For many organisations, digital signage is becoming mission critical – meaning that poor performance or failure cannot be tolerated. At the heart of the system is the media player and here, Ian McMurray asks the industry for tips on choosing the right one
Whether digital signage is deployed to enhance brand awareness or to provide useful knowledge – any failure is at best embarrassing and at worst, damaging. An in-store screen that’s either blank or with broken video reflects poorly on the brand.
It’s perhaps a harsh judgement, but in many of those cases, better decisions at the outset would likely have helped avoid them. There are many choices to be made in designing and deploying digital signage, but few are more important than the choice of player. That choice isn’t just about brand name. It’s about size, performance, operating system, functionality, upgradability and reliability to name but a few considerations. Choices there will determine the type of player – local, server-based or cloud-based; purpose-designed or generic; free-standing or built-in; Window, Android, Linux or embedded. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. As with any AV system, question one is to define the objective – and here, as elsewhere in the industry, content is king.
“Before considering which media player to purchase, you need to understand the type of content that will be displayed across the network,” believes Jeff Hastings, CEO of BrightSign. “Those requirements will largely dictate the sort of player required for that particular installation.”
The primary consideration has to be the content being displayed
“The primary consideration has to be the content being displayed,” agrees Andi Allan, senior design engineer at integrator Reflex. “The platform choice needs to be driven by that. Is it pure media playback, media playback combined with additional operations such as analytics or even interactive touch applications which demand the highest level of performance?” asks Ulf Greiner, senior product manager, solutions at NEC Display Solutions Europe (pictured below, right). ��Different applications have different requirements; some applications focus on sharing information, some offer a bidirectional communication through touch screens or sensor integration. Demand varies widely.”
Answering these questions, he says, makes it possible to define the level of computing and graphics power that will be required.
“It’s important to understand the needs and the purpose of the solution to determine the right system in terms of CPU, power and graphics performance,” agrees Minouche van den Berg, who is marketing manager, Europe for AOPEN.
There’s more, however, to the content decision. At the heart of every digital signage system is a content management system (CMS), each with its own unique functionalities. Having identified the nature of the content, the next task is to identify a CMS that will meet the need. Some content management systems support only one or more specific players or operating systems, while some are available for a broad range of others. In other cases, the CMS and player are sold as an integrated bundle.
However, the choice of CMS may depend on, for example, the operating system needed to host it. Windows, for instance, offers enormous flexibility and versatility, and a single PC might host applications beyond the CMS – making it highly cost-effective for a small business. But: the blue screen of death is a potential downside.
“Most users have seen a blank screen or an error message at some point and want to avoid this,” says Jenny Hicks, group head of technology at distributor Midwich. “I find there is still a lot of distrust for players using Windows for this reason. Linux has a good reputation for reliability, and Android is now gaining trust too.”
I would always recommend thinking of the future. For example, it makes total sense to specify 4K because even if you don’t need it immediately, you undoubtedly will in the near future
Hastings believes that resilience in the player operating system is all-important.
“Once the scope of content is well understood, it’s important to seek out media players that are specifically designed to drive digital signage,” he believes. “The player’s operating system should also be considered. Choose one running a dedicated operating system, made for commercial-grade operation – not a consumer operating system like Android or Windows which are susceptible to hacking and error screens.”
No less important, according to many, is to invest not only for today, but for tomorrow.
“I would always recommend thinking of the future,” continues Hastings. “For example, it makes total sense to specify 4K because even if you don’t need it immediately, you undoubtedly will in the near future.”
“Support of UHD content is now a must have,” agrees Hicks, “with most retailers creating content at higher resolutions for higher impact.”
It’s not just about resolution. Something else that those deploying networks will be very aware of is how digital signage is developing. At the outset, it was all about attracting attention and grabbing eyeballs: now, the Holy Grail in many digital signage environments is to engage consumers. That leads to considerations of how the content should encourage and allow interaction – whether via touch, Bluetooth communication with mobile devices or, increasingly, AI-driven cameras that can help the signage deliver content relevant to each specific viewer. Many content management systems provide support for these advanced functionalities – but the underlying hardware needs to as well.
“Interactive features are a close second to support for UHD,” continues Hicks. “We’re seeing examples of impressive voice and mobile app-controlled signage installations requiring only a network port but, for the nearer future and the less IT literate user, USB, GPIO and RS232 remain key for the imminent boom of interactive content.”
“Modularity is a key feature, allowing performance levels to be upgraded as future, more power-hungry applications demand,” he says. “Performance levels are increasing fast and the availability of new technology creates new opportunities. The introduction of a display concept allowing users to modularly integrate Raspberry Pi compute modules into displays allows applications with super-low power consumption at a comparatively low price point.
“The modularity allows the upgrade of the performance level in a few years’ time whilst keeping the monitor operational.”
For van den Berg, it’s important to remember that a digital signage player is not just any computer, or a DVD player sitting under your TV in a very benign environment.
“The environment in which the player will be installed is a key consideration,” she believes. “Is it an industrial situation? Or a clothing store which can be dusty? Then you need a solution that is specifically designed for challenging environments. And, with interactive touchscreens, you will need a screen that is capable of resisting customers using it. Furthermore, there’s a difference in players for indoor and outdoor usage, standalone or built in to a kiosk and so on.”
“Commercial grade devices for commercial environments are the best fit,” she concludes. “Our devices, for example, are designed for 24/7 operation even in the toughest locations.”
Van den Berg also notes the importance of features such as tamper proof functionality and remote management.
Design for high availability goes hand-in-hand with design for high reliability – a subject close to Hastings’ heart.
“I would strongly advise on picking a player without a fan,” he recommends. “A fan is a moving part and therefore has the potential to fail. When it does, you probably won’t realise until the entire device overheats and breaks down. The fan itself requires power, which generates additional heat – and, in fact, they are not an essential part of electronics if the device is designed properly.”
Hastings is also an advocate of SD cards for local storage for the buffering necessary to protect against potential vagaries in the delivery of content via the network.
A well-cooled device can be installed in almost any environment. But there are other installation considerations that are perhaps as much to do with the aesthetics of an installation as its practicalities.
“Another consideration is how the player will be powered – and I’d highly recommend using an efficient player that offers power over Ethernet (PoE),” Hastings explains. “The convenience of PoE is quite significant; the ability to run a single cable that not only powers a device but also sends content is a great advantage. Not only does the lack of power outlet reduce the overall installation cost, but the raw cost of Ethernet cabling is less than the cost of traditional AC wire.”
That’s not the only approach to minimising cable clutter, however, as Greiner points out.
“A player that is embedded into the display means external power sources, cabling and additional mounting systems are obsolete, resulting in a neat and efficient signage solution,” he says. “That can be an important consideration for modern interiors needing a minimalist appearance.”
Power consumption is a recurring theme when talking to the industry. For one or two players, it’s perhaps not so much of an issue – but for substantial networks, even small reductions in player energy usage can add up to substantially superior cost of ownership.
When it comes to choosing a digital signage player, prospective buyers are faced with a plethora of sometimes bewildering choices. Making the right choices – or, at least, making well-informed choices – at the outset will go a long way towards minimising heartache at a later stage.