As economies across Europe begin to climb out of recession, so the demand for digital signage solutions is expected to increase. Tom Bradbury looks at the latest developments in the market.
Believe it or not, the term 'digital signage' was unknown to most people - even those deeply immersed in the AV industry - fewer than five years ago. Now it is a key buzzword and refers to an area of display technology associated with publicly displayed content. In addition, large corporate organisations are rapidly getting in on the act.
Digital signage systems fall into three size-related areas of operation: small, local displays operated from a single, simple player; medium-sized networks of a few screens on a corporate or retail LAN; and massive national networks with full content download through internet or broadcast channels with complex reporting and logging capabilities.
Vendors too fall into three types, as Kevin Goldsmith, head of strategic partnerships at Remote Media, explains: "Historically digital signage businesses were chasing the whole pie. Nowadays you can see a clear shift where the same businesses are beginning to specialise and provide their services accordingly. We are no exception; we have gone from providing the whole solution directly to end users, to retracting from direct end-user business in favour of going to market through clear channels. We have dropped sales of hardware altogether to enable us to focus on the support and continued development of signagelive" - the company's web-based, software-as-a-service (SaaS) digital signage platform.
Digital signage was once the domain of a small band of specialised manufacturers, such as OneLan, C-nario and Scala. These have now been joined by some of the industry's largest AV equipment suppliers, including Samsung, Sony and Mitsubishi. Several display manufacturers have incorporated digital signage technology into their displays, simply by adding a PC module with relevant software.
Daniel Quitzau, sales manager for Mitsubishi Electric in Sweden, outlines the company's approach: "Play-Out producer handles the media creation, scheduling, content management, distribution and playback via PC display clients or over an IP multicast stream to a set-top box or VLC media player with direct contact. Instant changes are possible through synchronisation as new media is sent instantly through the network to all clients."
NEC has identified a sizeable market for digital signage in education. "Schools and colleges have the biggest communications problem of any 'business'," explains Barrie Guy, sales manager, public displays & solutions for NEC. "Digital signage is all about getting separate messages on screen at the same time. A typical digital signage screen will contain at least four message zones and in most cases will have many more.
"This requires a special kind of media player: a multi-message zone player and that's the fundamental building block of any digital signage system. The ideal solution is to have all the information displayed in its native format. Photos should be shown as slide shows; timetables may exist already as intranet pages and should be played as such, school news should be created and displayed as RSS news feeds and, of course, existing PowerPoint presentations should be played in their native format."
NEC, like almost all the screen manufacturers, has a home-grown solution for retail digital signage. However, the company also asked independent digital signage software manufacturer Sedao to create a system specifically for its education range of screens.
David Oades, managing director of Sedao, explains: "Schools and government departments really just want a Microsoft Windows application that gets over the problems of trying to use PowerPoint on digital screens for internal communications. They need multiple messages zones they can assign to different people, and they must be able to schedule messages and screen layouts at will and display information from websites. We produced ImageFlyer-Lite to meet the education brief for NEC and believe the combination of this with a low-cost screen carrying the NEC badge is immensely attractive."
PSCo, a distributor of video walls and large screens, has recently seen an expansion in the use of its products in digital signage applications. Technical manager Ed Martin comments: "More creative use of modular displays is beginning to translate through to signage applications, especially in boutique-type installations. Irregular shapes and aspect ratios are interesting and eye-catching, and because the content is usually bespoke it frequently makes better use of the available resolution."
Picking a platform
The vast majority of traditional digital signage systems use standard PC-based players as customised units or in some cases built into the screens themselves. This offers the obvious advantages of low cost, commonality of equipment and services, and ease of integrating web browsers, live TV feeds, database access and RSS feeds. New concepts available on PCs can be introduced to digital signage quickly and easily and, of course, everyone is familiar with PCs.
However, other platforms can be used, as in the Spinetix range of players and content creation. Serge Konter, Spinetix's communication manager, outlines the advantages: "Using a Hyper Media Player with solid-state memory instead of a PC offers significant advantages in reliability and power consumption as there are no moving parts and no maintenance overheads. We use the open standard SVG (Scalable Vector Graphics) that is common on mobile phones and is easy to program by designers at the web design XML level of skill. This allows the player to be used as an intelligent IP device that will access and present any sort of material as required. With this type of system we span all levels of networks, from a single-screen, right up to an internet-enabled national network of 1,500 screens."
