Back when I was a kid, if you had asked me what the year 2010 would look like, my mind's eye would have conjured up images of flying cars, jetpacks and taking all of my meals in pill form. But here we are bringing up the tail end of that very year, and instead of living like the Jetsons, I spend a lot of time trying to convince my digital gadgets to do what I want. In the imagined future, Rosie the robot maid could do the laundry, vacuum the house, cook dinner and still have time to make a sassy quip as she rolled along. In the real future, it takes a small miracle to make a clear VoIP phone call or get video to play properly on my iPod.

What does this have to do with digital signage? Well, when the DPAA announced their standard advertising units for DOOH ads, they sought to address the very problem I mentioned about my iPod: certain devices and content formats just don't mix. To combat these problems, manufacturers come up with "standard" formats, and tell content creators to author their content to a precise spec to guarantee it will play back properly. However, when standards lack sufficient detail, they don't solve the problem. Rather, they mask it by giving authors the impression that they have enough information to make a compliant file, when in reality they don't. For example, the meat of the DPAA standards is summarized in this table:

Ratio Dimensions Codec Bit rate
16:9 1920x1080 MPEG-4/H.264 AVC 20 Mbps
4:3 1440x1080 MPEG-4/H.264 AVC 20 Mbps
9:16 (Portrait) 1080x1920 MPEG-4/H.264 AVC 20 Mbps

While my personal take is that these files sizes are somewhat constricting, I understand that the DPAA's goal was to create as small a set of standard sizes as possible. Starting with big files allows network managers to scale them down if necessary, without taking a big hit on quality. However, from a technical standpoint, this standards table leaves out some extremely important pieces of information that a content author would need to know before producing a compliant file. For example, are MPEG-4 and H.264 treated identically by the player? (H.264, also known as AVC, is actually Part 10 of the MPEG-4 format.) If using H.264, must the file comply with one of the 17 standard profiles? If so, which one(s)? And what kind of file container should the audio and video be placed in? Quicktime MOV? MP4? Something proprietary like DivX? And is that 20 megabit bit rate a maximum, minimum or average? Is the bitrate constant or dynamic?

As you can see, there are a lot of boring but important details that a standard such as this needs to include to be truly useful. In fact, that's what we found out a few years ago while putting together POPAI's standards for screen media formats (PDF).

Getting noticed

Fortunately, the technical shortcomings of this document can easily be addressed, and the DPAA has asked for feedback before the standards are published in final form. Getting the standard adopted is going to be a bigger challenge, though. We've found that even advertisers eager to give DOOH a try can be reluctant to go out of their way making custom content for the medium. Fewer still will bother checking to see if there are standard formats to follow. Thus to me, the DPAA's much larger challenges will be (a) making the creative folk aware of the organization's existence and mission, and (b) getting a copy of the content format standards in front of them. This is no small feat to be sure, especially when you consider that Madison Avenue's best and brightest will only produce a small percentage of the content, with the vast majority being created by many, many much smaller firms around the world.

Clearly, standards are important. When adopted, they can go a long way toward streamlining previously inefficient processes and fostering interoperability. But to do that, they must be technically accurate (and complete), and they must be known to those who ought to be putting them to use. As it stands, the DPAA's standard ad units document still has some shortcomings to address in terms of accurateness and completeness. That's more or less a one-time thing. But once that's taken care of, they're going to have to figure out how to get the word out to not just the big agencies, but also the smaller shops and one-man operations who will produce the content destined for these screens. I sure hope the DPAA likes herding cats.

Does the DPAA (or anyone else) have a shot at gaining wide adoption for their ad unit standards? Will you be taking the time to provide feedback to the DPAA about how the standards could be improved? Leave a comment below and let us know!

By the way, if you haven't filled out the 2010 pricing survey yet, please do so -- and pass it along to your friends and colleagues. It'll only take a minute!


+1 # 2010-11-29 20:27
Great article. Some great facts and info as always. I think everything can improve as times constantly change and products can improve to help the users more.
+1 # Joshua Lyosn 2010-12-08 15:08
I don't know what can be done about the standards but hopefully everything will come together pretty soon. Also, I want to fly around with a jet pack too. Hopefully they get that worked out as well.

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