You go to a restaurant. You order for your favourite food but it would take some time for it to be prepared and served. So, you casually look around. There is a huge display in the wall which is placed slightly above your normal viewing angle that catches your attention. The screen is divided in to three parts. There is a stock market ticker and latest news feed in the bottom which keeps moving from left to right (in a text box), there is also a weather forecast/ local/interesting info in the right hand half of the screen. And on the left half, there are advertisements on cell phones which keep rotating. You were thinking about buying a lesser priced cell phone, but one of the higher priced advertised model looks very interesting to you. You decide to check out both, when you go to the shop. Then the food arrives.
You were watching the display from a centrally controlled digital signage solution, which was installed in the hotel to keep the customers engaged during the waiting time as well as to provide some Out Of Home advertising. These Plasma/LCD terminals are normally owned and centrally controlled by some ad-agencies and hotels may also earn some additional revenue by putting them up in their locations, depending on a lot of factors like location of the hotel, category of people visiting them, the number of people visiting them etc. There are other applications to the Digital Signage solution like corporate communications, emergency messages, Out Of Home advertising, In-Store advertising, Public Information, Movie theatre advertising etc.
What is a Digital Signage solution?
A digital signage solution is a mass but targeted media channel which enables companies and organizations alike to communicate and promote their brands/products at places where they expect their target audience to congregate. The basic components of a digital signage solutions are: Content server (where the content is created, organized and distributed), Media Player/PC (from where the content is played to the screen), Display device(s)(from where people can view the content) and a communications network (through which the content is transported – like Internet). Digital signage can take any of the following form :
¤ Single Screen/ Single Zone display
¤ Single Screen/ Multi Zones display
¤ Multiple Screens/ Multiple Zones display with same content on all the screens
¤ Multiple Screens/ Multiple Zones display with different content in different screens
Here, ‘screen’ refers to the display unit like Plasma/LCD terminals etc, and ‘zone’ refers to an area of the screen (Single zone refers to full screen and multiple zones refer to multiple streams of content on the same screen each in its own allocated sub-region of the screen).
Individual components of a Digital Signage solution:
New content is always organized, created and distributed from here while the actual content is stored and played on the Media player.
First, content need to be created. If there is a huge network of display devices across multiple locations, it is imperative to decide what needs to be shown in those display devices. The content can be in any form like text, flash images, graphics, animations, IPTV, video, sound, interactive etc.
Many Digital signage vendors offer specialized software to create content in the format that can be understood by the media player and displayed in the display devices. The designer module comes with many clip art images, stored images and video, background templates etc, to help create professional looking content. They also allow the users to create text boxes where text can be scrolled, they help in partitioning the screen and letting the users decide which size fits which application. In fact, many such software’s help provide content from external sources like RSS feeds, weather reports, stock market quotes and other content. A lot of features like auto scaling of content for different screen resolutions, auto rotation of content/ads, portrait/landscape display, full screen effects/transitions etc are supported by them. They even allow real-time editing and updating of the content without interruption to the running media.
A Content server is provided by the vendors in the form of software, which runs on servers. They are the centralized source from where the content is organized and distributed. They can even distribute multiple channels of data – each stream with different content to be played at a particular group of the displays (based on geography etc). It allows the users to schedule content based on time tables. So, the users can decide which stream of content is played where and when and whether it should be repeated after a point of time etc. It helps create play list like routines in the case of media like video, flash images etc.
The media servers can take control of the input/output devices independently at each point of playback and each point in the network. So, remote monitoring and administration of individual devices is possible from the content server. Some vendors support back-end database integration (Like MySQL etc), for better organization of content.
A media player is an optional appliance/ PC (software based) which is placed near a display device for 24×7 playback of the content/media received from the content server. One advantage of using a separate media player is in applications where separate content needs to be played at different display devices. If all the display devices are going to play the same content, then streaming of the content from a single content server over the network would be a cost effective option. But a media player gives flexibility and redundancy (during network connection failures) where the previously stored content can be played once again.
The media player can be deployed individually (with a single display device) to play the MPEG video content (the source could be a DVD/flash drive) or it could also have a more complex configuration where there are a network of media players across many locations and content can be pulled from the central content server and played across the display devices as determined by the media players, individually at each location (or a group of display devices) whenever required. Both audio and video are played from the media player.
There are a lot of display devices that can be used for a digital signage solution. Some of the common displays that are used are: LCD Display, Plasma Display terminals, LED Video Walls, LCD/DLP Projectors, DLP monitors, etc. There are many more display devices that can be used in the future like Organic LED (OLED), e-ink (epaper type of display which is used in e-books like Kindle etc). In fact, some display devices have options for built-in PC/Chipset modules which can store and process the content server software, eliminating the PC/Media Servers and also the Content Servers. It can be used in individual applications.
Display devices used in digital signage solutions are increasingly building interactivity with the users by using innovative technologies like touch screen technology, blue tooth, SMS interactivity through cell phones and also social media interactivity (by publishing content from facebook, twitter etc).
Well, mostly it’s an IP Network (broadband, leased lines, 3G etc) that carry the content from the content servers to the media players and then to the display devices in real time. The last end might have some VGA cables or Audio/Video cables from the PC/Media players. Some times, even wireless networks are used in the last end to transmit data from the PC to the display devices using wireless adapters. Video over Cat 5 cables is the most cost effective technology to transmit content and there are even specialized ‘VGA video extender remote receiver over Cat 5’ devices to receive the content in IP format and convert it to VGA format, which is used to display images in the display devices. This could be more useful when the content is directly streamed from the content server to multiple display units in a broadcast modes with out using the media players.
You could stay up to date on the various computer networking technologies by subscribing to this blog with your email address in the sidebar box mentioned as, ‘Get email updates when new articles are published’.