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2009

I'm nearsighted. In fact, I'm so nearsighted that at the ophthalmologist, I can't see the top letter without my eyeglasses. This has always made it hard to shop for eyeglasses. When I put on a pair I'm considering, I have to hold my face so close to the mirror to see what I look like that I really don't get a very good look at how the frame complements (or clashes) with my overall facial features. For this reason, my wife always insists on coming with me to the optometrist. She knows if she doesn't, I'm going to come home with something that just doesn't look right. Consequently, shopping for eyeglasses is a complicated procedure that involves aligning two busy schedules.

 

My own personal hassles with shopping for eyeglasses is what got me so excited about a recent social computer kiosk setup called "Social Sun" at Sunglass Hut. What makes this touchscreen kiosk social is that it includes a camera that not only takes photos of you in various frames, but also allows you to email them to people or post them on your Facebook or other social site page. That means when you're shopping for sunglasses, you could get opinions on your “look" in various frames from your spouse, family or friends. You could even email them to yourself, go home, spend a few days comparing how you look in various pairs, and then go back to the store and buy a pair. After all, sunglasses are an important decision. You have to look cool in them. I think they're one of the few things even men like to shop for.

 

Another feature of Social Sun is you can look at groups of images all at once that show you in various pairs of sunglasses. This allows you to compare how you look in different frames and different colors of frames. You can even go beyond the little touchscreen and use a large LCD screen at the store to get a better look.

 

I think the idea has legs for all kinds of retail applications. Hair salons could use it to enable customers to show off their latest hairdo before they even walk out the door. Clothing stores could use it to allow customers to get second opinions on how various fashions look on them from friends and family. Imagine if such a kiosk also took short videos. People could twirl around and see how something looked from every angle.

 

The company driving these social kiosks is Micro Industries, an Affiliate Member of the Intel® Embedded Alliance. They're targeting a wide range of retail in-store applications with their Touch&Go* line of embedded computers and mCosm software. The product used for Social Sun is the Touch&Go Paige* 17 interactive computer. It features a 17" LCD touchscreen with 1280x1024 resolution and a wide viewing angle.

 

For its brains, it uses Intel® Core 2™ Duo processor. This is a smart choice because this processor is powerful enough to run multiple applications simultaneously while delivering fast, effortless graphics performance. Equally important, it runs cool enough for fanless operation. That's important in a store where you want to keep system sound levels to a minimum. And running cool generally means longer life in computers.

 

The Paige can connect to wired or wireless networks, whatever works best with a particular store. What's more, if the network goes down in a store, the system continues to take pictures of customers and display the pictures for them. That's the advantage of having a fully functional PC inside the system.

 

An application like this demonstrates that brick-and-mortar retailers have a great way to one up Internet retailers. The ability able to try things on, see yourself in them, and even garner opinions from friends over the Web — all without leaving the store — is very compelling. It's proof that the 15 billion intelligent connected devices predicted for 2015[1] won't just be applications running in the background of our lives, but enhance our social networking as well.

 

What do you think? Ready to go try on some sunglasses?



[1] John Gantz, "The Embedded Internet: Methodology and Findings," IDC, January 2009.


In a November 4th, 2009 e-cast on "Open Standards Based Platforms Ideal for Military/Aerospace/and Government Applications", sponsored by the Intel® Embedded Alliance, the issues around standards-based platforms using long-life Intel embedded processors were explored by a panel of experts.

 

Chris Ciufo, editorial director of Military Embedded Systems, moderated the event for OpenSystems Media. Panelists presenting were:

  • Peter Carlston, Platform Architect, Intel Embedded Computing Division
  • James Doyle, Congressional Affairs Liaison, Emerson Network Power (with Rob Persons, Field Applications Engineer, during Q&A)
  • John Long, Product Line Manager, RadiSys Corporation (with Lorraine Orcino, Product Marketing Manager, during Q&A)

Chris opened the e-cast with brief comments about the network centric warfare vision of "MAG" applications requiring interoperability between both legacy systems and new systems with advanced features. One way to achieve that is using open standards based, Commercial Off the Shelf (COTS) products.  Chris then posed the guiding question for the event: Can you really meet strict requirements and deliver better products faster, and at a lower cost, using open standards? The short answer is "yes", but the panel was asked to prove that.

