If you’ve been in business a while, you will recall specific articles of technology that have come and gone. Devices that were at one time revolutionary have faded into insignificance. I’m talking about things like the rotary phone, rabbit ears antenna, and the floppy disk. In those days, the internet or any major digital infrastructure overhaul hadn’t been conceptualized—there were no virtual clouds to rain on Johnny Filefolder’s manila-stacked set of office activities. This was a world where things were hard-wired, plugged in and tangibly configured.
That is, until it all changed.
Today, new forms of media and communications are transforming our everyday routines. We now don’t need to be docked into a work station to compose an email. We can watch movies without the aid of a video tape or disc. Even the sign and graphics community has seen these changes take hold in a major way.
Take, for example, an electronic digital sign (EDS) that has the capability to run video and display a continuous message about anything imaginable. In the past, this message was probably relayed to the public using a dedicated media player and a hard connection to the screen. It was also likely confined to a specific area of the shop and did not extend to viewers beyond that. However, with the technology currently available, many of those perceived barriers have been broken down.
A Remote Possibility
Enter the remotely-operated digital signage configuration—a means of relaying content from source to screen in an easy and less cumbersome manner—and those companies that provide web-based content management platforms for their customers. These players, working in tandem with display manufacturers such as NEC, Samsung and LG, have helped advance and simplify the electronic display market.
In short, content management platforms “have developed an application to run directly on the screen and eliminated the external media player in the process,” says Kevin Goldsmith, CTO at Ping HD.
One hot buzzword-like term that has been circling around many industries is the "Internet of Things" (IoT). The phrase has become more prevalent and useful as consumers move toward mobile, interconnected devices. And the model is certainly applicable to EDS displays.
“The Internet of Things is like any other network—computers talking to other computers—but the scale of this is much more extreme. On one hand the computers are typically smaller,” says David Hempy, software developer at CirrusMio. “On the other hand, the networks are typically much larger. Instead of a central server and a number of desktop computers, we’re talking about thousands or millions of devices all talking at the same time.”
This helps to paint a picture of the power a digital signage system can achieve through the IoT model. Think about a central location of operations (data provider) that pushes content out to one or more EDS displays, which can then be distributed as messages to a consumer’s smart phone. In turn, the consumer can then interact with that message by requesting more information or possibly making a purchase.
What Does it Mean for Sign Makers?
“What this means to sign makers is that digital signage can be used to provide real-time digital marketing content,” says Goldsmith, “be it digital menu boards (integrated with third party PoS systems), ad screen networks (triggered by gender, age, time of day, etc.), public information (showing flight, bus and train information), event management and even emergency notifications. Making use of beacon technology and geo-fencing allows personalized instant messaging based on the individual versus the mass audience.”
With Wi-Fi becoming commonly available in public locations and the cost of smart phones and other mobile devices decreasing, IoT-type technology is rising greatly.
“Simply put, this connecting any electronic device (such as displays) to the internet and each other—what it means is the days of considering a ‘sneaker network’ with CDs or thumbdrives is behind us. The expectation is that I can touch a button and distribute my content globally,” says Ryan Cahoy, managing director at Rise Display.
For EDS systems owners, this also provides some very beneficial features. Without a dedicated hardware configuration, the sign’s content can be controlled through a wireless connection and does not need to be managed through hardware or even at the display’s site.
“With remotely-controlled content (cloud or server-based), the client has the ability to remotely change their digital signage content and scheduling,” says Jay Saret, business development manager for Almo Professional A/V. “This can be done using a range of options, including computer PC, tablet and smartphone—from any location connected to the internet, which eliminates the need to be on location to make those changes.”
Given that things always seem to evolve, improve or change with technology, there are obviously areas of consideration when taking on a remotely-operated digital signage project.
“Compared to other IoT devices, digital signage will have greater network bandwidth requirements,” says Hempy, noting that there is more to the process than sending a smart thermostat reading to one’s iPhone, or turning off a home’s patio lights from another location. “Signage must download rich media files, such as videos and megapixel images. Be sure that you will have enough bandwidth for the number of displays deployed. Using a system that will download content files during off-hours greatly reduces that demand while increasing responsiveness to content changes.”
With digital signage there are so many elements involved with developing and displaying the content, that sign operators must be aware of any potentially unstable components.
