Choosing the right platform

Now that digital signage is established as a mainstream application we find that new platforms are being offered as more and larger suppliers enter the market with their own solutions. There is now a wide choice of digital signage players, each developed to manage and deliver content to displays and each delivering a specific set of features to meet specific requirements. Steve Montgomery reports.

The largest number of installations is fulfilled by dedicated standalone players built around standard PC architecture, running Windows software; taking advantage of readily-available, well-understood cheap hardware and software. We are now though, starting to find hardware based around other platforms on offer at value points above and below.

PC hardware offers a set of obvious advantages: compatibility, familiarity, ease of replacement, low cost and so on. In addition it provides the ability to install third party software modules to enable networking, security and compatibility with external data sources such as RSS feeds.

Processor performance can be selected for specific application, as Steve Ritchie marketing manager at Nexcom explains: “The availability of a range of CPUs enables a full range of players to be offered at price points and performance levels. Starting with Intel Atom processors at the low end, we build low-cost players that are effective and have full HD outputs. Beyond the dual and quad core processors deliver greater power for more video manipulation and dual screen operation. At the top end our players are capable of running four independent displays, with the capability of 4 x 4 video wall soon.”

Barry Husbands, Blue Chip Technology’s managing director: “Installers usually want a 'device' not a PC which can keep a digital signage project distinct from an internal IT roll -out. We are beginning to see processor technology such as the Intel Atom being used in digital signage player hardware. A further step change is assimilating RISC processor technology in digital signage solutions, which will lower the power budget to less than 10% of current Atom based platforms”.

According to Tom Scott, technical director of AMX’s Digital Media Group: “IT Managers are happy to put Windows based players on their networks. They understand the architecture and manage it with their own firewall and virus security. The IS player uses an embedded version of Windows developed by Microsoft for the Point of Sale market providing optimal uptime.

“The custom hardware platform also leverages hardware elements normally used in the gaming industry, enabling us to deliver the highest quality graphics in the industry: full 1080p at 60fps, providing visually stunning content and 3D rendering”.

An advantage offered by the PC platform is the speed and ease with which digital signage software manufacturers can adopt new techniques and technologies. This means that techniques such as networking, Wi-Fi USB, flash drives and other interfaces can be rapidly deployed within days of release through third-party add-on modules. Similarly new and highly efficient codecs, such as H.264 can be incorporated quickly into digital signage software without the need for drivers written by digital signage software manufacturers.

Partitioning the architecture to share and optimise the processing workload is another major benefit; hence we see powerful CPUs combined with powerful GPUs. Again enormous effort is put into developing these in parallel to maximise the effectiveness and capability of the complete unit.

Chris Fulton CEO of Future Software: “The development and use of third party graphics cards alongside powerful CPUs with multiple cores and hyper-threading allows highly powerful and specific players to be constructed. We can achieve players with multiple video streams, almost no latency and silky-smooth HD and ticker-tape graphics on multiple displays; all from a single box.”

Despite the lack of fast deployment of peripheral devices there is a market need for ‘black box’ digital signage players. “Dedicated digital signage players such as our HMP100 Hyper Media Player offer advantages in price, size, power consumption, reliability, maintenance and can be streamlined to the specific task.” explains Serge Konter, marketing manager at SpinetiX.

“Following industry standards for digital signage means that systems will be more stable over time because there is no mixing of the display with content creation. Unfortunately PC based solutions still tend not to follow any specific standards and there are things, for example, printer drivers, that can affect the robustness of a system.

“SpinetiX devices are dedicated to content display. We use standards like XML, SVG and JAVA web technologies which are openly available and say, in two years time, our system will still be compatible even if the system changes firmware or hardware. Now that Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG) is an open and common standard, it’s much simpler for web designers and graphic designers to create highly effective digital signage content.”

ONELAN manufactures the Net-Top Box based on a proprietary design with the Linux operating system. David Dalzell, managing director explains their history: “Our first digital signage Players used hardware to accomplish the Video Decode task of a Digital Signage player. PCs were not up to the job at the time. Frankly it was hard work getting the hardware decoder chips to perform reliably because the silicon vendor software quality was poor. We moved to a software only implementation in 2004 and have not regretted it. Contemporary hardware can handle lots of media simultaneously.

“There is a desire in the market to render HD; sadly the new generation of low power consumption CPU chips struggles with full HD movies. Hardware decoding seems to be the way forward, so the pendulum has swung back toward hardware for reasons of cost and power consumption. We will be introducing hybrid software/hardware decoding devices within 6 months.”

This leads on to a new class of player that is very much centred on hardware based graphics rendering. Sedao offers a full range of PC-based hardware for traditional digital signage applications and has recently introduced the 3Zone system aimed at simple, low-cost applications in markets such as pubs and clubs. This is coupled with a pre-configured template design tool that allows customers to create 3 separate zones on their own PC and transmit it to the player. Dave Oades, managing director outlines the philosophy: “Atom-based players are in vogue at the moment for fully-featured digital signage. There are also extensive opportunities for simple displays to be used as electronic posters. Our new 3Zone is a simple hardware player designed around high-power graphics engines with limited internal processing power and PC features. The key is simplicity of use; it has three fixed zones and allows high quality live TV to be combined with branded, stylised banners and instant scrolling messages updated by busy, untrained staff in seconds. It is ideal and affordable for a pub to install to promote its own messages around live football in a professional manner.”

An approach taken by manufacturers of flat screen displays to extend their market is to supply their own players and software, often as integrated screens or plug-in cards. “SuperSign is a new Digital Signage Software system from LG, sold through their partners, that offers customers a one-stop shopping for their digital signage needs” says Roeland Scholten from LG Electronics.

“It is ideal working in combination with our 42” LCD displays with built-in PC. A dedicated player is also available that can be used in combination with our total line up of displays. With this Digital Signage LG will provide a total solution to the end user, through our distribution and VAR channels.”

Neale Williams, business development manager at NEC explains their approach: “We have optional PCs for integration into panels with option slots and are software agnostic. And just released, Panel Director is a total digital signage service solution brand that capitalises on NEC's advanced face recognition and audience measurement technologies to create and deliver content and services.”

Samsung also offers integrated units. Dominic Webb, general manager, display Samsung Electronics UK and Ireland: “The embedded option is becoming increasingly popular. Aesthetically, it means you don’t have an external device to hide and have fewer cables. Embedded screens also have an ‘out-of-the box’ set-up; a certified solution without the need to worry if the screen and player are compatible, a single main point of contact for repairs and require less power. There is an advantage when it comes to Samsung’s MagicInfo technology. Our software has been developed for embedded solutions and is optimised for performance on these screens”.

Future developments are likely to centre on the further development of low power devices. Chris Fulton sees the advantages: “The Atom processor is already operating at a very low power level, with solid state memory and even more power saving I expect to see players that are powered by Ethernet appear, which will make installation even easier.”

It is also likely that we will see a greater movement towards Flash memory, which is starting to appear in integrated units, although there are currently issues with the maximum read/write cycles they can cope with. As digital signage evolves further we will undoubtedly see newer, faster designs built around a variety of architectures.

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