 

Peter Carlston then presented a couple of key ideas, starting with the idea of COTS products operating in one network - a really large network, with a lot of pieces, but nonetheless one network. The idea of long-term availability is important, with all products on the Intel embedded roadmap having 7 to 10 year availability. He also mentioned hardware virtualization and secure boot enhancements, features also supported in Intel Architecture processors. Peter cited Nehalem as an example of a cutting-edge processor targeting the types of signal processing algorithms often found in MAG applications, and other Intel Architecture processors fitting lower TDP points with good performance.

 

James Doyle commented on the fit of open systems platforms in C4ISR, networking, and situational awareness applications for the warfighter. He cited a quite example of the potential: "Recently in Afghanistan, there was a situation where the first person on a scene literally wrote a blog in his HMMWV. Within 7 minutes, that information was directly in front of the President, who was able to make a decision and act on that intelligence." He positioned SWaP - Size, Weight, and Power - as an important criteria supported by open standards platforms. Standards he mentioned prominently were AdvancedTCA and VME.

 

John Long commented on the mapping of COM Express to smaller, handheld applications, while AdvancedTCA maps well to larger C4ISR applications requiring higher performance. AdvancedTCA offers the high performance of larger Intel Architecture processors combined with 40GbE and other high performance I/O. COM Express fits a mobile warfighter need, in small, battery powered designs, or in small platforms like UAVs.

 

After these overviews, the Q&A portion of the e-cast began with extended panel discussion of questions submitted by attendees. Following are excerpts from that session.

 

For more information:

Register to view the archived event, with slides and audio:  http://bit.ly/34DZx8

Download the podcast with audio only:  http://bit.ly/3Ij9ZC

 

 

 


 

CC: Why is Intel's embedded group focusing on the military again? Didn't you get out of the mil-spec business?

PC:  Yes, we did, but with the renewed emphasis on commercial off the shelf silicon and systems built with that silicon by our partners such as Emerson and RadiSys, we decided the time was right to focus again on the military. We now have very power efficient processors which can go into a large number of form factors including small and very small form factors, and we're getting a lot of traction .... We believe we have the right product, the right support mechanisms, and we're able to enable our partners to be successful in MAG applications.

JD: We are seeing a growing change in prime contractors and the DoD with interest in Intel silicon. As things move forward, we see greater adoption for commercially available silicon that operates in all different temps and in different platforms [for these MAG applications]. We think it's a great time for Intel to come back to this marketplace.

JL: We've also seen the adoption of Intel Architecture processors in MAG applications. They have lower power, high performance processors, and also higher performance parts. This allows a lot of applications to move to more standard form factors, and also we're seeing movement to more standard operating systems.

 

CC: 7 to 10 years historically hasn't been enough support time. My opinion is ... this is what we get with COTS; a component supplier offering a 7 year life cycle is as good as you'll get from any component supplier with only a handful of exceptions. What do you think?

PC: I agree. There are many military programs that equipment is being sold into for much longer than 7 to 10 years. That's where a commercial company such as Intel has to rely on our partners to manage the supply chain. We give along early advance notice of last time buys to help our partners.

 

CC: What is the future of warfare, and how do you see the embedded computing industry supporting it?

JD: Let me try to wrap this around situational awareness. Our view is the collaboration of technology and the warfighter will continually enhance our capability to be able to operate in multiple theaters, not just US forces but forces around the world. Being able to use COTS technology allows us to collaborate with our partners, to be able to share information to do different missions ... We see technology at the forefront of allowing us to have a "more aware" battlefield which will keep our troops safer.

RP: I agree with you in general. I think that having a variety of form factors, not just traditional VME, fits a variety of applications. Because we have all these different open standards all using similar silicon, I think we can address a variety of different applications but have a lot more overlap in software.

 

CC: Does Emerson support any other open standards besides AdvancedTCA?

