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From Guts to GUI

By Jacky Lin, ADLINK Technology

The consumerization of digital signage applications is driving opportunity from the inside out.

When did getting off the sofa to change television channels become intuitive… again? One of the greatest inventions of the 20th century was the remote control, with the sole purpose of creating a more positive –and restful – television viewing experience. Long live the remote control; the remote control is dead. Replaced by the touch screen. Or at least our children think so.

Like most technology users today, children anticipate ease-of-use. And like most technology users today, children are often disappointed. When they can’t scroll though television channels instead of pushing buttons, a tantrum may ensue.

But it’s more than just children throwing the proverbial tantrum. One of the mega-trends being cited by top technology companies today is emphasis on positive user experience. Business applications are being influenced by the consumerization of today’s application interfaces. And one of the industries most affected, through both evolution and opportunity, is the digital signage industry.

Touch screen capabilities are just one of the many factors driving the popularity of digital signage applications – think everything from point-of-sale terminals to slot machines – from both a business and user standpoint. Advancements in the functionality of small form factor computers, lower power consumption across digital signage hardware, and greater capabilities for personalization and data capture for analysis are all driving businesses in retail, transportation, gaming and healthcare to consider the validity of digital signage solutions. Such solutions can be used to increase customer satisfaction, generate advertising revenue, personalize and localize messages, and increase brand awareness through integrated, multi-channel marketing strategies.

The GUI is being filed away and replaced by the NUI – natural user interface. Soon the multi-touch screens that are available at automated grocery store check-out counters and movie theater ticket kiosks will recognize and react to gestures, facial expressions, voice and even neural signals.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. What has allowed this burgeoning revolution at the front-end of digital signage solutions – what has enabled a response to the consumerization of enterprise application interfaces – is progress made behind-the-screens in the hardware solutions that power digital signage applications and the partner ecosystem that works to make digital signage solutions feasible.

Behind the Screens
Digital signage is a form of electronic display that shows multimedia content for advertising, informational or instructional purposes. Digital signs – in the form of LCD, LED and plasma displays, or projected images – are used in many environments. The opportunity for digital signage applications can be simplified into three buckets:

  • Point-of-sale: retail, movie theaters, restaurants
  • Point-of-wait: hospitals/clinics, corporate offices, government facilities
  • Point-of-transit: public transit vehicles and hubs, airports

The level of complexity involved in any one of these opportunities is dependent on many variables, such as number of screens, mobility, usage amount and content requirements. Digital signage solutions can be broken down into three categories of complexity:

  • Basic: single user per screen, single-source video/ad content, limited content blending
  • Mainstream: remotely managed, networked, rich media content
  • High-end: extremely interactive; networked application using extensive number of displays

Basic: Smartphones/Tablets
Smartphones and tablets are important localization/personalization tools used in conjunction with networked, multichannel digital signage applications. For instance, handheld devices can be used to promote interactivity through physical QR codes or SMS input, leading to online coupons or activity promotions. Because these are handheld devices, they exist in a more controlled environment, therefore lowering requirements for ruggedization. (Though, honestly, how many times have you dropped your smartphone and wished it was Class I Div 2 compliant?)

Mainstream: Transportation
Digital signage solutions for transit hubs and vehicle fleets are one of the fastest growing areas. Real-time route and arrival information can be offered at bus stops. When integrated with GPS, on-board media displays can generate localized advertising to transit passengers. Regardless of the richness in content, with transportation solutions most often housed outdoors or in moving vehicles, exposure to a variety of climates dictates the need to operate in extended temperatures – powering up in any extreme – and to support the extremes of shock and vibration that are inherent by-products of mobility. Rugged requirements must be fulfilled by the media players, displays and other hardware components that compose these digital signage solutions.

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ADLINK MXE-5300 rugged controller with integrated wireless function, wide temperature tolerance and robust mechanical design is based on the 2nd-generation Intel Core i7 Quad Core processor.

High End: Embedded Gaming
Many game platforms are moving from 2-D to immersive 3-D graphics that create compelling user experiences. Today’s embedded processors and chipsets provide the combination of low power, high performance, and enhanced memory needed to support an immense variety of rich graphics and high volume usage. In addition, small form factor boards used in embedded applications allow the integration of multiple functions on one board to minimize footprint. Key requirements for many embedded gaming applications are uptime and long product life. Product life expectancy and reliability are greatly affected by heat output that is generally managed by an internal fan. Because of extreme usage and the need for a quiet performance, fanless hardware designs are highly desirable to avoid noise and interference from vibration.

