It’s amazing how quickly time passes. It seems like we were just celebrating Christmas, and now Digital Signage Expo 2017 has snuck up on me. It’s always an exciting show, and one I look forward to…. The start of the trade-show season always makes me reflect on the past year, and given the focus of our day-to-day business, that means digital signage. It’s been such an incredibly important topic in the commercial audiovisual and signage industries for the last several years. The clear benefits of replacing a static sign with a dynamic digital display have become obvious to so many people that it is appearing everywhere. It’s impossible to avoid digital signage as we go about our daily lives, but I still find myself surprised by the number of people who want digital signage, but don’t understand what goes into a signage system. It seems so basic to the casual passerby—“Oh, it’s a flat panel and some video files! We can do that!” The reality behind the scenes is made up of more components than many realize. Digital signage is a web of technologies, involving several different pieces, and potentially several different manufacturers. It’s not nearly as simple as it may seem at first glance, but the good news is we can distill this complexity down into a few categories of components that can be understood by anyone.
First up is the obvious category, displays. Right? Actually…no! Really! Now, my friends in the display manufacturing world really hate this, but we will start with a component that most people don’t think of as one, and that, if misused, will cripple any chance the system has of success. That component is content! Yes, really. I group this in with all the physical hardware because it has a cost, must be planned for and selected just as carefully as any piece of electronics. Content is the vehicle that delivers your message and enables you to achieve your objectives. Without it you don’t have much of a system, so please ensure you plan for it, its cost and its need to be continually refreshed and renewed. Whether done in-house or outsourced, this is one component that must not be overlooked!
Now…I’ll get off my soapbox and move on to actual components. Before you ask, no, we aren’t to displays yet, either. Man, everyone focuses on those as the key part of a system…. Next is software. The CMS, or Content Management System, is the heart of any digital signage system. It’s the component that enables you to distribute and manage your content, and set up all the scheduling and dayparting you will use. This makes this the single most important product (see, not getting past that content thing yet) that you will select. Now, a lot will come down to your strategy. What are your objectives? How will the signage be used? Different software packages (and there are hundreds!) all offer generally the same group of features, but typically have specialization that lets them focus on a specific vertical. For example, a CMS focused on interactive content, or one focused on integration with external data sources. There are also different business models involved here; some software is on-premise, meaning you purchase it and host it yourself, others are SaaS (Software as a Service) and hosted in the cloud for a monthly subscription fee. Neither is inherently superior, and a lot of this will depend on your IT policies, and finances.
Once you know software, then you can select a media player. Today, since it is the space year 2017, you have a wealth of choices, not just PCs. Android, ChromeOS, Windows PCs, custom SoC, display embedded…. This deserves a whole discussion unto itself. Keep in mind that your software vendor will often have guidelines and recommendations for this, since this device is where the software lives. Personally, I’m getting to where I prefer non-Windows devices, they tend to be lower cost and easier to manage, but don’t take that as absolute—there are always great options in all types, and everything has its place.
Next up, let’s talk networks. Nope, still not to displays! If the CMS software is the heart, then the network is the backbone. It’s the connection that lets each media player communicate back to the central server, wherever it is. This is often the part of digital signage that will require the most technical skill, especially if the internet is involved to connect multiple sites. You need to be comfortable connecting devices to the network, configuring them, managing ports and bandwidth, and dealing with firewalls. If that sounds complicated…yes, it can be! Implementing this may take a “guess and check” mentality, as communication rarely works perfectly the very first time you flip the power switch. Sorry, plug and play is an illusion used as a marketing tool, not a reality!
Now, we finally get to displays. Selecting the type of display involves understanding three things; environment, hours of use and audience position. Understanding the environment in which the display will live helps us choose how bright it needs to be, and if we need protection against dust or moisture. Knowing the hours it will be turned on helps us to select the duty cycle required. Finally, knowing the audience position will help us in selecting how large the display (and the image shown on it) will need to be. LCD flat panels are the most common, and will be the go-to for general purpose displays, but projectors are being used quite a bit as well (especially the models that don’t use traditional lamps!). Direct-view LED displays are coming down in price, so those are evolving into a much more common choice as well. Each one has its own pros and cons.
We’re not quite done, so bear with me a bit longer. We also have mounting for the display and media player. Before you laugh at me, this is a more complex choice than you think. You need to understand the structure of what you are mounting onto, where the display will go and if you are dealing with an unusual environment. Sometimes, we need protective enclosures, or a kiosk for an interactive display. All of this makes the mounting solution key, and not something to be selected as an afterthought. Also, always buy from a top-tier mount provider; saving money here can cost time and increase the risk of mount failure.
Now that we have covered these components, you should understand the general parts of a digital signage system. We only had enough time here to cover the most basic of overviews, but if this topic intrigues you, and you want to learn more, I will be conducting an hour-long seminar in much more detail at Digital Signage Expo 2017, this March. It’s in Vegas, which is always a fun time, and the DSE is the one-stop-shop for all things digital signage. The educational programs (like mine, shameless plug…come see the class!) are great for helping master topics like this, and we can help you fully understand all the parts of a digital signage system.
Editor’s Note: Jonathan Brawn will present Session 2 entitled, “Understanding the Parts of a Digital Signage Network,” at Digital Signage Expo 2017 on Wednesday, March 29 at 9am at the Las Vegas Convention Center. For more information on this or any educational program offered at DSE 2017, or to learn more about digital signage in general, go to www.dse2017.com.