RP: Our entire product portfolio really centers around open standards.  This includes AdvancedTCA, VME, CompactPCI, and even some newer ones including AMC and MicroTCA.

 

CC: For RadiSys, where can COM Express and AdvancedTCA be used in the MAG market?

JL: There are two areas. COM Express is really good for mobile applications. We've seen adoption in computer display units where you can easily pull them out of a vehicle, in the man-wearable devices, and in smaller UAVs. AdvancedTCA is a much larger form factor and is probably not viable for a tank or fighter plane, but in a large aircraft and ground stations it's ideal. When we look at all the different form factors out there, they all fit in different segments and are all viable in the long run. Some are better for different applications than others.

 

CC: For Intel, what is Intel doing to address the need for much higher performance with the smallest SWaP envelope possible?

PC: Intel as a corporation is very focused on SWaP. It's no secret that in the past there was a need for more and more performance, and in the desktop space you could just add bigger fans and more ducting and that sort thing. Those days are over. With the move to multicore processors we've really enhanced our technology such as fine-grain power management where we shut off parts of the core and parts of the "uncore" when they're not being used, and microseconds or even nanoseconds ahead of when they need to be used they're switched back on. There's a lot of technology going into making our processors more power efficient ... In the Nehalem microarchitecture, we've quadrupled memory bandwidth with memory access times down to 4 or 5 nanoseconds, and that's made a big difference in the performance of a number of algorithms. In a high end radar algorithm, between an unthreaded application and a multithreaded application we've increased performance 38 times by running on a new Nehalem family processor.

 

CC: For Emerson, what are the chief concerns being raised that inhibit the adoption of COTS technology in MAG applications?

JD: One of the concerns is certainly lifecycle. Understanding the supply chain management and how we continue to support these programs for 15 to 25 years depending on the program is important. The other areas for COTS really come down to Congress, and understanding the acquisition cycle, and the way you need to get to the left of an RFP, and help the customers and the users  understand what is available. I ask people to write their congressman, and ask them to change one phrase - please make sure that in next resolution it says "shall be open standard" instead of "should be open standard".

 

CC: For RadiSys, how important are middleware standards for high availability, such as SAF, to the success of AdvancedTCA in MAG?

JL: Middleware is critical and open standards are very important. Open standards provide some vendor independence and allow taking the same base product and moving it to multiple applications. Open standards build on each other get you cost effective COTS products.

 

CC: Would anyone like to comment on VITA's new OpenVPX initiative and how it addresses high availability?

RP: OpenVPX is definitely going to benefit from the work already done in the AdvancedTCA world, but the systems will be treated differently. We'll unlikely see hot swapping capabilities in OpenVPX, but having an internal view of the system and being able to provision a variety of different boards within a chassis will be very strong. At least a subset of the OpenSAF architectures will bleed into OpenVPX systems management.

JL: I'd agree, the use of the same management strategy is good. It allows reuse of technology. One of the things I hope to see in the long run is this will allow folks to easily scale from VPX to AdvancedTCA by reusing a lot of stuff already developed.

 

CC: Do you think that's a likely scenario? That someone would scale from a 3U VPX system to a rackmounted AdvancedTCA implementation?

JL: I look at large companies addressing different applications; a lot of the base middleware and technology from the software perspective can be reused across different platforms. That's where the value of the SAF standards is.

RP: I agree, and I think that it's very much like you see with Linux deployed in a lot more areas - having that common software thread that can be reused, whether in a hardened environment or not-so-hardened. The same set of software can be used in a variety of different platform styles.

 

CC: For Intel, how does virtualization affect the MAG market?

PC: There is a lot of interest in virtualization, starting with information assurance platforms. These are platforms where you have to protect vital information from software-based attacks, viruses, root kits, all that sort of thing. It's also about running multiple levels of security at the same time on the same platform. Intel's virtualization technology implemented in our processors allows building very high performance, multiple levels of security. We have other technology that aids in secure booting. In other types of applications, like shipboard computing, reducing racks of equipment with more power efficient servers - more like a data center - is a model for virtualization.

