AV, IT, and Digital Signage are Different


Sit back and relax for a moment. This discussion is about the evolution and paradigm shift in technologies and applications. Our focus is on those of us in the design and integration communities, and how digital signage is ultimately different from both AV and IT, while still embracing parts of the other two.  This is about the differences in each practice (i.e., the objectives) that are not covered in the overused (and often misapplied) term convergence.

At some level (in part) AV, IT, and digital signage have converged. A plethora of articles have been written about the “need” for technologies to converge.   When most of us think of the term convergence we think of what Merriam Webster offers as one definition: “It is the merging of distinct technologies, industries, or devices into a unified whole.”  With this thought in mind, I suggest that while AV and IT frequently work in unison at the infrastructure level, they have not completely converged and will never fully do so. They are certainly tangential to one another with varying amounts of overlap. The point is that they are distinct in their objectives and work processes. Let’s begin by looking at AV and IT as industries and groups of technologies.  

Historically the pro AV industry has focused on technologies, products, and systems, typically including:

  • Displays and mounts.
  • Audio and video production / reproduction.
  • Signal extension and management.
  • Control systems.
  • Unified communications.
  • Cabling, connectors, mounting, and racks.
  • AV furniture. 

The AV industry writ large is responsible for the creation, transportation, display, collaboration, and communication of information to the intended audience. The goal of AV integration is to give clients a full range of total solutions from which to pick, and then make the operation and communication of audio and video seamless.

The growth we see today is directly linked to the expansion of the internet and IT networks, interfacing with all the software and hardware in a digital world. From the 1980’s to the mid 1990’s, the professional audiovisual industry was driven by individual technologies installed in an environment, but typically isolated in scale and scope. Since 2000, the commercial AV industry has been driven by expanding communications, sharing of data, and introducing collaboration and interactivity, both internally and externally. This is where IT comes into the picture (pun intended).

One IT subject matter expert suggests an inclusive definition; “Information technology is the use of computers, storage, networking and other physical devices, infrastructure and processes to create, process, store, secure and exchange all forms of electronic data.” The Harvard Business Review introduced the term information technology to make a distinction between purpose-built computers designed to perform limited functions, and general-purpose computing machines that could be programmed for various tasks.

IT now embraces an array of technologies and related disciplines. The foundation of IT is still basic computer-based information systems, including computing hardware, operating systems, application software and the data that is processed to produce useful information. Over time, each of these IT components and functions has become more complex, embracing ever-growing subsets of technologies and methodologies. Also, IT no longer just happens locally; cloud computing environments now complement and even replace on-premises resources of the traditional data center. All these developments have made IT more complex and required greater specialization and new roles and responsibilities from the IT workforce.

IT creates, manages, and services the “backbone” of where AV often exists. To me, the most appropriate way to look at the relationship of IT and AV is one of symbiosis. As the Oxford dictionary states, symbiosis is “a mutually beneficial relationship between different people or groups”. Of course, there are IT people who can take on AV centric projects, and AV people who are familiar with IT… but the work processes and responsibilities are different. To be honest, there are some (but relatively few) IT people who are expert in AV, and vice versa. I can already sense the emails of disagreement coming my way! Without fear of contradiction, what can truly be said is that IT and AV are codependent.

Hopefully the different and overlapping roles in AV and IT are clearly stated… but where does digital signage fit in to this discussion? Isn’t this just a subset of both AV and IT? The correct answer is a firm yes, and an equally firm no. Certainly digital signage uses displays and media players to convey the message and they also use networks to connect disparate displays. So, in this simplified sense the answer is yes… but in a bigger overall perspective, digital signage is different. In a conversation with our own digital signage expert Jonathan Brawn with his DSF, DSEG, and AVIXA hats firmly in place, he noted the following, “AV is technology driving the experience whereas digital signage is the experience driving the technology.” Yes!

At the heart of digital signage is the content. It is famously said that content is king… but we would add the word “relevant” to this statement, because content just for the sake of content does not do the work that that the digital signage network is intended to perform. It may be advertising based, trying to sell something or improve a brand identity, or it may be informational in nature (i.e., corporate information, wayfinding, emergency notifications, etc.) and part of a mainstream communication platform. The key consideration in all of this is the objective of the content. This establishes the parameters of the viewer’s experience. It is the content that is the behavior modification device, enhances the experience, and promotes a positive reaction to the call to action.  

If you look at the constituencies of AV, IT, and digital signage they are different. In commercial AV there are manufacturers, distributors, integrators, and consultants… plus end users who make up the core of the industry. In digital signage, we see a broader and more intertwined constituency making up the digital signage market. Here are some examples:

  • Hardware and software manufacturers.
  • Distributors.
  • Designers and consultants.
  • VARS and Integrators.
  • Content creators.
  • Advertising firms.
  • Investors.
  • Network providers and operators.
  • Maintenance and service providers.
  • End users.

Only a few years back, less than 25% of commercial AV integrators considered digital signage a major part of their core business. While this is evolving (read that increasing), and some companies have an increasing focus on digital signage, the AV industry overall still lags. Keep in mind that both the AV and digital signage industries are growing at approximately 10% each per year and forecasted to perform at that level for the foreseeable future.

As we all know, InfoComm and ISE are the 800-pound gorilla trade events of the commercial AV world. At the association level a few years back, there was a name change from InfoComm to AVIXA to recognize the experiential nature of the convergence of AV, IT, and digital signage. A name change alone is not sufficient. What is needed is a paradigm shift in thinking. As most know, the trade show for the digital signage industry, the Digital Signage Expo (DSE) closed their doors due to the pandemic in the fall of 2020. This has left a void to be filled. The uninitiated will simply say “go to InfoComm!”, but I suggest it is not quite that cut and dried.

The reason for the DSE was that it provided a welcoming home for the full constituency of the digital signage industry. It was never a huge show, but it was 100% focused on the participants in the industry. If you attended, you knew exactly what the show and attendee focus was.  Wrinkles and warts aside, it felt like an annual get together of likeminded individuals not unlike what InfoComm feels like to the AV integration and consultant community. Having been there and done both for many years, I can say with no fear of contradiction that this is the case.

The good news is that AVIXA has verbalized openly that it intends to create that welcoming atmosphere of the former DSE beyond the simple addition of a booth or pavilion. They know that it is not either/or but additive. AXIVA, along with the Digital Signage Federation (DSF), are collaborating on creating a “home” for the full constituency of the industry. The benefits of this can be significant. To be successful the proverbial devil is in the details, and this remains to be seen. What I do know is that the intent is there on the part of AVIXA and the DSF.  InfoComm will embrace digital signage in a more significant manner. Invitations will be sent, and we will soon see the results. Patience is the key, and it will not be immediate… but I for one place my bet on this being a success.

Hopefully after this exploration of the objectives of each group you see that AV, IT, and digital signage are not fully converged as some would have you think and I suggest that this is not a bad thing. In significant ways they are distinct. Each group of technologies and practitioners have their own role to play. Of course, in many ways they are tangential and symbiotic but (yes…) different and they need to be treated as such.