspapers.

As the early 1900s rolled into the mid-1900s, ad agencies began to focus on the psychology of why people buy[3] as they created hand drawn advertisements for the back of magazines like Vogue or Harper’s Bazaar[4].

Ad men learned quickly that hitting a consumer’s “pain points”[5] was key, and advertising took off like a shot.

Speaking of shooting, 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 imaginary bears lurking behind Pulaski’s candy store.

Before long, photography overtook hand drawn ads. Soon thereafter, TV and radio showed up, with the first radio ad airing in 1922, bringing advertising into a completely different space and reaching millions more than magazines or newspapers ever could.

And not long after, the origins of the Internet were quietly born.

Dubbing it 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[6].

Digital Signage is Born

As television grew in popularity and technology boomed, hardware like the VCR was born. People went wild. Not only did the clunky machines allow us to 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 purposes.

To clarify, a VCR connected to a screen for promotion is not digital signage. As I said before, digital signage is, specifically, a display run from some type of media player. But I mention this evolution because it was the precursor to what became digital signage.

The retail industry[7] first took advantage of the “produce and play information again and again” idea.

By the 1970’s[8], retailers were using the now-ancient machines[9] to play commercials or advertisements in-house for customers to see as they meandered through the store looking for good buys.

One of the very first industries[10] to recognize the potential for this sort of video-based signage was the fashion industry. That makes sense, of course—fashion is all about looking forward to the next big thing.

Way back in the late 70’s, fashion houses recorded their runway shows and printed them to VHS. The tapes were then delivered to the retailers that sold the fashion label’s clothes and played on the TVs to tempt customers with visions of refinement and swooshy fabric.

Video-based signage took another step forward with the advent of the LaserDisc[11]. This format arrived on the market in 1978. With an analog video format, it offered quality advantages over VHS tapes.

The high cost of the players kept LaserDiscs from being being a hit with American families—but they had niche use in certain commercial applications.

The video wall, a form of digital signage using multiple tiled and coordinated displays, came into use in the 1980’s. However, splitting the video signal to multiple displays required computer processors—which, in those early days of computing, were prohibitively expensive.

As a workaround, some businesses used separate, synchronized LaserDisc players and specially prepared content[12] for each screen. This technique produced good results but was never widely used.

Another step forward came with DVDs, the first commercially available and fully digital video format. Codeveloped by several prominent electronics corporations, it made its market debut in 1995[13], long after the death of the LaserDisc.

It met rapid success, given superior image quality to the VHS. They were a hit with retailers as well.

Many abandoned their analog video signs and switched over to DVD players[14].

It was when the Internet really exploded[15] 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 technogeeks 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. Those that utilized the technological concept, they realized, shall reap great financial rewards.

Digital Signage Grows Up

The term ‘digital signage’ was born in early 1992[16] 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.

Modern Digital Signage

Tracing the Components

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.


Of course, in the early days, retailers had to hook up their VCR to a clunky CRT (cathode ray tube) screen. These were staticky, had reflective and glare-prone screens, and—as anyone who’s had to haul one upstairs to an apartment could tell you— tremendously heavy.

CRT screens have their roots way back in 1869[17], when scientist Johann Hittorf noticed that rays from a negative electrode seemed to be traveling in a straight line down a tube. Later, other scientists realized that these rays – streams of electrons – could be bent using electrical or magnetic fields.

But it wasn’t until 1907, when Boris Rosing used a CRT to create simple geometric shapes on a phosphor-coated screen, that the full implications of the technology were realized. 1907 marked the invention of television, and by 1934 German company Telefunken was selling the first commercially made TV sets. In the 90’s, the Japanese company Fujitsu brought the first commercial plasma displays [18] to the market. By 1997, they were selling at $13,000 for a 42” display.

While tremendously expensive, the large sizes of these screens – much larger and lighter than any CRT could be made – sent ripples through the budding digital signage industry.

Talk about eye-catching!