 

CC: For Emerson, can technology in COTS systems and applications be leveraged and reused across multiple systems and form factors without sacrificing security?

JD: Security is an abstract of an organization, its technology, its management, its value chain from beginning to end, including people. It comes down to people, process, and the way technology is utilized. A president of a major prime contractor said: "I'm convinced that we have six non-national spies within our organization, today." Depending on how you look at your organization, how you manage it, and how you deploy systems, security is a critical aspect.

RP: We're seeing a lot of the software that runs on these systems taking advantage of closing a lot of those security gaps. It's a concerted effort between how you deploy systems, and who you allow to access them, along with some of the underlying software technology that will be a very strong solution.

 

CC: For RadiSys, is AdvancedTCA viable for airborne operations?

JL: Yes, it is, especially in larger aircraft. There are customers deploying AdvancedTCA in applications such as surveillance.  It is very viable and the challenge in airborne is hardening boards enough to handle high frequency vibration and any unique cooling requirements.

 

CC:  For Intel, is multiprocessor debugging technology progressing with multicore use in embedded systems?

PC: Obviously, you can't just keep the application the same and rely on processors running ever faster. There's a lot of work going on to enable customers; there's not very much understanding of multithreading, there's not a lot of experience with it , and yet the performance requirements are just not going to be met without a lot of multithreading going on. Intel is putting a lot of effort into our multithreading tools. We have thread checking tools, we have debugging tools, we have a lot of things running on Linux, and we're working real-time operating systems vendors to improve their tools. It's happening, but maybe not as fast as I'd like to see just yet - that's just my opinion.

RP: In the case of utilization, that's where virtualization will become very important. We see it especially in the telecom space where some of these AdvancedTCA blades can have up to eight, heading toward twelve cores - being able to use all those cores is going to be very difficult without virtualization. It's going to be important to take advantage of all the power we're producing on a board.

 

CC: For RadiSys, an audience member asks: "We've had interest in a 2 slot AMC system for the military for mobile applications. How could COM Express compete with the number of AMCs already out there?"

LO: The selection of COM Express versus AMC is driven by the application requirements.  We are seeing deployments with COM Express in these mobile MAG applications.

 

CC: As a follow on, how does VPX compare to AdvancedTCA?

JL: We're excited that VPX has been adopted as a standard, and we think it fits a good niche in the mission computing role. The differences? AdvancedTCA supplies more input power, higher processing compute power, and has been around longer - a lot of the bugs have been worked out. There are applications where VPX is a better fit.

JD: The big difference from our view is really the deployment. AdvancedTCA is great for "benign" systems - it's a large platform that is designed for communication applications. OpenVPX is for much more rugged environments, in 3U and 6U form factors.

 

CC: For Intel, which OS will dominate - Windows, Linux, VxWorks, or others?

PC: Well, it's all speculation. We're seeing increasing adoption of Linux, even in some surprising applications that previously have used an RTOS. On the other hand, there are certain applications that are going to need a true real-time operating system forever. I think it's going to be a mix. There's a lot of work going on for small devices with things like Moblin.

 

CC: For Intel, with shrinking geometries cause more errors due to single event upsets (radiation)?

PC: It's a question I get all the time. Some of the literature says this is going to happen, while other says there are some mitigating circumstances going on. As geometries get smaller, the jury is still out. We are paying a lot of attention in our packaging, our material science, to mitigate these kinds of effects.

 

CC: For Intel, what products are currently available to support high throughput signal processing?

PC: With our dual socket and quad socket processors on bladed form factors, we support FPGA plug-in modules that attach to the processor bus - tightly coupling the FPGA with the general purpose CPU. They share the same memory, they have cache coherency, all that. We've licensed our RTL to both Altera and Xilinx for this purpose. Another part of this is what we call the acceleration abstraction layer, which allows abstracting those hardware resources in a service oriented architecture layer so the system can publish what's available and the application can take advantage of the best acceleration technology that it needs to at that moment. Also, as our customers move from Freescale AltiVec to Intel SSE, we have tools available to automate that conversion.

 

CC: Really? Tools available to cross compile from AltiVec to SSE?