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The fanless, streamlined, cable-free design integrated into a small form factor reduces noise and ensures reliable and stable operation.

Powering Your Digital Signage Application
Two key components required of all digital signage applications are the display and the media player that powers the overall solution. Digital signage hardware is installed in locations where space and access is limited and operating conditions can be extreme (e.g., temperature, shock, vibration).

Media Players
Digital signage players must be small footprint, low-profile devices that can be installed behind displays, or even integrated into display housings with special mounting brackets. They must be quiet and reliable, requiring minimal maintenance since access can be challenging. Because of these space and integration requirements, digital signage media players must use small form factor design, such as Mini-ITX (170 x 170 mm) or smaller. In order to make media players part of an easily deployed solution, the hardware should support industry standards, such as VESA mounting, VGA and HDMI output, and energy efficiency standards.

The player will also need to support both short- and long-range wireless technologies to offer services for remote system management and recovery, remote content management, and remote data transmission for audience metrics and analysis. And, to complete the ultimate user experience, the media player must provide a state-of-the-art graphics engine to drive visual performance.

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Intel® Active Management Technology 7.0 provides support for remote management/control to simplify network maintenance and reduce the need for costly on-site support.

For rugged digital signage applications, today’s hardware market offers media players with performance-enhancing mechanical and thermal design, including customized copper conduits to enhance thermal dissipation efficiency, memory, and storage stabilizers to withstand the challenges of high-vibration environments, and an anodized aluminum alloy chassis to prevent corrosion. With industrial SSD storage devices, media players can provide an extended operating temperature range of -20 degrees Celsius to 70 degrees Celsius, for reliable performance in harsh environments.

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Extended operating temperature range significantly enhances digital signage reliability and performance in harsh environments.

Displays
Displays used in digital signage applications can be open-frame or all-in-one systems. The key features for any display are size options, ease of integration with back-end hardware, and viewability, including high resolution and brightness, sunlight-readable and back-lit options. Displays should accommodate multiple operating systems to afford integration opportunities with a wide variety of available media players, and support multiple network ports with the option for expansion (in order to accommodate the high-end application category). In addition, to truly give users the experience they want, the display should include a resistive touch sensor to support the highly desirable touch screen interface. Today’s all-in-one displays also offer wireless capabilities and include enhanced performance processors.

Moving Forward: Progressing the Partner Ecosystem
The general ecosystem for digital signage can be boiled down to three types of partners:

  • Technology services: display/hardware designers and manufacturers
  • Solution services: network connectivity providers, mobile technology companies, deployment services
  • Content services: advertising networks, game developers, informational services, audience measurement and analysis tools

With so many players in the partner ecosystem, it’s no wonder that fewer than one in 10 announced digital signage solutions ever gets deployed. The success of solution deployment depends on partnerships between these technology, solution and content providers to develop standard platforms that can be supported from planning to deployment to maintenance. Development of application-ready digital signage platforms will enable faster time-to-market and greater return-on-investment (ROI) for end customers.

In order to develop standard platforms, a certification process can be implemented for commercial-grade components to establish the stability and reliability of digital signage platforms and networks. This process will also help to simplify integration of solution hardware and software.

‘Service as a Service’ offerings – such as remote managed services, analytics and viewer metrics – by ecosystem partners to end customers are required to simplify the supply chain and significantly reduce operational costs. These services will also provide the ability to measure effectiveness (e.g., cost reduction, increased usage, sales lift) in order to prove ROI and make a better business case for digital signage.

Finally, automation of relevant and timely high-impact digital content and integration with external data sources and feeds will enable the re-purposing of content and simplify delivery across digital signage platforms and networks. Because, in the end, content is still king. Whether a user changes the television channel using a touch screen or a remote control, she isn’t going to stay tuned for long if the content is dull or irrelevant.

 


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Jacky Lin, is product marketing manager at Ampro ADLINK Technology. His specialties include developing product, channel mapping strategies and implementing an effective partner program to empower the business partner network. He is a current PXISA executive member, and serves as treasurer for the association.