In the third part of our Ask an Engineer series in which engineers talk shop with other industry experts, we spoke with Roger Diebold, a mechanical engineer and CEO of Solchroma Technologies.
Solchroma is a venture-backed company that builds full color, reflective digital displays for the smart and sustainable cities of the future. Their hardware offers the only non-LED digital tech that meets advertiser standards for color quality.
Like Azumo, Solchroma’s approach to reflective displays is focused on color quality, energy efficiency, and usability in all lighting conditions.
What is Solchroma working on?
We’ve been taking stock of our surroundings. There are so many devices and surfaces that glow, but few actually reflect light. Otherwise, the world is full of surfaces that reflect light. Reflectiveness is natural.
We realized this is a human preference. And this core understanding inspired the concept for a new kind of reflective display that generates really vivid color. We also saw a need for modernity and the creation of more dynamic surfaces, starting with large areas located outdoors.
Solchroma’s liquid-based displays currently target large area applications, including outdoor displays which perform particularly well in bright light conditions.
Our system is so vivid because we organize our pixels efficiently, removing the elements that create inefficiencies in how light moves through our device. The display works by pushing different amounts of ink in front of a reflector to create bright colors on demand.
What are the most common challenges with large format digital signage today?
Virtually all large-format digital displays are made from LEDs, which are bright enough to compete with the sun. That said, to consider any technology for a large format digital display, there are a number of factors that matter. Three that come to mind are…
- Color fidelity, which leads to image quality
- Light pollution and permitting around light emissions
- Energy budget
There’s a long-standing need for reflective, full-color digital displays, particularly in the billboard industry. They have to be high quality when it comes to color because if your sign’s color output isn’t good enough to accurately reproduce an advertiser’s branding (Coca-Cola, for instance), they won’t sign on. For light emitting displays, the light output must be powerful enough to compete with all levels of sunlight without losing image quality.
Today, most billboards rely on powerful emissive signs – almost exclusively LED displays – that are infamous for contributing to light pollution. But until recently, no competitive technology could touch LED color quality and overall performance outdoors.
This is where reflective displays stand out: reflective technology is almost inherently lower power than emissive displays outdoors because sunlight is free. When the sun gets brighter, reflective displays get brighter.
With Solchroma’s displays, we’re pushing ink around to reflect light rather than generate it in the first place, while making efficient use of the ambient lighting to create compelling color When lighting a reflective display at night, it doesn’t take much external illumination, and far less energy compared to what a similar LED display requires.
There’s been interesting branding around LEDs as “energy efficient,” but that is when compared to incandescent bulbs, which is absolutely true. However, the hundreds of thousands of LEDs it takes to illuminate a 14’ by 48’ billboard at a thousand LEDs per square foot require tremendous amounts of energy. It’s the equivalent of powering multiple US households per year. In this type of high density arrangement, LEDs emit heat that makes them less efficient.
What reflective displays bring to this discussion is tremendous power savings relative to traditional LED panels.
Do people care about how much power billboards use?
That depends on who you talk to. In locations where energy is more expensive and the power grid is less reliable, sign operators care a lot more about power consumption.
However, the cost of energy to run American billboards is often dwarfed by the revenues that come from operating an LED sign.
For example, if you can get an LED sign on a major highway, the revenue can be huge – 10 times what you’d get with a static sign. If you’re collecting revenue for a rotation of six to eight ads per day with targeted content, $10,000 in energy costs for the year look like pennies.
What is the biggest motivator for digital sign designers to move to reflective display technology?
Signage is a very polarizing and often controversial arena to play in because folks want a say in what their community looks like and usually have strong opinions.
We often hear that residents don’t want their city or town to look like Times Square or Las Vegas. But today, the only tech available for digital on the large scale is LED. Once they’re installed, these displays last many years.
That said, the vast majority of outdoor signs are still static, in part because LEDs are not easily permitted, stemming from light pollution concerns. Solchroma provides a vivid full-color, reflective solution for digital – a more community-friendly alternative to LED displays that are both lower-power and aesthetically more natural, having a printed look. And these are qualities that matter to communities.
What should engineers keep in mind when considering including a reflective display in an outdoor setting?
The size of the sign, its location, and the direction the sign will be facing upon installation are important considerations when it comes to frontlit reflective displays.
There’s a lot of situational dependence. Whether we’re talking about a storefront sign or a roadside billboard, you should think through what other lights will be around and what the typical viewing distance will be. This will help you select a sign that’s the right size and brightness for your target audience.
Think of it this way: a pedestrian viewing a sign from three feet away will have a different experience of the same sign if they were to drive past it on the interstate at 65 miles per hour.
For nighttime operation, you must consider how much light you’re actually projecting onto your display, the color temperature of the front light, color gamut, volume, and display contrast ratio. These factors fold into how your sign will look in the environment, and how much the display will stand out from its surroundings.
What would you like to tell engineers about what’s possible when it comes time to select lighting for an outdoor display today?
The world is more digital every day, and there are a lot of benefits to going digital when it comes to signage because of targeted content. Billboards that have the ability to change the ads being displayed based on the speed of nearby traffic are already in the market.
This means that engineers need to know what display options are available so that they can spec in technology that will deliver a flexible, personalizable experience to advertisers that also has a minimal impact on the surrounding environment. The type of lighting, its light output, orientation, how well it is shrouded, and other factors may also affect the permitting process.
With digital, there’s no longer a need to pull down and remount another piece of printed vinyl every month that will ultimately end up in a landfill. But it’s also no longer necessary to rely on obtrusive and highly directional LEDs if you want digital capability.
It takes far less energy to light a reflective display in low light than any of the other billboard options available today, and everyone benefits from this decreased energy consumption. And given the widespread concerns of light pollution caused by emissive LED displays, it makes sense that the market is moving toward reflective outdoor display solutions.
To find out what reflective display solutions can do for you, contact us to discuss your options.