Shining a light on next-gen solar digital displays

 In Commentary, Industry, Technology

Limited infrastructure deployment and real-time integrated content management drive Papercast® and Waysine® to success in a competitive market.

The traditional argument that stifles sign deployment is the cost of installation. You must run power, and you must run networking, install poles, and pour concrete. The process requires a lot of planning and lead time for construction and installation. The effort—let’s be honest—is a pain—especially in those areas of mature development with limited space, restrictive codes, and the need to balance aesthetics with line-of-sight simplicity. According to our 2019 Transit Agency survey, 39 percent of transit operations state they lack the resources to install signs.

If you think about it, it’s not a lack of the desire to deploy digital signs at stops and stations. It is not about understanding the benefit. Instead, the project’s complexity often sees transit signage slide down the list of priorities.

Solar changes the equation

The interest in solar is growing, with 61.9 percent of transit agencies expressing at least moderate interest in adding these displays to their service. The ability to purchase and hang a sign wherever you wish and have power handled solely by the sun and connectivity managed through cellular data is a game-changer in the sign market.

The solar angle is the most specific part of the digital sign equation. Can you see the sky from the desired placement of the sign? If you answered, ‘yes,’ solar power is a viable solution.

Even in areas where cloud cover is frequent, solar-powered displays are still a viable solution. It doesn’t take much exposure to sunlight to charge internal batteries that provide days of backup for weather events. Most quality solar panels can even charge with low to moderate sunlight.

Forget the complex installations. It’s just “hang and go” for most deployments.

Content management

The simplified nature of deployments thrusts digital signage back onto the main stage as a primary communication tool for transit agencies. What about enhancing the passenger journey to provide additional information and resources about that stop, route, or community?

  • Follow the next bus on an interactive map.
  • What’s the weather forecast?
  • Check out the new restaurant that just opened down the street.
  • Scan this QR code to take a survey about your transit agency.
  • Attend the neighborhood garage sale on Thursday.

These and other options become a reality when you have the right content management system (CMS) driving your signs. There are many opinions on what constitutes a content management system. At the minimum, all that is required is for Software A to transmit data to Signs A, B, C, and so forth. To truly unlock the capabilities of your new solar-powered signage, you need a modern CMS that’s up to the challenge of adapting the information on your displays at a moment’s notice. What factors make up a modern, robust CMS?

In our view, a proper content management system delivers the following capabilities:

  • A WYSIWYG content editor
  • Module-based layout designer
  • Support for image and video
  • Schedule and playlist creator
  • Network connection for real-time data
  • Real-time sign diagnostic utility

The final requirement is that the CMS must be able to integrate into an agency’s intelligent transit platform. The last thing any dispatcher needs is yet one more screen and one more place to go to make necessary updates to their system.

One-click access from within the ITS.

Papercast® content management dashboards

 

New solutions provided by Papercast® and Waysine® seek to answer the deployment question.

Papercast

Papercast signs are a unique offering in the solar-powered display market. Driven by a robust content management system, their line of e-paper signage is available in multiple sizes, portrait and landscape orientations, and has impressive energy-saving capabilities.

Papercast® sign lineup.

Climate-friendly

Powered by 20- or 40-watt panels, these rugged displays have been engineered to work in all climates and a wide range of sunlight conditions. From a “green” standpoint, Papercast® displays consume 3.3 times less power than other e-paper solutions on the market; they require 24 times less power than similarly sized LCDs and 32 times less power than amber LED 4-line signs.

Robert Bicket, CEO of Papercast: “With sustainability in the spotlight, cities worldwide are working hard to tackle urban congestion and pollution. Increasing public transport usage plays an integral role in this. Transport authorities and operators must have the means to deliver accurate travel information at the point of travel in the most sustainable way. At Papercast, we have developed electronics engineered to provide industry-leading power efficiency – this means they can be solar-powered and operate on batteries longer than any other display technology.”

Installation

We have found that the Papercast® displays are incredibly versatile in installation. Using standard mounting brackets, they easily mount to walls, poles, and stop or station shelters. The connection of these signs to the included content management system requires only a 4G/LTE antenna connector.

In addition to solar panels, UPS power or external battery packs connected to standard power supplies are also options. This flexibility streamlines deployment and removes the hassle of installing Papercast® e-paper signs throughout your service.

Papercast® signs are designed to be theft resistant.

