In our first article in our Digital Signage Series, we look at the basics of digital signage and how to get started.
Mark Anderson | AVSystemsMag.com
What is Digital Signage?
Before delving into the details of how to get started, let’s take a look at what falls under the digital signage umbrella. Digital signage is a generic term for pretty much any controlled playback of visual digital content. Typically, digital signage is used in advertising and informational applications that were traditionally realized using print. Digital signage is often given a different name depending on its particular application. Common names included “narrowcasting”, “location-based media”, “digital out of home (DOOH)”, “screen media”, etc. Applications include:
- Digital Menu Boards – common in quick service restaurants (both indoor and, increasingly drive-thru’ applications)
- Advertising - billboards
- Information Kiosks – way finding, travel planning
- Internal Communication – corporate communications, health and safety, performance metrics
- Retail Point of Sale/Brand Promotion – special offers, product spotlights
- Architectural/Decorative – mosaics, artistic applications
- Public Information – news, weather, sports, stock prices, flight arrivals, etc.
- Service – queue management, service offerings
Typically, digital signage comprises a number of displays with dedicated players connected via a local or wide-area network. The latter could cover a campus, a few local stores, or an entire global enterprise. Each player will be fed content from a central server or content management system (CMS). The central server could be located in-house, but many vendors now offer cloud-based solutions via their Software as a Service (SaaS) offering.
While the above is representative of many digital signage applications, an installation can range anywhere from a simple looping player running from local storage (no server) to a 70-foot video wall such as the one just installed by Financial Times at New York’s Grand Central Terminal
or the 100-screen, 627 square foot behemoth at McCarren international airport in Las Vegas
Unlike print, digital signage allows content changes as frequently as required. In addition, rather than having to manually change content, most products support dynamic content. This allows content form databases, etc. to be updated in real-time. Many products are also beginning to encompass social media and RSS feeds. There are even mobile applications (trains and buses) where signage changes based on the current location of the vehicle, so as a vehicle approaches a neighborhood, advertisments for local businesses are displayed. This not only allows passengers to see more relevant content, but lowers the cost of advertising (as multiple advertisers can split the cost of an entire bus-route, for example) for businesses while increasing ad revenue. For example, if the cost of advertising on a route for 1 month is $5,000, this could be sold to 10 business at $750/month each, totalling $7,500. Suddenly a business that could not afford to advertise can now do so, and the advertiser increases its revenur by 50%.
We’ve seen some very high tech, and let’s face it, some very expensive applications and examples, but many users have much lowlier needs. The entry level in digital signage would typically be a simple looping player that plays a continuous loop of static images and text. Think “digital picture frame”. A user would create a simple set of images (or slides) that convey the required messages. These would then be played back in a loop throughout the day. A digital picture frame; tablet PC (iPad, etc.); or PC with slide production software (e.g. PowerPoint) are good examples.
While this would work for a simple, non-critical application (e.g. advertising or messaging), shortcomings soon come to the fore. It quickly becomes tedious to produce new images because some text changes. Depending on the software application, you may or may not be able to control how long each images display. And wouldn’t it be useful to display different messaging at different times of day? For example, advertise breakfast specials in the morning and lunch specials after 10:30am. What about hot-chocolate on a cold day and refreshing smoothies on a hot afternoon?
Digital Signage Players
The vast majority of digital signage applications use a purpose-built player. This can be a software application that runs on a PC, or a dedicated media appliance. Players (or media appliances), such as those from Noventri, BrightSign and IAdea are available for under $500 and frequently include free authoring and server software. Alternatively, authoring software is provided as part a SaaS solution for a small monthly fee.
While it may be tempting to use a regular PC with a software player (there are many PC-based players on the market), there are many good reasons not to. Dedicated players are often solid state devices. That is, they have no moving parts: no fans and no disk drives. This has several benefits:
- Quiet – if nothing moves, there’s nothing to make noise.
- Reliable – electronic components fail, but mechanical devices such as fans and disk drives have much higher failure rates, especially in less-clean environments and under extreme temperatures. If there’s no fan, there’s nothing sucking in extra air that may include dust, grease, etc.
- Low Power – these solid state devices generally consume as little as a few watts. Compare this to a small PC that typically consumes about 80w. That’s quite a saving on electricity over the course of year.
- External Device Control – many dedicated players support (at least) RS-232 signaling and VESA power control. This lets the player do simple things like power off the monitor when there is no content (for example, when a store is closed) or change input sources on a schedule, etc.
