How To Set Up A Digital Signage Network
Real-life lessons learned in the digital signage trenches.
Mike White (left), CTS, owner and CEO of Multi-Media Solutions Inc., Knoxville, TN., is shown with Gerry Dickey, assistant athletic director of football operations at the University of Tennessee Football program. Dickey served as the point person from the end-user side on this digital signage project, articulating his department's needs for the new Hall of Fame. White worked closely with Dickey to arrive at an innovative solution that exceeded the customer's expectations.
Frequently bandied about by potential customers and systems integrators alike, “digital signage” is a common buzzword these days in the pro AV industry. But despite its growing popularity, the term is as blurred as “multimedia” was in the early 1990s.
For this article, we'll define digital signage as the delivery of desired content to specific audiences at the right time. While this definition may seem overly simplistic, the implementation of a digital signage network is anything but. In fact, successful design and implementation of such a network requires knowledge of more technologies and supporting tools than just about any other AV project.
As a systems integrator, how do you know if digital signage is right for you? First, you'll need to build trusting relationships with long-term accounts. Because digital signage projects often require a leap of faith, you'll also need strong references to help skeptical customers overcome fear of the unknown.
For more than 15 years, the University of Tennessee (UT) in Knoxville has been a solid customer for Multi-Media Solutions, a full-service AV systems integrator, also based in Knoxville. Its recent project at the University of Tennessee's Football Hall of Fame provides a good framework to illustrate the four phases of any digital signage project. Let's take a look at how to set up a digital signage project step by step based on this detailed case study.
Phase 1 — discovery and definition
Because digital signage projects are only as good as their foundation, the discovery and definition phase enables you to build a solid one. Diligent, patient work early on in the process will separate you from the competition. At this point in the game, don't be surprised if your customer pushes back. In fact, most will consider the battery of questions necessary to determine realistic goals laborious, and will undoubtedly underestimate the time required to adequately define the scope of their project.
Remember, like many AV projects, it's not that unusual for digital signage jobs to have a six-month to one-year development timeline. To help guide you through this phase, it's important to develop a solid list of discovery questions (see the sidebar on page 34).
On UT's Football Hall of Fame project, Multi-Media Solutions used this checklist to help the client, Assistant Athletic Director of Football Operations Gerry Dickey, fully understand the project. More importantly, it allowed us to develop written documentation that would ultimately serve as project specifications.
On this particular job, discovery and definition revealed an outdated TV/VCR system that played looped video with no centralized control with some of the CRT displays in a non-functional state. We established that Dickey wanted a system that could showcase a live game-day experience with a live feed from the stadium. It was also important that the university's investment have the ability to be reused in a different format in the future. In the meantime, Dickey wanted to modernize the space, provide centralized control of the audio based on a visitor's presence at a kiosk, and offer interactive capability. Early action items identified included replacing all CRT TVs with flat panels and providing a networked system of digital signage players for which the campus media department could provide content and supplement on demand.
One final consideration to keep in mind while working through this phase is that most digital signage projects will not be located in the same region. For this reason, it's critical to identify potential locations and determine the logistics of how you will support the installations, which could span different time zones.
Phase 2 — design and engineering
Once you've meticulously identified the customer's goals, you're ready to identify system components and determine initial budget numbers. Never offer such numbers until you have completed Phases 1 and 2. Also keep in mind that it's important to use the term “investment,” not “cost” throughout the entire project, because this term more accurately conveys the customer's commitment to the project and suggests a return on investment. Speaking in terms of cost downgrades your AV firm's value and expertise, putting you in the same boat with box-oriented competitors.
CONTENT MANAGEMENT SYSTEM EVALUATION CRITERIA
- What type of content can your system support and play?
- What flexibility and scope does your scheduling package have?
- How do users create content on your system?
- What connectivity requirements are there for your system?
- Can your system handle direct input for live sources and how?
- Can your system be interactive (touch, voice, or presence)?
- Can the software interface with existing databases? If so, which ones?
- What level of hardware and software security does your system support?
- What are the hardware requirements for players and servers?
- How are the individual players licensed or sold?
- How is the server licensed or sold?
- What are the limits of number of players a single server can manage?
- How many layers or zones will your systems simultaneously support?
- What are the costs associated with your system?
- Who are some of the people using this software and references?
- What types of reports are available from your system?
- How can I get specific confirmation of content played out of your reports?
- How thorough of training is offered for you and your team?
- How is your team structured to support the dealer?
- How does the manufacturer support customization (open code, etc.)?
- Does the manufacturer sell direct? If so, under what conditions?
- Will the manufacturer support your marketing effort?
- What trade shows do they attend, and how do they present themselves at these shows?
- Does their software provide templates for content?