PC: For the digital signal and image processing portions, yes. For example, there's one tool that takes VSIPL libraries for Intel Architecture and performs very well, and there's another one that has an altivec.h header file for Intel Architecture which can be linked in. Both of these take care of things like byte swapping.

 

CC: For Intel, what types of feedback are you getting from the MAG market?

PC: There's a lot around our graphics processor called Larrabee. I can't discuss details or schedules ... What we're seeing are very difficult compute problems from our customers.  GPUs are getting incredibly capable, with huge amounts of data coming in. Many core processors, 80 to 100 cores in our research, are looking at some of these very high end workloads. It'll be more of a hybrid system, putting CPUs and GPUs together to get the best solutions.

 

 


 

 

From the Q&A session, you can see that the interest in this application space is rather intense, and the innovation coming from Intel and the Intel Embedded Alliance is beginning to produce ideas that are shaping the future direction of military compute applications.

 

What are your thoughts on the ideas discussed during this event? What do you see as the driving issues for MAG applications and how they are being approached? What would you like to see next on this topic?

Most of us have had our fair share of bad driving experiences and unpleasant road trips akin to Clark Griswold's mishap-filled cross-country trek depicted in the 1983 cult classic "National Lampoon's Vacation." Vicious picnic-ruining dogs and deceased aunts aside, we all know what it feels like to be uncomfortable and bored while stuck in the car for any extended period of time.

 

Fortunately, embedded systems designers are developing In-Vehicle Infotainment (IVI) platforms to incorporate digital content into automotive head units, turning our cars into wired workplaces and home theaters on wheels. With Bluetooth, GPS, MP3/DVD players, Internet connectivity, and a host of other capabilities integrated onboard, these systems are enabling drivers and passengers to communicate, navigate, rock out, and log in while on the road.

 

Several Intel® Embedded Alliance member companies are working with Intel to develop Open Infotainment Platforms (OIPs) that will help automakers and suppliers bring IVI offerings to market quickly and cost-effectively. Using Intel architecture as the base technology, software providers, board manufacturers, and complementary silicon vendors are advancing automotive electronics innovation through their contributions to developing these interoperable OIPs.

 

One such platform that supports the Intel® Atom™ processor, the QNX CAR application platform from Intel Embedded Alliance Associate member QNX Software Systems, provides pre-integrated reference implementations that help companies prototype their products for free. Ten OEMs, 13 Tier One suppliers, eight non-automotive market leaders, and three major initiatives headed by multi-company collaborations are currently using QNX CAR as their base platform, says Andy Gryc, QNX automotive product marketing manager. Commercial production programs based on QNX CAR are expected to start rolling out in 2011. QNX is fostering the creation of open development platforms for infotainment content developers through the CAR platform as well as through participation in the Open Screen Project and use of Adobe Flash, which was recognized recently at the Adobe MAX awards.

 

OIPs like QNX CAR are changing the way automotive applications are being developed by providing a standardized application platform and enabling multi-discipline cooperation in an industry where most collaborations either have a limited vehicle focus or are strictly controlled within a secretive set of players, Gryc says.

 

"An application platform based on known standards allows each company to focus their contributions on differentiating features, which really accelerates the innovation and widens the playing field," he says.

 

Intel Embedded Alliance Associate member Microsoft is also raising the level of software sophistication in automotive applications through its Microsoft Auto 4.0 infotainment stack. With support for Intel architecture processors, customers now have more choice in the architecture they use with Microsoft Auto.

 

In his keynote at the recent Intel Developer Forum, Intel CEO Paul Otellini communicated that Harman International chose the Intel Atom processor for their next-generation IVI designs and has secured design wins with BMW and Daimler. The Volkswagen Electronics Research Lab is also working with Intel and its ecosystem to develop infotainment research platforms in prototype vehicles.

 

Furthermore, IVI system OEMs can take development shortcuts by starting designs with the Low-Power Intel IVI Reference Design platform with the Intel Atom Z530 + System Controller Hub US15W, congatec conga-CA COM Express module, and Xilinx Automotive Spartan-3E FPGA.