Waysine

Located in Oahu, Hawaii, Way Sine provides a full suite of signage options, delivers a different take on solar-powered digital signs, and typically favors high-visibility LED signs in most situations. Business Development Manager AJ Harper weighs in with a use case approach. “The choice of which digital sign option to choose,” he says, “is about knowing which sign technology is suitable for a specific stop or situation.”

“Every sign manufacturer has its take on digital e-paper solution. They’re very much en vogue, but they’re not always the best option,” Harper adds. “Sometimes the ‘sign on the stick’ delivers the best value and achieves the biggest impact.”

Harper is quick to point out that digital LED and e-paper have scenarios where they excel and those where they are limited.

Waysine® LED bus stop sign

Energy Efficiency

Way Sine designs all of its products from the ground up to be ultra-low power with 15- or 25-watt solar panels, based on display size and 40 Ahrs of battery capacity (minimum of 10 days with no sun). Using this innovative design power consumption is relatively similar regardless of e-paper or LED display type. This design further translates to near negligible power consumption with AC/Grid-tied power configurations.

Vandalism / Theft / Maintenance

As Way Sine is strictly a transit-focused company, we understand that vandalism in all its various forms is inevitable. There are many ways to combat, capture, and dissuade vandalism. First and foremost, all Way Sine systems are designed to be modular and easily serviced to quickly repair when damage occurs in the field. Where possible, they encourage agencies to place signage in locations that are out of arm’s reach. We’ve designed our components to be IK08 or greater. With several known instances of cars running over LED signs, the agency remounts the pole, and the sign continues as if nothing happened. As Way Sine has thousands of signs distributed throughout North America, theft is inevitable. As a tool to capture those instances, Way Sine embeds GPS tracking into all of their signs, thus ensuring ease of recovery by local authorities. Cleaning off graffiti and debris from outdoor exposure is quick and easy and can be conducted using appropriate cleaners based on the removed substance.

Audio / ADA compliance

All Way Sine signs include standard audio capabilities, with visually impaired/blind riders being a key consideration. Sine has focused on using motion sensors as the primary trigger for audio announcements instead of industry-standard buttons. Motion activating the audio allows anyone to approach the display and be alerted to critical information without physical contact. This configuration also reduces maintenance costs associated with worn-out or damaged buttons.

Through various display technologies, Way Sine tries to guide agencies toward ensuring ADA-compliant text on all critical data elements. With our LED technology, all text is the same size and fully ADA-compliant at appropriate mounting heights. As E-Paper technology is a more graphically focused display technology, some sections can comply with ADA standards and those which do not.

LED digital displays

LED signs do a great job conveying high-visibility stop names, bus information, and arrival times. They are also easy to install. “It takes longer to set up the ladder than it takes to install the sign,” Harper quips. Most Waysine LEDs use existing infrastructure and standard mounting hardware and install in less than 10 minutes. LEDs are also more suitable for cold weather conditions, with temperatures as low as -40°F.

On the downside, they have limited capabilities for elaborate and often complex content management.

E-paper displays

These displays do an excellent job of replacing large television displays and providing visually appealing content. Their content management systems are robust and provide many ways to arrange the information on a screen to maximize impact.

These systems are more modular and, in most cases, require installation at eye level to be effective, which opens up the possibility of damage and vandalism.

Questions to ask before selecting a digital display technology:

Placement questions:

  • Is the area for the sign prone to vandalism?
  • Is it a low visitation, infrequently used stop?
  • Is there surveillance infrastructure in place?

 Purpose questions:

  • Is the stop high visibility or a ‘prestige’ station that requires greater attention to aesthetics?
  • Is the sign supported by other displays or signage?
  • Does the display require better graphics to deliver information?
  • How important is it that the sign deliver ADA compliance?

“We strive for simplicity with sophisticated solutions,” says AJ Harper. “Riders shouldn’t struggle to get the information they need to feel confident with their transit service, and agencies shouldn’t struggle to deploy these solutions for their riders.”

Closing thoughts

Advancements in display technology have opened up a world of options for presenting content and turning signs into revenue-generating and value-enhancing options for transit agencies. Solar-powered digital signage can be a practical, cost-effective, and climate-friendly way of providing passenger information at stops and stations. The barriers to adoption are minimal. You don’t need to run wires for power or a network. You don’t have to install new poles or mounts. Installation takes minutes.

If you have thought about pursuing solar-powered signs, what factors have kept you from flipping the switch? Chime in with your thoughts in the comments.

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