Today, anyone using digital signage to market their product or business typically uses one of these hardware screen displays:

  • LCD (liquid crystal display), which, put simply[19], involves a layer of liquid crystals sandwiched between two polarizing filters. An electric current aligns the crystals so that light either can or can’t pass through at each given point.
  • LED (light-emitting diode), which involve an array of semiconductors that emit light when a current passes through. They may be used as backlighting for a LCD display—but still, confusingly, referred to as LED screens—or by themselves. Think jumbotrons at sporting events. But recently the trend has been to use LED in an indoor setting.
  • OLED (Organic light-emitting diode), containing thin flexible sheets of an organic electroluminescent material, used for visual displays. An OLED display works without a backlight; thus, it can display deep black levels and can be thinner and lighter than a liquid crystal display (LCD).
  • Indoor, semi-outdoor, and outdoor screens are very different from one another, each with special technology specific to its intended environment. Indoor screens might have dustrepellent encasing, scratchproof, heavy duty, able to be on 24/7, cooling system, and more. A semi-outdoor screen is indoors, but still exposed to direct/indirect sunlight. The LED semi outdoor screens usually produce less light because there’s natural light in the room. Outdoor screens have special casing and specifications on how much light is omitted so you can still read it in direct sunlight (and continues working in extreme heat, cold, wind, etc…)

In some cases, projectors, consumer TV’s, and even plasma screens are used.

We’ll talk much more about hardware in Chapter 5.

Interestingly, the development of the LED and LCD happened in the same year: 1962.

Well, sort of.

The LED screen[20] 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[21]. Williams discovered that liquid crystals exhibited some interesting electrooptic characteristics. Unfortunately, Williams doesn’t often get credited for his scientific work with LCD, thanks to a man named George H. Heilmeier.

George H. Heilmeier[21], 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, Heilmeier claimed he “stumbled” upon the same discovery in 1964. At any rate, it was Heilmeier who developed the first working LCD screen in 1968.

Media Players

Media players were born when computers[22] were born, essentially. Media players were originally fullsized computers, and usually were hidden under an entire station casing so you’d only see the screen.

Today media players are much smaller and more compact.

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.

The early media players were very bulky. The first kiosks looked like telephone booths or caskets, because the processor was a full-scale computer hidden under the screen.

Later on, these “brains” shrank down to media players, about 5 by 7 inches— devices such as the Chromebox— which could sit next to or hide behind the screens.

These are still a very popular option.

There are other digital signage options for an “all-in-one” screen, which was a big trend a few years ago. With an all-in-one digital signage solution, the compact media player is mounted behind the screen or often within the casing.

However, this sometimes makes the screen thick and bulky, which isn’t aesthetically pleasing, and in recent years chip technology has entered the marketplace..


While we’ll be going into more depth on CMS in Chapter 6, a brief rundown would probably help you here.

You can categorize content management systems in two buckets, if you will:

  • A Cloud-Based Content Management System
  • A Locally Hosted Content Management System, commonly referred to as “on-prem” or “onpremise”

Here’s the difference:

  1. A Cloud Based Content Management System is software that delivers your content to remote players (like kiosks or interactive displays) via the Internet from an off-site server. The information is stored on these off-site servers, and streams your content to each remote player, no matter how many you have.
  2. A Hosted Content Management System also delivers content to remote players (like kiosks or touchscreens) via the Internet, only it’s delivered from an onsite server that is hosted and maintained by your company. This delivery isn’t able to stream your content to several remote players, unless they are fairly close to your on-site server, and scalability is typically more costly.

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 70’s, the software wasn’t far behind.

Today there are many digital signage software choices, all of them catering specifically to the niche requirements of the company and the needs of the end user.

At the very beginning, digital signage software was developed individually, for each installation, and hosted onpremise.

Software companies verticalized quickly, driven by industry changes.

For example, schools want digital signage that can double as an emergency alert system, and quick serve restaurant chains (QSR) want digital menu boards that will let them update content quickly and comply with FDA requirements.

Early on, digital signage software companies also positioned themselves as resellers for hardware. With digital signage, software isn’t the whole picture of the solution: you need the commercial display, wall mount or stand, media player, cables, and any other specific items.

