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Expert Viewpoint: Digital Signage Trends

A look at where digital signage networks are headed in the future. 6/02/2009 8:00 AM Eastern

Expert Viewpoint: Digital Signage Trends

Jun 2, 2009 12:00 PM, By Ken Goldberg

A look at where digital signage networks are headed in the future.




Digital signage networks have come a long way from the days of manual content updates and limited insight into whether the signs were even being seen. Today's networks provide
assured compliance, rapid content updates, and accurate proof-of-play reporting.

Digital signage networks have come a long way from the days of manual content updates and limited insight into whether the signs were even being seen. Today's networks provide assured compliance, rapid content updates, and accurate proof-of-play reporting.

The digital signage industry has come a long way in the past several years. Technologies have matured; networks have entered their third, fourth, or fifth years of operation; and customers are educated and asking all the right questions. Still, room for improvement and growth exists, and a number of trends are converging to drive the evolution of this game-changing technology. Through the development of these trends, AV integrators will see an increasing number of opportunities. Having a handle on these driving forces will allow them to make proper choices for their customers. Before examining these trends in detail, however, it is useful to understand what digital signage is, what different applications are currently in play, and what elements of a digital signage network are most important for success.

Broad concept

In the broadest terms, digital signage is the deployment of IP-addressable digital displays for the purpose of sending targeted out-of-home messages and communication to identifiable viewers. This definition works for retail networks and nonretail spaces—such as hotels and medical facilities—and in specialized venues such as corporate facilities, educational facilities, and places of worship. In each instance, the ability to remotely plan and update site-specific or screen-specific content is essential.

An important driver of value in digital signage networks is the fact that the end points are networked and can be managed centrally. This is as true in a 1,000-store network as it is in a 10-display network in a corporate headquarters. That the end points are networked via some form of broadband and managed from a single location means that the days of sneakernet content changes (physically transporting removable media), spotty compliance, and limited visibility into whether the screens are even on or playing the right messages are behind us. The new era of networked digital signs provides for assured compliance, rapid change, customization of content at any level, near-realtime diagnostics, and accurate proof-of-play reporting. Each of these is critical to the achievement of return on investment, especially in an environment where advertisers are paying for display time.

Figure 1. A typical digital signage network would
include the media players and displays at the location, a central media server at a hosting facility, and the network's users at a corporate facility. All elements are connected by broadband.

Figure 1. A typical digital signage network would include the media players and displays at the location, a central media server at a hosting facility, and the network's users at a corporate facility. All elements are connected by broadband.

Key components of a digital signage network include a centralized server and software, media players, displays, and communications. Content, clearly a critical element in achieving the objectives of a network, is a subject for a separate discussion. A typical network configuration will look something like Figure 1.


Expert Viewpoint: Digital Signage Trends

Jun 2, 2009 12:00 PM, By Ken Goldberg

A look at where digital signage networks are headed in the future.




Server and centralized software

The centralized server will house a content library and host software that will typically have important functions including:

  • Enabling management of content and creation of player and group-level playlists
  • Distributing the content to players
  • Allowing remote administration of media players and displays
  • Managing communications between media players and the server
  • Collecting and reporting diagnostic data
  • Managing users.

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The server can be owned and hosted by the network owner (also referred to as an enterprise model), although this is typically only economical for either very large, geographically diverse networks or small, single-site networks.

A more pervasive model is the software as a service (SaaS) model, in which the server and software are owned and managed by a software provider and paid for on a per-media-player, per-month subscription basis that covers the cost of bandwidth from the server to the media players. The SaaS model has proven to be more popular for startup and growing networks, as it drastically reduces initial capital costs, reduces the need for IT personnel, and provides for predictable, scalable costs. Most SaaS software is accessed by a web browser, but some providers require proprietary client-side software for user work¬stations. SaaS models also allow AV integrators to offload technical support and training to the software provider so they can focus on the design and deployment of the physical network.