The next question is whether to use a Windows-based player. My preference for simple applications is not to. I don’t want to have to buy the license, deal with Windows updates, security patches, viruses and lose valuable system resources to unnecessary software. A purpose-built PC-based player may well run an embedded version of Windows that has a lot of the unnecessary stuff removed, but security and frequent updates are still a headache. A player should be more of an appliance than a general purpose PC.
Even though the player may be PC-free, a PC (or other computer) will be required for content authoring, scheduling and player management. If a local server is used, this will typically run Windows or Linux or may be a dedicated appliance.
In the next article in this series, we’ll talk exclusively about choosing a screen and why you should pay a little extra for a commercial grade vs. consumer grade display that you might pick-up at your local Costco or BestBuy. For now we’ll look at basic things like size and types.
For counter-top displays, something like a (well-secured!) iPad or other tablet would be suitable. For wall-mounted displays, flat-panel LCD’s are the most popular. Most players will be equipped with VGA and HDMI or a DVI-I port (which can be converted to VGA or HDMI). A digital signal (DVI or HDMI) is definitely preferable, especially at higher resolutions, so forget VGA for most applications.
Clearly, screen size will be determined by the distance from the viewer and the size and amount of content. Remember everyone doesn’t have 20/20 vision and shouldn’t have to put on reading glasses to read to your message. In a digital menu board application, where the menu is typically behind the counter (10-15 feet away), type needs to be at least 3/4” high (54-point @ 72dpi). This is quite subjective and also depends on the content and legibility of the sign. Uncluttered, high contrast, sans-serif signage can use smaller type than a low contrast, busy sign with a serif font. A good test is to view your sign from 15-feet away for an application such as this.
What if you want multiple screens? As we’ll see in the next article, many professional screens offer video loops, so the same image can be displayed on multiple screens. While this is one solution, the chances are that the second screen is some distance from the first. This means buying expensive, long-run, video cables (and possibly splitters, baluns, extenders, etc.) and having to run them between the screens. With a player costing less than $500, it’s a much better proposition to install a second player to drive the second screen. This will allow the flexibility of displaying different content and will probably pay for itself in installation savings alone.
Connecting it all together
So we're going to be buying a number of screens with dedicated players, the next thing is figuring out how it all connects together. This will be determined by two main factors:
- Is it a single site?
- Are you using a SaaS (or other cloud-hosted) solution?
A simple, single network solution with a local server might look like this example from Noventri. Here, a single PC is used as the authoring tool and the server. The content can either be deployed to local storage and run without the server, or can be updated from the server periodically.
A SaaS solution (such as the one below from BrightSign) may look like this.
Here, the players and content are managed using a browser-based application and the content is deployed via the internet to the local players. For a multi-location application, the diagram would be the same. Each player would be in a different location.
With a local server and multiple locations, an installation may look like this Noventri example. Here, the server is located in a central facility and each player connects via the internet to get its content.
We’ve put the cart before the horse a little here. Before we can choose any players and network infrastructure, we have to determine what the content will be. If you plan to stream high definition video or integrate social media, that’s going to have an impact on your product choice and network infrastructure. In simple applications, there are three steps to creating content:
- Create the assets (images, text, video, audio)
- Create sequences (play image 1 for 10 seconds, then video 1 for 30 seconds, then images 2 thru' 10 for 10 seconds,. Repeat.)
- Scheduling (play breakfast sequences from opening time until 10:30 and then lunch sequences)
Some key factors to consider are:
Most players on the market support common image formats such as jpg, png, gif, but if you need to play video and audio then a player and CMS that supports your desired format (such as H.264 or Flash) is required. Live, high definition video places a considerable burden on the network, so this needs to be taken into consideration when designing the solution. If you want to re-use content designed for the web, you might want to consider a player that supports Flash and/or HTML5.
Single or Multi-zone
For many applications, you want your application front and center, filling the entire screen. For this, a single zone palyer is adequate, but there may be occasions when you want to display multiple zones on the same screen. For example, you might want live TV in one zone, your messaging in another and a news ticker in a third.
In addition to supporting multiple zones, you may want the content in each zone to be linked. For example, when the content in one zone changes, associated content (possibly related advertising) needs to be displayed in other zones.