Broadcasting the benefits
Large broadcast equipment manufacturers - including Grass Valley, whose products include MediaEdge, a networked distribution and display system - are also developing their own digital signage. Ray Brooksby, product marketing manager at Grass Valley, comments: "We have tens of thousands of digital signage receivers deployed to major retail chains in the US, and for these, the most cost-effective distribution uses broadcast techniques: creating and compressing video content and delivering to targeted stores over satellite, cable or IP networks. At that sort of penetration level, the total cost of intelligent PC-based players above set-top boxes (STB) over a whole network is significant. Also when you think that the power comparison for a PC over an STB is around 50W per sign, running costs are considerably lower."
Another broadcast company active in this sector is Harris Corporation, which produces the InfoCaster system. "Digital signage systems are rapidly moving from being technology experiments to the much larger deployments that are required for effective message delivery," says Denise MacDonell, director and general manager of digital signage for Harris. She describes how the company's tools enable DOOH advertising to be targeted: "Punctuate manages the scheduling and placement of advertising and promotional content for digital signage networks using Synchronized Multimedia Integration Language (SMIL) protocol. This allows network operators to break away from looped content to capture the attention of an audience by scheduling signs based on display attributes, including target demographic or time of day."
While broadcast systems have an advantage when it comes to the widespread distribution of content, the availability of bandwidth on the internet has facilitated the distribution of high-resolution content sufficient to satisfy most applications. Live video content is becoming a strong requirement within digital signage solutions.
Carsten Steinecker, managing director of AV distributor COMM-TEC, says: "Mixing live TV and messages provides a freshness that draws viewers in. Roku's BrightSign Live Video Module allows playback of live TV with image advertisements displayed around it using multi-zone screen layouts. Live TV playback can even be interrupted with recorded video to make it more effective."
Convergence with other technologies is also occurring. AV Stumpfl has extended its Iseo building automation controller range to include digital signage applications. "It is a software toolkit in which the application layer is standard IP network via Ethernet," explains Andreas Huber, project engineer at the company. "A database manages the distribution, control and playback of streaming, file-based transfer or database communication to remote displays through local Iseo devices so that common devices can be used for building control and automation as well as digital signage. It is becoming popular in many applications, including shopping malls and corporate buildings."
Contracting Solutions New Media uses standard Microsoft tools in Mod-Vision. Damian McCracken, the company's project manager, explains: "Tried-and-tested tools such as the Microsoft IIS server linked to HTTP distribution mean that we can supply familiar technology that is known to work reliably. It is an ideal application platform for digital signage with the addition of a scheduling playlist and group and sign targeting. Its ability to work with Flash means that signs can easily be made extremely eye-catching."
Web-hosted digital signage systems are also appearing in software services being offered by companies using their servers to transmit content to remote players. Goldsmith offers an example: "signagelive is perhaps best described as a media logistics engine that allows full creative control of your layout. It has a Media RSS editor so that users can overlay an image with text and add effects. A remote player talks to the hosted signagelive servers using the internet as the transport mechanism and pulls the content down, so there are no user set-up costs other than the actual equipment. Once the media has been received by the player, a cyclical redundancy check handshake confirms that the media and playlist information has been received and is playing back."
Scala also provides this service, as outlined by Andrea Waldin, vice president of marketing: "SaaS- and Premise-based networks have the same structure, the difference being where and how the content manager is managed. In our most hands-off SaaS offering, customers log in via the web and manage their content. In our hosted model, Scala hosts the content manager, but the customer manages all aspects of the device remotely. In a Premise-based network, the content manager is locally hosted by the customer."
Adam Wilson, European sales manager for digital media at AMX, says applications for digital signage abound for his company: "Primary sectors are corporate, financial and public. There is also a heavy focus on education, retail and transportation. Twenty-first century digital signage is a fantastic blend of AV and IT. Therefore all parties need to be well-versed in computing and IT solutions. The implications are that the client must ensure the manufacturer and installer understands these IT requirements from the outset and has a suitable product portfolio to offer these technologies."
As network bandwidth expands and broadcast transmission streams become more efficient, it is likely that digital signage technology will evolve yet further - largely to encompass new applications and core networks.
Quitzau adds: "Streaming on the internet is not a true multicast stream as it requires progressive download from a server. True multicasting transmits the stream constantly through the media server. What we will see is developments in IPTV through mobile broadband. Today we already use multicast streams in our Play-Out signage system, and 4G mobile broadband, with a possible speed up to 1Gb, will be very interesting for digital signage applications."
Finally, a word on the future from Waldin: "I believe that once the economy turns around, digital signage will take off. People are not going to go back to the old advertising methods that failed them in the past. They will be looking for new ways to reach their audiences."