Media players

The media player is the device that provides the interface between the server and the display. The media player is typically an IP-addressable appliance or a small-form-factor PC. In each case, it is capable of storing and playing content, managing playlists, and providing a communication link to both the server and the display. Appliance media players will typically have the required software embedded by the manufacturer. PC media players may require the installation of player software prior to deployment. Key factors in determining the appropriate type of media player for a specific deployment include:

  • Reliability: Fanless players will have fewer failures than players with fans; some devices even offer a solid-state hard drive, eliminating moving parts altogether.
  • Operating system: Offerings will include Microsoft Windows, Linux, and Windows XP Embedded. Windows XP Embedded and Linux offer the most security and lower cost of ownership. Windows Vista or XP Pro may be fine for smaller networks.
  • Output: Media players offering multiple channels of output may be able to drive different content on multiple displays from a single device. The cards are expensive, and there is then a single point of failure for multiple displays. Single-channel output devices will require one player for each desired channel of output, but they can be outfitted with a signal splitter to drive the same content to multiple screens. Choices will depend upon the objectives of the customer and his or her budget.
  • Peripherals: Media players should have the ability to support a USB keyboard in case field service is required. They should also handle Wi-Fi antennae, remote controls, and other peripherals.
  • Storage: Most media players store content and playlists locally and play them directly from a hard disk drive. Others are more like set-top boxes and manage a stream of content from the Internet. While the streaming devices are significantly less expensive, the store-and-forward architecture is far more pervasive in large part because it does not require a persistent Internet connection to play content. Choices will depend upon the planned content strategy.


Expert Viewpoint: Digital Signage Trends

Jun 2, 2009 12:00 PM, By Ken Goldberg

A look at where digital signage networks are headed in the future.




Displays

At one time, display hardware was the most expensive element in a digital signage network. However, the sharp drop in display prices over the past two years has made the deployment of a digital signage network more feasible for many organizations. LCD displays have largely displaced plasmas as the standard for digital signage, eliminating worries about burn-in. Some things to consider when selecting displays:

  • Commercial vs. consumer models: Commercial models cost more but typically have a better warranty and life expectancy. Consumer models will always have a TV tuner (usually not needed) and loudspeakers. Commercial models will include monitors (no tuner, loudspeakers optional).
  • Video inputs: VGA will be compatible with nearly any media player, and digital inputs include DVI and HDMI.
  • Size: The bulk of digital signage networks run on displays in the 32in.-to-42in. range. For LCD displays, prices start to escalate as sizes increase past 42in.
  • Screen resolution: Most networks will not require the highest-resolution 1080p displays, as 720p resolution will suffice for their content types at a lower price with high quality. In the current environment, 1080p will only be required for specialized, full HD applications because most content being produced today remains at lower resolutions.

Communications

Connecting the media player to the server requires a reliable broadband connection. Prices for bandwidth continue to drop as alternatives proliferate. In some environments, the digital signage devices can piggyback on existing Internet connections. In others, network owners must decide how to enable connectivity.

Options include DSL, cable, satellite, and 3G cellular. Coverage, cost, and reliability will be the key factors when deciding which to choose. For geographically diverse networks, companies that offer managed networks encompassing several providers with a single bill, such as New Edge Networks, have proven popular, especially when aggregating DSL networks. Depending upon the environment, wireless access points providing a link from the player to a router may be a viable—or necessary—choice. Ensure that WEP or WPA security is supported by both the media player and Wi-Fi antenna.

AV integrators will play a huge role in the next phase of digital signage expansion. The ability of integrators to understand the elements of a digital signage network and the choices that need to be made will increase their value to customers. With capital deployment costs falling, more organizations will launch digital signage projects. Those who can provide expertise and consultation services will find this portion of their business expanding rapidly.

Ken Goldberg, CEO of Real Digital Media, is an expert in digital signage, retail technology, operations, and customer management. He can be reached at k.goldberg@realdigitalmedia.com.


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