Digital Signage Media Players Deliver Content and More

​Ryan N. Fugler is a former editor of WRAPS magazine. 

High-tech innovation of the 21st Century has made more data available to the average consumer than ever before. And it’s literally in the palm of your hand. Think about how deeply educated an individual can become, on just about anything, simply by running a Google search on a smart phone.

“Cord-cutting technologies in the home, like Apple TV and Google Chromecast, are paving the way for everyday average businesses to take charge of the screens in their locations,” says Mark Hemphill, founder and CEO of ScreenScape Networks Inc., a software-as-a-service digital signage solutions provider based in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, Canada.

These technologies have allowed sign professionals to capitalize on increasingly popular digital messaging platforms. In many instances, electronic digital signage—and media players that run the content—can be offered to users as an efficient, easy-to-use, low-cost solution. With these benefits, this part of the sign industry has skyrocketed.

“Digital signage is indeed a rapidly growing market,” says Lisa Schneider, vice president of sales and marketing for digital signage media player manufacturer Videotel Inc. “According to a new market research report, the industry has seen dramatic transformation over the past few years. The digital signage market is expected to hit $20.3 billion by 2020, according to Grand View Research.”

This study points to more digital screens in the retail and shopping environment, as well as more advances in the composition of the digital signage system—including how the actual media player is implemented, integrated and operated.  

The Message

“Digital signage has become so broad and so common that nearly all businesses can be a potential DSE customer—from small doctors’ offices, to coffee shops, to large and small retail stores, to enterprise class corporations,” says Brian Rhatigan, director of business development for Almo Professional A/V, a distributor of digital signage hardware and related systems.

Consider this as a real-world example:

  • Tom wants to buy a bike for his son’s birthday. He’s done his research and narrowed down his choice to a handful of options. Once he’s in the bike store, however, the selection seems a little more complicated, and none of the salespeople have been overly accommodating. Tom needs some help.

“For those within the retail industry, digital signage is essential to improve an in-store experience, create brand awareness and increase sales,” Schneider says.

  • Luckily for Tom, a digital screen catches his eye that is presenting a video of several bikes in action. There is also an easy-to-follow educational part of the quick video that describes which models are fit for various activities such as mountain biking or street riding. Tom is intrigued, and now he is focused solely on the video.

“Ease of use is critical to digital signage,” explains Jeff Hastings, CEO of media player manufacturer BrightSign, Los Gatos, California. “Using a purpose-built, solid-state media player removes the PC from the digital signage equation, eliminating much of the frustration associated with PC-based digital signage. Additionally, player manufacturers like BrightSign make great apps and online tools that make it easy to create, update and manage digital signage content.”

Media Players

The media player is the heart of a digital signage system’s hardware because when it is functioning appropriately, there should be no downtime with the signage while the player is relaying relevant content.

“Some media players may come with complex software that is difficult to navigate, and others that simply and reliably read content right from a USB or SD card. Most often the less user-friendly the unit is, the less likely the signage will be installed overall,” Schneider says. “It is important to consider a media player that has the functionality to auto power on, auto play and auto seamlessly repeat play without human interaction.”

Making sure the media player is running effectively has a lot to do with how the hardware is initially configured. Because most players can run with any type of screen, regardless of manufacturer or model, the set-up plays an important role.

“One important development is that the hardware that used to work with screens through the VGA port now works with screens through the HDMI port,” Hemphill says. “While native to the IT industry, media players are starting to morph into A/V devices—as much like a DVD player as like a computer. The rise of Apple TV and other online services such as Google Chromecast and Roku have led the way in this process, paving the way for commercial-grade versions like ScreenScape Connect, for example, which is HDMI based.”

When focusing directly on the media player, it should be noted that this is a hardware component that has gone through some changes over the years. As Hemphill states, the HDMI port is a more readily used connection as high-definition and “plug and play” becomes more prevalent. The size of media players has also transformed into easier to handle models.

“Today’s best solid-state media players are quite small, use very little power, and are very reliable,” Hastings says. “For that reason, a player must be capable of processing extremely rich media, and also possess the right mix of input/output connections to facilitate the transfer and display of this content.”

It’s only with a reliable player that consumers—like our example Tom—can receive the information they need, at the time they need it. 

The Challenges

Often, the way a customer intends to use digital signage will dictate what type of media player should be included. The size of the customer's signage project also plays a large part. 

“We sell the bulk of our players to installer/integrators,” says Hastings. “These individuals are responsible for planning, installing and setting up larger deployments. It’s common for installer/integrators to deploy hundreds or sometimes thousands of media players in a single, large project.”

As one would imagine, a larger project comes with larger challenges, which can complicate the installation and the overall effectiveness.

“Start small,” Rhatigan suggests. He recommends starting with a pilot program with steps to evaluate the system before doing a large-scale launch. “Any digital signage system, large or small, needs to be well thought-out and planned; however, this is especially true with larger, more complicated systems.”

If there is an opportunity to expand a project, be cognizant of the obstacles and develop attainable goals. 