 

In addition to collaborating with automakers, Intel is helping electronics systems companies develop aftermarket IVI products such as Telemetria Technology's DashTop platform, scheduled for availability by the end of the first quarter next year. The customizable system acts as a Wi-Fi hot spot, offering broadband connectivity and a broad set of infotainment features including HD radio, Web conferencing, and streaming video. Built around the Atom processor, DashTop provides a flexible IVI system that is both Linux and Windows compatible.

 

"Because of its low power requirements, the Atom allows us to quickly extend the same architecture into both the in-dash system as well as a detachable unit for mobile uses," says Telemetria Technology CEO Allen Nejah.

 

Besides the infotainment capabilities, DashTop includes smart engine diagnostics that monitor vehicles in real time, enabling OEMs to collect data for design and manufacturing improvements. Coupled with safety functions including collision avoidance, lane departure warning, and driver alertness notification, these features are seamlessly connecting the car to the outside world, Nejah says.

 

"All the electronics within the car combined with all the location-based services for safety, security, traffic management, and more can lead to the development of a driverless car," he asserts.

 

In need of cost-effective silicon to help pump out multimedia-rich systems, automotive OEMs and suppliers are turning to powerful, field-upgradable technologies such as Programmable Logic Devices (PLDs). Without involving the design respins common in ASIC development, PLDs allow designers to get IVI products out the door faster for prototypes and demonstrations to OEMs, says Dave Elliott, senior marketing manager with the Industrial Business Unit at Altera, an Associate member of the Intel Embedded Alliance.

 

"PLDs enable a single platform design that can easily be modified to suit the needs of different vehicle classes, from mass market to luxury models," he says.

 

Using PLDs and FPGA-based platforms, OEMs can build IVI systems and then add features and functionality as they migrate to higher-end vehicles, Elliott says. Altera's Cyclone FPGAs are currently being used by automotive supplier Valeo in a lane departure warning system implemented in Nissan cars and by electronics equipment manufacturer Blaupunkt in a radio/navigation unit featured in Volkswagen cars, he says.

 

Along with Intel and Intel Embedded Alliance Associate member companies Wind River Systems and MontaVista Software, Altera is participating in the GENIVI Alliance, a cross-industry consortium striving to develop and promote an open source IVI platform. The inherent capabilities of the PLDs that Altera manufactures align with GENIVI's vision of shortening development cycles, speeding time to market, and reducing development costs, Elliott states.

 

While GENIVI is currently focusing on developing open source platforms for IVI devices, the consortium could possibly expand into other non-safety-critical areas of the vehicle such as dashboard units or graphical displays for complex under-the-hood technologies like those found in hybrid cars, says Alexander Kocher, Wind River's VP of automotive solutions.

 

Though technology hasn't advanced quite enough yet to enable the capabilities of KITT or Marty McFly's DeLorean DMC-12, the IVI systems developed using GENIVI's platform in combination with hardware, software, and silicon from Intel Embedded Alliance companies are turning vehicles into much more than a means to get from here to there.

 

"With navigation systems, driver assistance capabilities, and rich multimedia resources, a car is no longer just about transportation," Elliott says. "It's about a helpful and rewarding driver and passenger experience."

 

Knowing how much work and collaboration it takes to design these IVI systems, do you think the payoff in terms of consumer sales will be worth the effort, given the current economic state of affairs in the auto industry? Besides IVI, what other products can technology providers develop to improve vehicles? Besides vehicles, what other application areas should be targeted for the latest infotainment devices? Voice your comments, questions, and ideas with other infotainment technology enthusiasts in the embedded community.

 

Jennifer Hesse
OpenSystems Media®, by special arrangement with Intel® Embedded Alliance

 

Digital signage is showing up in all kinds of public and corporate applications: information signage and billboards, retail displays with advertising and promotions, and self-service kiosks which combine transactions with advertising. Anywhere a consumer can be found trying to gain information or make a transaction is by a broad definition an opportunity for a digital signage application.