Following marching orders established in Phase 1 on the UT project, I wrote up a request for proposal (RFP) and submitted requests for quotations to a couple of digital signage content management companies I felt would cost effectively meet all of the requirements. After reviewing their responses, I decided that Keywest Technologies, based in Lenexa, KS, provided the best value solution for the customer and secured a written quote from them. This step resulted in a clear and concise solution from the company, using its Media POD as the platform for playing content. From that quote, I now had the foundational hub of the digital signage network. Next, I used a digital signage network template to ensure that all of the major components were included in the proposal. The next step was choosing a content management system.
With so many excellent systems on the market today, this step can be somewhat overwhelming. While all packages differ slightly in the way they handle content and the types of hardware they support, all can be used to create an effective digital signage network. The real key is to identify the specific requirements of your customer's network, and select the system accordingly. As in the discovery phase, it's beneficial to prepare a list of questions (see sidebar on page 38) for all manufacturers under consideration to help you develop a master grid of feature and performance characteristics.
Pay special attention to the building's AC power, making sure it's “clean,” clear of line noise, etc. Factors like these must be a part of the written assumptions outlined in your quote. Make sure to optimize air flow over every component as heat is the most common cause of hardware failures. Take special care to put in extra ventilation fans and make sure you're choosing quality components that are designed for 24/7/365 performance or whatever duty cycle you end up going with.
No matter how well you've designed the system, always remember that content is king. If your customer isn't fully committed to fresh and pertinent content, the network will inevitably fail.
In the UT Football Hall of Fame's case, content was available from years of media coverage of the university's football team and its players. But volume isn't enough. There must be someone who's responsible for making sure that relevant content is refreshed in a timely fashion. The commitment to create and deliver good content will be essential to long-term success and return on investment in every digital signage deployment. As the systems integrator, you'll typically need to teach the client how to wisely use this content.
The University of Tennessee Football Hall of Fame kicks off its new digital signage system, designed and implemented by Knoxville, TN-based integrator Multi-Media Solutions, by offering visitors interactive access to the team's glory days.
Credit: Mike White
As with most AV solutions, every digital signage installation calls for some level of customization. The UT project was no different. Through discussion in the definition and discovery phase, it became apparent that the audio system wouldn't only have to be highly directional, but would also need to automatically activate the audio program only when someone was physically in front of a kiosk. Additionally, the customer requested that the audio volume gradually ramp up and down. As a pro AV systems integrator, custom requirements like these shouldn't be avoided or ignored. Rather, they should bring music to your ears. Custom requests provide an opportunity to demonstrate your qualifications and earn your customer's trust.
DEFINITION AND DISCOVERY QUESTIONS
To help guide you and your customer through the discovery phase of any digital signage project, it's important to go through a series of questions to help fully define the work at hand. Systems integrator Multi-Media Solutions, Knoxville, TN, used the following questions to establish clear goals in the University of Tennessee's Football Hall of Fame project. Answers to these questions eventually served as a set of guidelines and specifications for the project through the bid, implementation, and commissioning processes.
- What are your short- and long-term goals for your content?
- Who will be your champion to ensure good content?
- Will your network include advertising or sponsorship?
- If yes, what validation of content display do you need?
- How often do you need to change content?
- What content do you have, and can it be repurposed for the network?
- What results are you envisioning from the use of your content?
- Will you be integrating any live content (i.e., live TV broadcast, RSS feeds, etc.)?
- Will you need scheduling flexibility? It's a good idea to project the number of unique channels or messages.
- How many people or locations will need to control content?
- Will any of your content be HD now or in the future?
Environment & Hardware Security
- Where will these networked digital signage players be installed?
- Is the environment secure? Are there any safety concerns?
- What are the environmental conditions?
- Is there access to the displays and players?
- Any special consideration for installation?
- What are the points of attachment to infrastructure? Is there a need for reinforcement?
- Is electricity available? What about the stability of supply? Is the space clean and free of noise?
- What about ambient lighting and sound conditions?
- What network connectivity (wired, wireless, or sneaker net) will be necessary?
- What about proposed bandwidth?
- Is fixed IP available?
- What's the contact name for network administration?
- How secure is your network, and how secure does the content have to be?
- How many locations are we talking about — initially and long term?
- Determine the size and number needed.
- Must they be interactive?
- What's the duty cycle (24/7/365)?
- Types of displays needed.
- Current type and number of existing displays to be integrated.
- How far away or how close will each display be viewed?
- Do you have any specific décor considerations that must be taken into account?
Command & Control
- Need for display management (off – on).
- Feedback for proactive service.
Budget & Timing Considerations
- If possible, try to find out their thoughts on the total budget.
- Ask for installation timing expectations.