Stable Connection Needed
Some kind of stable internet connection is necessary to feed the content to the signage, whether it is Wi-Fi or wired. “Naturally wired is much more reliable and rarely if at all causes us any connectivity issues,” notes Goldsmith. “Wi-Fi on the other hand can be bothersome and cause connectivity issues that mean that the screens cannot connect to the cloud and download any new content.”
Saret agrees that a common fail point could be an unreliable internet connection, however, he notes that when a connection is lost, “no changes can be made, but the existing content does continue to play so the screens do not go black.”
Hardware and Software
“With any technology there is always some risk of failure,” says Cahoy, stating that displays, players, hard drives and other parts come with expiration dates. “My opinion is that users overcome that barrier by selecting good quality products initially (think commercial versus consumer products) and defining a strategy for long-term maintenance and support.”
Goldsmith concurs, pointing to strong partnerships – such as the ones Ping HD has in place with Samsung, Philips and LG – as a way to ensure quality, and suggests that operators “pick a software/hardware solution that can cope in the event of a network failure. Some will have failover options, such as if a signal is not detected on HDMI input 1, it will fail over to a USB flash drive or another HDMI input.”
How often do we hear about cyber security issues? It’s seems to be headline news on almost a weekly basis. This issue is bound to be raised when discussing EDS systems, especially those using remote connections. “Any device that is connected to the internet is vulnerable to attack,” says Hempy. “Confirm that your signage vendor uses secure communications exclusively to talk to the display. HTTPS is an ideal protocol to keep your content private and to keep pranksters off your screens.”
Goldsmith expands that “Using SSL encryption—forcing password changes every three months, ensuring a mixture of case sensitive letters, numbers and special characters are used—is a wise security measure."
Just like one would maintain an automobile’s efficiency with regular checks, such is also true with an EDS system. Remotely operated systems typically require a little more supervision from the content management provider since there may be less hands-on upkeep from the user.
“We offer in-field service during normal business hours,” says Saret. “In the very rare instance where a client would require 24/7 support, that is available through our specialty service.”
At Ping HD, customers are offered “anything from spare equipment, so a defective display can be swapped out immediately, to full white glove onsite support within four hours, seven days a week,” says Goldsmith. “Since moving away from the need for the external media player, our support issues have dropped by around 90 percent. You can expect screen failure over a three year period to be less than 0.5 percent.”
Real World Scenario
Sign shop owners might be asking themselves, “What steps do I take to get involved with this digital signage solution?” And better yet, “How can this bring me additional revenue?”
“Defining the scope of what you or your client wants the screen to look like is the first and most important step,” says Saret, emphasizing the need to meet every objective.
Goldsmith adds that “there are hundreds of options out there and the basic objectives are the same; simply moving content to a screen. But there are easy ways to do that and the not-so-easy ways.”
In other words, don’t get in over your head when making these decisions. Get to know what technology is available and if it will work for specific clients based on how they are using their displays and what they can handle.
“Start small,” Cahoy suggests. “Just put up one display and test your assumptions. You can collect a lot of valuable intel by watching users and talking to your stakeholders on that first display before you go to the expense of buying and installing a whole network of displays.”
Regarding the content, be sure that there is room to customize or adjust the message when necessary. Not all users will want to communicate the same way; and every display may not necessarily function identically.
“If content is controlled centrally, such as a national retail chain,” says Hempy, “a remote content authoring, distribution and scheduling is essential. Balancing that, in-store personnel must have enough autonomy to react to local conditions such as running out of stock or local promotions.” Once the right plan is in place, sign shops can start getting into more advanced elements of the display – the pieces that increase the content’s overall effectiveness.
“The programming of the content would allow your client to change menu items/prices, etc. without affecting the look and feel,” says Saret. “Your client would also be able to upload videos, display their own Twitter feeds (or any Twitter feed for which they have the login credentials). In terms of collecting data – that would require adding either a mobile interface/interaction or a camera mounted on the screen. There are many options to integrate RFID and beacons into the solution to track big data.”
Taking this into account, it is easy to see how helpful remote content can be for a digital display. This applies not only to the viewer but to the user. Having a digital sign with content flexibility is easily achieved through remotely-controlled content.
“If your content on a given display changes more than once per month, or if your fleet of displays is large, remote management is absolutely essential,” Hempy says.