Over time, though, many realized that the profit margin for selling software (80 to 100 percent) was much higher than the margin for hardware.

In 2015, for the first time in digital signage history, more money was being spent on software than on hardware, which once again had many companies re-looking at service models including content for the recurring revenue aspect of the model.

Around 2009, there was a shift in the other direction: Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) such as NEC and later Samsung, and others began to offer lightweight/simplified digital signage software alongside their screens and other hardware.

This was an attempt to drive adoption by making the process as simple as possible for customers, because many of them had confusion over what software to use with their signage.

Early efforts by hardware companies at making software resulted in “watered-down” but still functional products, while recent efforts have been much more refined.

Especially in recent years, there’s been a widespread migration to cloudbased digital signage CMS, which appeals to customers by offering infinite scalability, servers maintained by someone else, easy rollout, simple provisioning, increased security, fewer worries about hardware compatibility, and immediate software updates.

There has also been an onset of Freeware, which puts the CMS out there quickly with fee-based services on the backend, however these solutions are not designed to meet the needs of most enterprise businesses.

Where We Are Today: Old vs. New Uses

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. And see the consumerization of technology and its integration into their everyday business as just a cost of doing business to retain customers.

Early Uses

During its early days, digital signage and pre-digital video signage served many of the same purposes that that already-existing technologies did.

One of the first verticals to take advantage of digital signage was the retail industry, which to this day holds the largest market share[23] despite growth in many other verticals.

Among the early adopters was Loblaws, a Canadian grocery chain[10]. Their video-based signage system made its first appearance in 1984 They set up Sony TVs in their retail locations to play ads for the shoppers, but they also used the screens in back of house applications.

They were able to play training videos and display regulations to encourage compliance.

Of course this wasn’t digital signage as we would define it today, but a hobbled-together solution to engage their customers.

Another early use was within the transportation industry. Some of you reading like this might recall, with nostalgic familiarity, the click-clack of split-flap arrival and departure boards at train stations or airports.

First introduced in 1950’s[24], some of those displays are still in use today.

However, split-flap signs are prone to jamming and breakage. Digital signage proved a welcome innovation. First, split-flap boards were replaced with CRT displays, and later, these burnout-prone screens were swapped again with efficient LED arrays.

As for true digital signage, with multiple networked screens, one of the early large installations occurred in 1999. Over 100 plasma screens went up in a casino at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas[10].

These screens were shockingly modern in their use. Not only did they advertise, they engaged gamblers (their target audience) with constantly updating messaging designed to encourage more gambling.

The screens specified which machines had large jackpots on the line, among other things.

Again, early digital signage still wasn’t widespread. There were relatively few providers, and relatively few verticals interested in investing.

Overall, the theme of early digital signage was providing information. Ads, departure times, jackpot values… The information was simply there, on display, but without much customization or targeting.

At the time, that was revolutionary enough, but as time passed, consumers began to expect more.

Modern Uses

Though, as we’ve seen, digital signage has deep roots, the industry didn’t really take off until much more recently. Perhaps only in the last six years[14].

By “take off” we mean market penetration. Of course the technology has been around longer than six years, but the market penetration wasn’t keeping up with the digital signage industry’s appetite to innovate.

Innovation was faster than customer adoption.

The digital signage industry reached a tipping point in 2010 or 2011. DisplaySearch is a company that tracks various sectors of the display or screen market. Since ‘screens’ is such a broad term that includes cell phones, TV’s, computer screens: desktop, laptop, etc… the digital signage screen opportunity always looked like such a small opportunity when compared to other displays.

And it wasn’t until the commercial digital signage adoption was around 5 percent in the display market that the OEMs took notice.

Then major hardware manufacturers sensed that digital signage could be a valuable source of revenue and began making their own CMS to ignite further growth within the industry.

Other contributing factors were price and internet access.

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 considered early adopters.

But now, prices for hardware and software have lowered drastically, making it an option for many companies.

Since its early days, there’s been a huge expansion in the types of places you might discover digital signage.