Dynamic content can be anything from frequently updated information (special promotions, discounts/prices, flight arrivals, etc.), to database content or RSS feeds and social media feeds (e.g. Tweets and Facebook posts). This is one instance where the choice between a local server and a SaaS solution may be determined by the content. Most SaaS solutions support dynamic content but only as RSS feeds or Web Services (which produce XML). An IT department with no XML skills or older technology may not be able to supply data in XML format. Furthermore, security consideration may rule out punching a hole in the firewall and the risk of exposing sensitive data to the outside world.
Before embarking on any solution that uses dynamic content, it’s important to gain a clear understanding of the format of the source data, how it will be updated and how it needs to be delivered to the server/player. A local coffee shop wanting to adjust their menu items on a frequent basis may be much better served with a simple Excel sheet than to use a database editing tool or open the designer software to change items and deploy an update. Another good example is a visitor board. Instead of training three receptionists (and temps) on how to update the visitor board using creative tools, it would be much easier to give them a simple Excel or CSV file, or better still, enter visitors in a calendar system such as Outlook and have the signage software query the calendar for visitors' names.
For informational applications, you may want to include some kind of interactivity. This needs careful consideration and planning. On the face of it, it seems like a great idea to let a consumer interact with signage to tailor the experience to their needs. Consider an environment where there will be may people viewing the sign at the same time, such as a map of a shopping mall. While it would be great for a visitor to get personlized directions to Sears, what about the other five people who want to see how to get somewhere else? What was envisaged as a helpful tool becomes a frustrating bottleneck. Such problems are not insurmountable with multi-gesture displays, but this requires interactive design expertise and increases cost and complexity to the solution.
Scheduling is one of the key reasons to move to a dedicated digital signage system. Although applications like PowerPoint allow the ability to set how long slides play for, it’s chalk and cheese compared to a digital signage application. With a digital signage system, a playlist is created and each component of that playlist (a media asset) is set to play for a given duration. More advanced systems can create new pages on the fly based on the amount of dynamic content and others can synchronize content between zones on a multi-zone player or even different players, which is essential for video wall applications where multiple players are required.
Besides allowing playlists to be created, most signage software allows different playlists (or sequences) to be scheduled. For example, a quick service restaurant could have a three menu boards and a fourth screen that rotates through specials for each meal. From 6am to 10:30am, the breakfast content would be displayed. From 10:30am to 3:30pm, the lunch content would be displayed and from 3:30pm to close, the dinner specials would be shown. In digital signage, this is referred to as day parting.
The screen shot below shows Noventri’s scheduling tab. Here, different sequences (playlists) can be scheduled on different players (or groups of players).
Once a signage application grows beyond a locally-visible screen, it’s critical to be able to see the state of all players and to deploy both firmware and content updates from a single location. In addition to managing players, you may need to control access to certain functions (e.g. player updates). To meet these requirements, most applications have player management functions.
The screenshot below shows Noventri’s management tab. This allows the user see the state of all players, preview its content and interact with the player.
If you sell any advertising on your signs or want performance metrics, some kind of reporting tool will be required. We’ll cover this in a dedicated article.
To SaaS or Not to SaaS
Many vendors now offer SaaS solutions. We’ve already touched on some instances where SaaS may be precluded, but in many cases it’s an attractive proposition. The main advantages of SaaS are:
- Free software upgrades – the hosted service is always at the latest release. (Many non-SaaS providers give the design and server software away, so this may be moot depending on the system you buy.)
- No software to install – the software is accessed by a web browser (in most cases), so anyone with an account can login.
- No server hardware requirements – the SaaS provider supplies the server infrastructure.
- Access from Anyhwere – it’s in the cloud, so you can get to it wherever you have internet access.
- Easy Multi-Location Expansion – it doesn’t matter if you have one location or ten: deployment is the same.
Like most things, there are downsides too:
- Dynamic Content – this typically has to be provided as XML (RSS or web service) with SaaS solutions, which typically means an IT project for everything.
- Security – when signage is used with sensitive internal data, security is likely to be a concern.
- Flash – many of the SaaS applications are written in Flash, so you can forget managing it from your iPad or a secure environment that prohibits Flash installation.
- Usability – web-based applications are frequently inferior to native applications when it comes to usability. That’s certainly changing with HTML5 and current versions of Flash, but designing a web-app that is compatible with a myriad of web browser version is no mean feat.
Whether you’re a small business looking for simple advertising or a digital menu board; or a huge multi-national looking for a global network or a 100-screen video wall, there are solutions that fit. The entry price of purpose-built systems is extremely affordable and anyone with basic computer skills could put together a digital signage solution with a few hours of learning.
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