Certain projects present challenges that make hardwired connectivity to signage displays difficult, if not impossible; hence, wireless connectivity becomes a necessity. As the popularity of pop-up stores and brand experiences in public spaces increases, the need for wireless connectivity to digital signage also increases. There are other specialized applications—for example, installations in historic buildings—that also make hardwiring a real challenge. Fortunately, there are a variety of viable, cost-effective solutions for wireless content delivery and control of digital signage.
The technology has continued to improve, but, nevertheless, wireless connectivity for digital signage is best used when there is no viable wired option. Throughput, security and other issues make it important to examine the alternatives carefully before committing to a local or wide-area wireless solution. Deploying a wireless system isn’t worth the risks and the hassles—except when it is. When you don’t have wired access, the appropriate wireless solution can be a system saver.
It’s important to avoid confusion between two different uses of the term “wireless” in the context of digital signage (DS). “Mobile” solutions typically enable customers to interact with DS content from smartphones to personalize their experience; meanwhile, DS systems with “wireless” content delivery or management allow displays, and even entire locations, to be free from the need for data/video/audio cabling.
Wireless signage systems range all the way from a flat-screen display with built-in Wi-Fi that’s connected to a local player via a wireless link, to more sophisticated 3G/4G solutions with virtual private network (VPN) security and cloud-based management.
The first task is to identify the “gap”…the aspect of the planned system that requires a wireless link. For example, is the gap the last 50 feet between a local server/player and the screen? Is it the miles between the system operator’s office and the store or public area? Then, it’s important to understand what kind of communication is required. Is it simply a periodic playlist update? Does the application require live streaming, real-time analytics and interactivity?
Predetermining the perceived value that a wireless solution can offer will save both time and money. How important is it to eliminate “unsightly” wires that run across a store window? What’s the real difference to your client between updating locations once a week via sneakernet and having the ability to change content on the fly?
Depending on the answers to those questions, and related ones, you’ll be able to develop a cost/benefit analysis and present viable choices to your stakeholders.
Other factors to consider include data security, wireless range, RF interference, multicasting and support, as well as reliability/mean time between failures (MTBF).
“Security is the primary concern,” said Brannon Bourland, Director of Marketing Communications for FSG, who has experience with both internal signage networks and clients’ networks. “Does the media player (radio, firmware and software) support the latest security protocols? Does the wireless local area network (WLAN) offer the necessary security and segmentation?” he asked. “For example, in an enterprise setting, a lot of wireless networks have a guest Wi-Fi component. I see a lot of WLANs that aren’t configured properly; so, I can actually see [access to] their wireless digital signage players while I’m using their guest network in the lobby.”
Bourland also recommended checking out the dependability of the WLAN network design. “Can it handle the data loads, constant queries, etc., that can come with a digital signage player?” he asked. “Some WLANs, by default, will have data limiters or other components built in to help balance loads and usage. Making sure these things don’t interfere with the digital signage player’s ability to do its job is critical.”
It’s also important to be conservative about the real-world capabilities of solutions under consideration. Although it might seem hard to believe, some manufacturers—and even service providers—have been known to wax poetic and exaggerate the actual bandwidth, reliability and security of their wireless systems.
For a quick, in-store installation, Wi-Fi-equipped media players that cost less than $300, such as the ViewSonic NMP-302w, could do the job. Although it depends on a local PC to feed it content, the ViewSonic unit has a fail-safe feature that allows it to replay content stored on the internal 8GB memory, should the Wi-Fi connection be lost.
If content has to be changed remotely, or served up on several displays, you will need to consider a more advanced wireless solution. Experiential installations that require mobile integration can be achieved with solutions such as the BrightSign WS103 WiFi/Bluetooth single-antenna module, which can be installed in BrightSign Series 3 players (LS3, HD3, XD3 and XT3) to network multiple players over Wi-Fi and operate BrightBeacon via Bluetooth.
Where no Wi-Fi signal is available, or where a local server with wired internet capability is not an option, a 3G/4G solution such as those available from MediaTile and other major vendors could fill the bill. Jens Kofoed, CTO, Corum Digital/MediaTile, noted that, when deploying a large-scale cellular DS network, it is critical to have a strong partnership with a carrier that provides coverage across all the remote locations. He also suggested, “Given the strong possibility of temporary outages in remote areas, the software must have inherent ‘self-healing’ protocols in place to attempt to reestablish connections and retransmit the media.”
Whether you integrate a custom solution or opt to deploy a turnkey system from a major manufacturer or service provider, a well-executed, well-thought-out wireless solution could expand the value you add to your client’s brand.