“Most conventional digital signage systems have been difficult to implement and difficult to manage, and this means low scalability or out of control costs at scale,” Hemphill says. “Don't think of your first location as a kind of 'store-of-the-future' prototype–that doesn't scale. Think of it as the first of many sites and figure out the best way to ‘cookie cut’ the solution out to all your locations.” 

The Content

Hemphill believes that simplifying the technology and continuing with consistent messaging at each location will minimize potential headaches, and will provide a path to quicker implementation at lower costs. 

“Also, picturing yourself managing content for 1,000-plus screens is an interesting exercise,” he continues. “How easy is it to create, publish and distribute content when you are trying to create a local promotion for each unique audience? Smart software will allow you to group your locations any way you want, and group your content any way you want.”

The content portion of digital signage is regularly tied to the media player component. As mentioned earlier, today’s technology allows for plug and play options—such as an HDMI-compatible streaming stick—that provide the benefits of being small and easily transferable.

“Videotel has helped to advance growth with small, mid and large enterprises by providing cost effective solutions that provide true plug-and-play solutions,” Schneider says. “We offer the most simple-to-use digital signage solutions with our niche line of industrial grade media players. In addition, Videotel offers five interactive solutions that are optionally bundled with our VP71 XD media player.” 

Of course there are many elements that go into a digital signage system, as Schneider alludes to with mention of Videotel’s bundled products. Some companies like Almo even offer full-scale digital signage systems.

“We are a complete solutions provider to resellers offering digital signage to their clients in the form of hardware, software, connectivity, digital signage content creation, installation services, as well as bandwidth services,” Rhatigan says. 

The Impact

Having the technology available to operate displays through the web also presents an opportunity for digital sign providers. In these circumstances, the media player element of the sign systems is replaced by cloud-based content management. 

“There are an increasing number of software companies like Ping HD making development efforts to eliminate the external media player,” says Kevin Goldsmith, chief technology officer for Denver-based digital signage solutions provider Ping HD. “The encouraging factor is we can do as much and if not more with a System on a Chip (SoC) platform that we used to be able to do in a Windows environment.”

Goldsmith says that without the hardware aspect there is less lead time, faster deployments and fewer points of failure in the signage. And “being cloud-based means that it’s even easier to create dynamic content using any data that’s available in the cloud,” he says. “This is harder to achieve with on-premise client/server based solutions.”

Think again about Tom at the bike store. What if the school year has just ended and Tom is the fifth customer that day looking for a dependable children’s bike before the summer starts? Wouldn’t it benefit the store to include more information in its digital signage about new childrens bikes on sale? With Ping HD’s solution, this is possible in a flash.

“Although cloud-based, all content is stored locally, directly on each screen,” Goldsmith says. “So even if the internet connection is lost, the content will keep on playing.” 

This underlines the fact that the hardware and software elements of a digital signage system carry important roles. But when it comes to keeping content fresh and pertinent, that’s a job for the system’s software.

“The term media player increasingly refers specifically to the hardware device itself and not the software or overall solution,” Hemphill says. “Normally the functionality of the solution is a product of the software, so it's new software that is opening up new kinds of programming opportunities more so than the hardware. And yes, new software solutions now allow a variety of different ways to customize the content.”

If there is a trending move from a dedicated media player to a cloud-based service, users must take many factors into consideration, such as content manageability, support and services, and future integration with other media. 

“The thing about digital signage content is that it can get stale very quickly unless it is dynamic in nature,” Rhatigan says. “Signage systems that can integrate with third party data sources make this process more automated so that you can display things like social media feeds, or have a menu board tie into your (point-of-sale) system for price changes, or display statistical data–such as manufacturing updates or call center statistics—from a third party data feed.”

Largely, signage in general is shifting from traditional to more interactive – whether there are text/QR codes, video elements or touch screens. And those who already have digital signage in place are seeking ways to enhance their platforms.

“In many cases,” suggests Hastings, “businesses that have been using digital signage for several years are already in an upgrade cycle, whereby they are replacing older digital signage to make way for more reliable and robust players and/or larger screens capable of striking 4K HDR content.”

The Results

The concept of a digital signage system is one thing, but seeing it work as a high-impact tailored solution is another. There are examples across the world that emphasize how strongly customers feel about the benefits of digital signage. Rhatigan tells of one success story.

“I was recently involved in a project with a dealer that had been providing digital signage content for banks,” he begins. “There are about 40 branch locations in the network but they were driving the content at each branch on local PCs, which required a lot of maintenance and offered no option for centralized management of the content.”

Rhatigan says the customer started small with a pilot program in five branches, using media players and a content management system to swap out existing PCs. The transition proved to be a success.

“They have now replaced the PCs in all branches with a new digital signage system relieving them from having to maintain a large number of PCs and providing a single point of management for the entire network of branches.”

Technology is certainly changing the way people conduct their business. Whether it’s influencing a buying decision or simply providing more information during critical times, individuals seek that immediate connection. Digital screens and the content that is delivered through media players clearly bring that technology forward in the sign market.