A sign of the times

More and more suppliers are getting in on the act as digital signage explodes in popularity. From Cisco to Sony, they are all at it. Steve Montgomery reports on the software solutions available to make sure content reaches the right display at the right time.

As recently as three years ago digital signage was just a buzzword; few people understood what it meant and fewer actually used the software. Since then however it has become a mainstream technology and a very hot topic, hot enough to draw the attention of the really big companies: 3M, Sony, Samsung whose business is related in display technology, and more lately newer entrants: such as Chyron, and Cisco. At the same time smaller, more specialised companies such as Sedao, Onelan and Inspired Signage still continue to operate successfully serving their own specific markets.

Every digital signage system manufacturer without exception claims that their solution is ‘simple to install, easy to use, highly versatile, ideal for every application, can incorporate every possible type of multimedia content and will generate sky high sales beyond all expectation’. But then what would you expect as marketing messages from manufacturers of tools that are themselves marketing devices? In reality, just as there hundreds of different cars available there is a model that is more or less ideal for every purpose; whether it’s a souped up hot hatch style statement or a conveyor of fragile antiques, there is likely to be a solution for the specific application you may have.

The industry has rapidly swept through its product releases and a new wave of content creation, distribution and management tools is now available. This latest incarnation is web hosted. In a nutshell it means that a user can log onto a dedicated and secure web page, from anywhere he happens to be, to create a digital signage sequence and transmit it to any screen wherever it happens to be. Extra facilities such as grouping of displays, local access and interactivity complete the picture so that small, medium and massive networks are simply created and deployed. So there is now a plethora of options available to provide the correct solution for every application. Dave Oades CEO of Sedao, a company that offers tools across the range: “Its important to have tools that fit the application, Image Flyer offers simple digital signage on a one to one basis of player to display and individual content creation. QuickChange Project includes tools for operation over local networks and SWEP has remote access through web portals. The key to successful deployment however, is creation of relevant content, the ability to produce material that will look good when it is displayed, distribution is a secondary consideration which should fit the purpose. Digital signs such as retail installations are usually fixed in location and controlled from the same point day after day, so it is very often the case that LAN based systems, once set up are simpler to operate from the users perspective; with just a single button click to despatch content to any number of screens. Web systems are useful for other applications for example where a disparate set of users have individual access to areas of screens – so in that case the web solution is better suited.”

Chryon offers such a web based system with its ChyTV product. A dedicated web server hosted by Chryon is accessed and used to create sequences and playlists using pre-prepared templates, combined with video and graphics and downloaded. John Remmler, of ChyTV explains the system: “A user can set up a skinnable web interface with custom graphics and screen templates allowing you to present a branded web application to users, that is accessible anywhere they can get on to the web. Dedicated video players connect to each display device and the web to receive material, store it and play it out. These ‘video appliances’ are dedicated units, are able to self configure, synchronise and communicate with the server within 20 seconds. They are not based on PCs architecture or Windows and consequently are more resilient and secure.” Chyron’s background is in broadcast TV, an industry that is not obviously related to digital signage, however it is proof that this market is being taken extremely seriously by large players who have clearly identified it as a significant business activity.

Another example is Cisco, well established in the provision of IP networks to large corporations on a global basis. Its Digital Media System offers web oriented management, scheduling and publishing of digital media in conjunction with IP-based players. Like ChyTV’s devices these store and play out content as well as provide remote management to turn displays on and off and set brightness and other parameters, giving full control over the web. Thomas Wyatt, general manager of Cisco's digital media systems business unit. "Video use in business is accelerating rapidly and customers are looking for comprehensive, easy-to-use digital media solutions. Our customers are using digital media to transform their businesses by creating new revenue streams, delivering more effective communications and lowering operating expenses."
OneLan has been active for several years and has supplied over 3500 units into educational and other markets with a software suite coupled with a proprietary net-top-box. David Dalzell, Managing Director outlines a new product range: “We will shortly introduce a smaller unit, with fewer features that will be ideal for the retail market with a pal-sized player that fits snugly behind a small screen. As well as a new integrated room booking and announcement system for the management of meeting rooms within offices. This will allow users to book a meeting room which will then automatically be displayed on the foyer screen and room screen. As in our existing system all content is managed over a web browser to ease installation and software security issues.”