- Access times to facility for installation. Many digital signage projects will require after-hour or late-night installations so you'll need to consider overtime for your team.
- Will you need any sound, or does your content support sound?
- Will you need directional sound?
Training & Commissioning Considerations
- How many people will you need to be trained on the systems?
- When can they be trained?
- What are your expectations for training of new employees?
Background & Experience
- What experience, if any, have you had relative to digital signage?
- What organizations have you worked with relative to signage?
- Is there anything I should know that we haven't discussed?
- In a perfect world, what's your ideal digital signage network?
At this point, you shouldn't proceed without a financial commitment from the customer, ensuring that there's enough money in the budget to build the customized network as designed. Regretfully, many pro AV systems integrators fail to have this serious “reality check” discussion, giving customers a last chance to change the scope of the project, and plow on through the bid process. As hard as it is to face, this is the time to determine if you should proceed with the project.
Phase 3 — integration and implementation
Assuming that you successfully steer yourself through the bidding process and win the bid, you can count on the fact that your customer will want the project completed in an accelerated time frame. Inevitably, the minute you finish the design phase, the customer expects instant installation. But those of us who have been in this business long enough know the fun is just getting started. Now you get to turn paper into practice. More than at any other stage in this process, you must be realistic with your time estimations and clearly communicate with your customer. You can almost guarantee it will take longer than you expect as you encounter areas that put your integration skills to the test.
One typical obstacle in this phase can be overcoming connectivity challenges. In the case of the UT Football Hall of Fame, the network had to be implemented in an area where hardwire connectivity was impossible based on infrastructure. As a result, we had to design wireless network connectivity. In addition, the team had to work around valuable and irreplaceable football memorabilia that required extreme protection. Because many of the items were under lock and key, technicians and application engineers had to coordinate with the university's security department before performing work. This also required coordination with the school's network administration to secure proper reliable network connectivity with fixed IP addresses.
The actual network of 11 separate digital signage players was made up of Keywest Media PODs with customized application software to support proximity detectors and highly directional loudspeakers from American Technology Corp. Because we were working with existing cabinets that served as the hosting kiosk for our new screens, we ended up purchasing the right sized screens with the right functions from different manufacturers. Most of the screens in the UT Football Hall of Fame are LG Electronics flat-panel displays, ranging from 42-inch plasma screens to 23-inch LCD screens. Samsung 24-inch LCD screens with touchscreen overlays from Elo TouchSystems, Menlo Park, CA, were also used in one area to provide customer-requested interactivity.
Just as important as the selection of the right components and management of the network, however, is the quality of the installation. It's essential that installers have, as a minimum, completed training programs through industry associations such as InfoComm or NSCA. That means they'll not only have the physical skills they need to accomplish your professional installation, but will also have the mental aptitude to alert you to challenges that present themselves as the project progresses — challenges that could have long-term negative effects on the installation.
Another element that influences the outcome of any digital signage project is location. Remember that the geography footprint of any digital signage network might best be served by working with other pro AV systems integrators in different regions that will support your installation design parameters. In the case of Multi-Media Solutions, the company is a member of the USAV Group and uses its national footprint to deploy services in specified areas. Although this adds another level of complexity to the project, it's in the best interest of your customer to provide local service when possible.
Finally, remember to take pictures throughout every stage of the project. They just might save you money down the road. Many times, when system failure strikes, comparisons from digital pictures will reveal the challenge doesn't lie in the components or your installation. If you've kept good “as-built” photos and drawings, you can save yourself a lot of money in unpaid consulting and repair fees.
Phase 4 — commission, follow-up, and support
Near the end of the project lies another final challenge — getting paid. Unfortunately, because many systems integrators don't properly define the completion of the installation, they struggle to get paid. The key to closure and commission of a digital signage network is properly communicating in your contract, what your customer should expect. In reality, when you've completed your installation, the last and final phase is just starting — one of evaluation, fine-tuning, and adjustment. In other words, now's the time to transition into your long-term support contract.
In UT's case, completion was defined as the point at which all of the kiosks were operational, supporting the content that was provided, and all command & control functionality, which included the ability to turn on and off all of screens on demand and change content on each digital signage player at will, was in place. By initiating a long-term service and support contract, Multi-Media Solutions generated a recurring revenue stream, and, after almost two years, developed another great reference.
Due to the nature of digital signage projects such as this one, it's important to have several traditional AV projects in various stages of development and revenue generation in order to maintain a sustainable cash flow situation. Alternatively, if you don't do your homework up-front and methodically work through each stage of setting up a digital signage network, you'll more than likely join the ranks of hundreds of integrators that have tried digital signage and lost their shirts.
Mike White, CTS, is owner and CEO of Multi-Media Solutions, an integration firm based in Knoxville, TN. He can be reached at email@example.com.