High-Performance Graphics Drive Infotainment Design
Small form factor COMs have proven to be broadly applicable to the diverse range of digital signage deployments and application needs characterized by the infotainment arena.By Jack London, Kontron
Infotainment applications now need the support of advanced high-definition imaging, video and display interfaces. The push towards increased graphics-intensive infotainment applications is twofold – the latest processor architectures now feature more advanced graphic capabilities and the end-user public has come to expect that these systems provide the same high-level graphics and sophisticated interactivity found in other consumer electronics. Devices are becoming more intelligent and connected, and offer a greater variety of secure information and entertainment content.
Responding to customer needs, infotainment systems have evolved to smaller more space-constrained designs while at the same time requiring long-term availability and cost-effective embedded computing solutions – critical factors for developers. Satisfying consumer expectations, integrating new processor functionality and applying it to long product life, small form factor development brings with it an entirely new set of design considerations. Computer-on-modules (COMs) based on various Intel processor architectures are helping designers achieve these goals – offering powerful embedded building blocks for diverse application needs, and enabling the flexible, high performance digital displays that are so integral to infotainment.
Making it All Work
Digital signage is in fact one of the primary constants in the infotainment arena – unifying design considerations in applications that range from hospitality and travel to gaming. While these are very distinct environments, technical and design requirements frequently overlap. As a result, digital signage is a key system element within each of these various infotainment applications, driving designers beyond rugged, small form factor solutions and adding a focus on high-end graphics and intuitive user interfaces. Many of these infotainment-based designs are already integrated into everyday life, often seamlessly and almost unnoticed by the general public.
Small form factor COMs have proven to be broadly applicable to the diverse range of digital signage deployments and application needs characterized by the infotainment arena. As practically complete computers mounted directly onto a carrier board, the COMs platform is ideally suited to applications requiring a small footprint, high performance, low power consumption, flexibility of design, easy customization, or all of the above. Because all customization is designed into the module’s carrier board rather than on the module itself, infotainment vendors can focus their skills and full resources on the system’s application. The COM platform incorporates standard processor, bus, system memory and I/O components. If the application warrants additional computing power or improved energy efficiency, the COM itself can easily be replaced for one delivering the required level of performance or power consumption.
Perhaps most importantly for infotainment developers, the challenges of custom hardware design exist primarily on the COM’s carrier board. Once resolved – for example, designing in interfaces and switching circuits – application-specific customization can last through multiple generations with various CPU cores by swapping out one CPU module for the next. The end result is that COMs perform well for systems that not only require scalability from generation to generation, but also within a single generation. This high level of flexibility greatly accelerates time-to-market for the end design as well as overall longevity of the application-specific solution.
Standardization Sets Up the Future
Standards are essential in this complex marketplace – simplifying development and enabling easier installation, use and maintenance of high-performance solutions such as digital signage devices and pluggable media players. A prime example is Intel’s Open Pluggable Specification (OPS) that addresses fragmentation in infotainment markets, while simplifying device installation, usage, maintenance and upgrades. For instance, OPS enables digital signage manufacturers to deploy interchangeable systems faster and in higher volumes, while lowering costs for development and implementation. Installing infotainment equipment based on Intel architecture supports implementation of scalable applications that can network easily with other equipment, eliminating integration issues between the computing engine and the display. Interoperability is simplified and application upgrades are made more easily, creating a solution that meets the widest range of deployment needs and future-proofs technology investments. These are essential considerations in a market that demands long-term deployments and continual advancements in graphics processing.
OPS-compliant modular solutions are designed to make infotainment applications more connected, intelligent and secure, which results in devices that are easier to install, use and maintain. Increased uptime results from remote management capabilities that enable easier upgrades and scheduling of repairs. Industry standard systems can be docked into any OPS-compliant display, simplifying development, reducing implementation costs and speeding time-to-market of a wide variety of applications requiring enhanced functionality and graphics-intensive displays. In digital signage and infotainment applications, this assures a rich user experience for information now and enables vendors to easily retrofit discrete legacy systems worldwide.
Best Practices of Deployment
A COMs-based design approach not only considers the rich experience expected by the graphics-oriented individual of today, but also keeps systems poised for what is next. As general commercial consumers, we are accustomed to simply touching our phones, and having what we need at our fingertips based on a certain set of data we have already entered into our device. Infotainment vendors want to bring that same sophisticated level of functionality to viewers of their systems. Systems must include a way to identify the viewer, providing high-end graphics and an interactive experience – while at the same time avoiding bulky electronics that may be difficult to maintain and install. Further, systems must be able to receive and transmit data securely, assuring the right content is offered and any data captured during an interactive experience is safely stored and shared.