The evolution of broadcast TV to high definition has a beneficial knock on effect as all new flat panel displays are now HD ready and capable of showing much more detailed imagery and video than ever before. More importantly viewers expect to see HD resolution everywhere. Fortunately the general mechanism of digital signage as store and playout, as opposed to a real time broadcast system permits the transmission of the large files required to achieve HD display. High resolution graphics and HD video content can be transmitted to sites in less than real time for later playback in looped presentations. It is this, as much as anything else that has brought about the growth in digital signage. AMX recently acquired the Inspired Signage brand to amalgamate with its stable of video manipulation and distribution technologies. Damon Crowhurst, AMX’s Director of Market Development explains the philosophy: “As the cost of display technologies has come down the demand for digital signage has really taken off. The Inspired Signage solution consists of pre-configured hardware and intuitive software, enabling users to easily manage content, graphics and animation targeted to chosen audiences, such as current and potential customers, company employees and students. AMX has identified digital signage as a high-growth market that aligns with our overall corporate strategy so with the combination of Inspired Signage, AutoPatch switching and Endeleo distribution, we are able to offer a variety of robust, end-to-end digital signage solutions under the AMX brand. This solution provides real-time update, control and management of display content on multiple screens allowing changes to be made on the fly onsite or remotely. It offers maximum flexibility with multiple channels at multiple sites under schedules that can change every few minutes. In addition it delivers the highest-quality graphics and high-definition video output at 1080p 60Hz, for stunning quality content, full 3D effects and per-pixel transparency on multiple layers of both graphical and video elements for a truly outstanding display.”

As signage networks evolve into ever-remote locations, the necessity to manage and monitor distant displays becomes more of an issue. 3M includes network operations manager with their digital signage package. This application provides a method of proactively maintaining the full infrastructure from a desktop. Simon Birkenhead Sales & Marketing Manager explains: “Network Operations Manager constantly monitors elements of the digital signage setup to identify any hardware, software or digital signage network problems as soon as they occur, often before they start affecting playout. The trick is to find out about problems and resolve them quickly. The advanced diagnostic and maintenance tools then allow users to quickly fix those problems remotely without the need for expensive on-site engineer call-outs. Including local players, switchers and routers and with remote software download to upgrade firmware and application software.” AMX also has an answer to this problem with it Resource Management Suite. This provides complete equipment monitoring and permits remote equipment to be controlled and configured as well as generating reports and system operation statistics. Damon Crowhurst: “A natural extension of digital signage applications is to integrate with other customer applications such as room management systems, Outlook and others. Doing so ensures dynamic real time responsiveness and therefore increased value to the customer.”

Both Sony and Samsung have identified digital signage as a support technology to boost usability and sales of their range of flat panel displays. Samsung’s MagicNet allows media and office software files (MPEG, word, Excel and so on) to be sent to and displayed and LCD and plasma displays without the need for a PC at the point of presentation. Adam Jubb, “It is often the additional cost of a local player PC that prohibits the deployment of digital signage systems. MagicNet circumvents this by providing a mechanism to carry out those functions in the internal electronics of the display itself, including content scheduling, remote device management and group targeting, with the capability to handle multiple file types and scalability in deployment.” Sony’s Ziris View Digital Signage suite, launched last month, also incorporates additional hardware to negate the need for an additional PC or player. Ton Hendriks, Development Manager for Retail, Transport and Venues, Sony Professional Solutions Europe explains: “The Ziris system is based around authoring and scheduling software that runs in a browser. It communicates with player devices, including the BKM-FW50 Streaming Receiver Adapter which plugs directly into a module slot in Sony’s public displays. Users can transfer all forms of content, including graphics standard and high definition video and playout schedules via a local CF card or communicate to it over a LAN or WAN. The players integrate with Sony displays and projectors and with Ziris Manager to fully control the display itself and will also operate with any third-party presentation device.”

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