Outdoor signage is bigger than ever. Now with outdoor-grade screens for better viewing, vandal-proof glass, and waterproof options for large screens, we’re seeing more and more digital pop up outside in LED and OLED. Sometimes with billboards, other times at stadiums, amusement parks, and public places.

Nonetheless, it’s there. The possibilities are endless. Small businesses[25] 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[26] at tables or that stand alone.

As that last example indicates, digital signage has spread beyond simply offering information. Today, the focus is increasingly on interactivity and engagement[7]. Since about 2013, there has also been a focus on interoperability of devices and integration of content platforms; that is, what’s been termed as the Omnichannel: having multiple types of screens, from tablets to video walls to cell phones, work together to tell a unified “story.”

Think about the example we offered at the beginning of the article about the digital denim kiosk.

It’s all about empowering the customer with the information they want to see. It’s about building a relationship between the customer and the brand—because digital signage is a truly powerful branding tool.

Remember that Canadian supermarket we mentioned earlier? Today, Loblaws is still experimenting in forward-thinking digital signage with the Concierge smart cart system[27]. It’s both a service and an experience, and it’s enabled by digital signage.

Here’s how it works.

Shoppers can prep shopping lists and make deli orders in advance on the retailer’s website. When the shopper arrives at the store, he grabs a cart and swipes his card next to the builtin screen. Up pops his shopping list— along with GPS-style directions to find each item.

It’ll notify him when he reaches each item, and when he walks past a sale.

Because the system has access to his loyalty card data, it can automatically offer him deals based on items he frequently purchases. There are also kiosks in various areas of the store that offer detailed product information and suggest recipes, which you can send to your phone or save to your account.

The system is fully integrated with existing programs, interactive, comprehensive (including multiple screens: on the cart, on the kiosks, and on the customer’s phone), and highly personalized. And that’s the direction digital signage is moving today.

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.

So what’s next?

With the onset of born-in-the-cloud software development and increasing IoT integration with digital signage means limitless possibilities.

  1. Automotive Industry in the United States, Wikipedia
  2. A Brief History of American Advertising, History Matters
  3. Why We Buy, Psychology Today
  4. Fashion Magazine Covers Were So Much More Glamorous In The 1950s by Rebecca Adams, The Huffington Post
  5. Understanding Pain Points by Karen Emanuelson, Reciprocate
  6. Brief History of the Internet, Internet Society
  7. Evolution of Digital Signage in Retail: Turning Customers IntoFans by Mike Tippets, Wired
  8. A Brief History of Digital Signage by Natalie Aranda, Ezine Articles
  9.  Videocasette Recorder, Wikipedia
  10. Digital Signage: Software, Networks, Advertising, and Displays: A Primer for Understanding the Business by Jimmy Schaeffler
  11. LaserDisc, Wikipedia
  12. The Evolution of Video Walls in Digital Signage, Digital Signage Federation
  13.  DVD, Wikipedia
  14. The History and Evolution of Retail Digital Signage by David Bawarsky, Digital Signage Connection
  15. Internet Explosion, The Free Dictionary
  16. Digital Signage,/a> Wikipedia
  17. Cathode Ray Tube, Wikipedia
  18. Plasma Displays, Wikipedia
  19. LCD vs LED TVs by Drew Prindle, Digital Trends
  20. Inventing the LED Lightbulb by Sarah Laskow, The Atlantic
  21. Invention History of Liquid Crystal Display, Circuits Today
  22. When Was the First Computer Invented?, Computer Hope
  23. Digital Signage Market Analysis By Technology (LED, LCD, Front Projection), By Application (Transportation, Retail, Corporate, Banking, Healthcare, Education) And Segment Forecasts To 2020, Grand View Research
  24. At Penn Station, the Sign No Longer Goes Clackety-Clack by Michael Dresser, The Baltimore Sun
  25. Location, Location, Location: Where to Put Digital Signage in Retail, Digital Signage Connection
  26. How Self-Service Kiosks Are Changing Customer Behavior by Gretchen Gavett, Harvard Business Reviews
  27. Retail Goes Digital by James Fraser, Canadian Grocer