Best practices can be illustrated with an example deployment of a pluggable media player – simple, yet highly functional devices that eliminate the need to hardwire every new board going into the back of a display. Instead of using a bulky DVD player that can only push one set of information to the screen, infotainment vendors have a simple device that can provide flexible, adaptable performance. Comparable to using a VCR, this device slides into the back of an OPS-capable display and connects readily to the docking point. Once powered up, the device appears on the network, either wired or wirelessly, and is ready to push or pull information to and from the visual display.
Utilizing the Kontron COMe-bIP6 gives OEMs a modular approach that enables optimized and cost-effective scalability of application-specific implementations in terms of graphics and processing performance.
Such a device may have at its core a proven COM solution that provides high-end graphics and display-support features. This ensures a modular approach for OEMs, offering a clear migration path that maps out upgrades for future digital signage requirements, thereby future-proofing customers’ technology investments. A 100 percent OPS v1.0 compliant system integrates powerful 3rd Generation Intel® Core™ processors (up to 2x 2.7GHz), and is pre-validated for use with a Microsoft Windows embedded OS (such as WES7 Pro 64-bit) and Intel® Audience Impression Metric (Intel® AIM Suite) technology based on Anonymous Viewer Analytics (AVA) software. Infotainment systems deployed using the technology and running a content management system (CMS) can simultaneously play high-definition video while gathering valuable viewer demographics without invading viewer privacy. Vendors are able to push custom-tailored messaging to the target audience, which results in delivering a rich, immersive user experience that can offer significant infrastructure cost savings.
Consider such a system available as a video concierge for guests at a particular hotel. Content is available to any guest, who may walk up to the display and use the touchscreen to find local theaters, verify movie options and start times, get directions to the theater and even purchase tickets in advance. Using COM Express solutions as the foundation for this media player means it is a scalable device in terms of performance. While currently equipped with the latest Intel technology and reaping the performance advantages of second- and third-generation core processors, the device can be upgraded easily by switching out modules as advancements occur.
In another scenario, a casino may offer food services directly from the gaming environment, allowing players to keep playing and demonstrating the market’s current advanced state of performance and integration. Once the media player, which includes a Microsoft WES7 Pro 64-bit OS, is plugged into any OPS-compliant display, the developer has access to pre-validated Intel® AIM software and content creative and management software. This makes it possible for the system to push tailored information to the customer as well as communicate information about user preferences back to the business in real time. Instead of leaving the video slot machine, an ad may display on the machine itself. The player is invited to eat and then orders food from the casino’s gourmet restaurant right from the slot machine’s touch screen. The player may choose to pay with their winnings from that machine or swipe a card for a different form of payment, and the meal would then be delivered directly to where the gamer is playing.
The Intel® AIM Suite software allows it to recognize the aspects of the buyer, and is able to display a promotional screen with appropriate meal options. The customer has the choice of either buying the promoted item(s) or going to the regular menu. The gaming machine is equipped for credit card or cash transactions, provides a receipt and then communicates the order to the kitchen. When ready, a staffer gives the selected meal to the customer and scans the barcode on the receipt to confirm that the meal has been delivered. At the same time that the order is communicated to the kitchen, this customer data is also communicated to the corporate marketing team, enabling them to acquire important user information and determine the effectiveness of their kiosk promotions.
Connected, Intelligent and Secure
Trained, or perhaps spoiled, by our smartphones and tablets, we users want intuitive interactions that provide both useful information and service. In response, today’s infotainment vendors are delivering rich multimedia content, and system owners are tracking and measuring viewer response to deliver real-time, customized content. In the not-too-distant future, you may approach a digital sign in a mall which in turn recognizes you as a ‘40-something’ female – sending you a coupon for a store targeted to your demographic, along with directions and shopping suggestions. Moving forward, the integration of cameras and advanced analytics will create even more intelligent systems, and allow system operators to gather actionable marketing data to make informed decisions on the fly.
These are the kinds of experiences – in shopping malls, hotels or casinos – that are destined to captivate the viewer and truly distinguish the environment. It means infotainment is undeniably cool from the sophisticated viewer’s perspective, and thoroughly challenging from a designer’s point of view. This high bar is driving innovation in the market, with performance advancements in hardware and software alike, and a focus on streamlining installation, use and maintenance of these environments. As more and more infotainment applications become apparent, leading providers are leveraging OPS-compliant systems built around COMs to deliver improved graphics, increased functionality and cost-effectiveness that stabilize designs for rugged, long-term deployments.
Jack London is the business development and product manager for Kontron’s Embedded Modules Division located in Northern California’s Silicon Valley. With more than twenty years of experience in the semiconductor and embedded computing markets, London has served in management positions in sales and marketing with industry leaders including NEC and RadiSys and holds a BA in business economics from the University of California, Santa Barbara.