 

In a recent deployment, a digital signage app is now seen prominently at the busiest airport in Asia. The Beijing airport hosts 600 digital signage appliances to deliver dynamic, quickly updatable advertising content shown on 82" and 108" displays to the over-150,000 travelers who pass through the airport every day.

 

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Digital signage offers much faster time-to-consumer benefits than conventional printed signage. Content can be updated quickly, and made dynamic and creative to engage consumers. Content can also be distributed and controlled over a network, allowing synchronized messages to be shown on a local, regional, or global basis.

 

In this four-part series, we're going to look at how digital signage comes alive from an embedded computing perspective. Here, we'll discuss what goes into a compact digital signage system and what Intel® Embedded Alliance members said are make or break points. In future installments, we'll look at the graphics and multimedia processing needs in more detail, a typical system and its maintenance and security details, and the software approaches to creating and displaying content.

 

Digital signage elements

Most digital signage systems consist of several key elements:

 

  • Processor - in some applications a very fast processor can be used, but in others a fast processor with lower power consumption for fanless operation is called for. Small size and low power is often a consideration as well, which can drive choices of chipset packaging and integration.

 

  • Graphics - digital signage drives a rich, full motion LCD display, so graphics processing and interfaces like HDMI and DVI are important.

 

  • Multimedia - content can include full motion video and audio, so multimedia codecs are an integral part of the designs, as is a robust software environment to create and drive the content in creative ways.

 

  • Networking - most digital signage systems update dynamically from a server, so fast networking such as Gigabit Ethernet is needed, and many clients are equipped with Wi-Fi as well.

 

  • Storage - most digital signage platforms are really thin clients by design, but some storage such as flash, SSD, or a small hard drive is needed to boot an operating system and locally store content for display.

 

  • Security and maintenance - systems may be in locations where they can be compromised, but they can't be so secure as to be unmaintainable; a balance between the two is required.

 

 

The hardware and software work together to provide a total experience, such as Microsoft researches in a 20,000 sq ft "retail experience center" where they test digital signage and point of sale concepts.

 

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Make or break

To gain a better perspective, I asked several Intel® Embedded Alliance member companies to comment on one question and show an example of their digital signage player products.

 

"What one technological point makes or breaks a digital signage application, and why?"

 

Vivian Chen, marketing manager for NEXCOM, an Associate member of the Alliance, said: "Flexibility, built on the integration of superb graphic performance, multiple display interfaces and powerful computing capability, is the tipping point to fit diversified application requirements in the digital signage world." They offer the NDiS 163 as an example of a powerful Intel Core 2 Duo Processor P8400-based system.

 

Jack Lam, senior product marketing manager for Associate Alliance member American Portwell Technology, says: "Systems need to be power efficient while supporting advanced graphics, high definition video decoding, and image processing." A product like the WEBS-1010 shows a small, fanless system based on an Intel Atom Z530 or Z510 Processor.

 

Tim Taberner, UK Sales Lead for Eurotech, points out: "Digital signage solutions must have the ability to deliver content in a variety of current and future formats so delivery mechanisms and device management are data format-agnostic, to allow deployment of code updates to all remotes - for example, to support new codecs."  Single board computers like the ISIS, again based on an Intel Atom processor, can form the core of a digital signage application. Eurotech is an Associate member of the Alliance.

 

Clay Fazio, senior product manager for Advantech, a Premier member of the Alliance, first says it depends on the application, but "... the two critical components that dictate a solution for a particular market would be the environment and the content.  Both play a large part in the technology required for the application to be successful." As part of the environment, he cites thermal design as something that is impacting new digital signage applications.

 

Sean Langdon, VP of business development for Associate Alliance member Axiomtek, says that the business model is changing: "The Digital Signage space has evolved from inception into infancy, but now faces the daunting task of gaining the maturity needed to deliver value under the new fiscal ROI models of banks, property owners, and media buyers alike.  Hidden, soft, or unplanned expenses can sink an otherwise solid business plan since they directly impact the total cost of ownership."  This implies things like maintenance are very important, a point also raised by Tom Spurlock, regional sales manager for Axiomtek: "The inability to easily remove the player engine from the sign to service or upgrade after the sign is mounted in place is often a show stopper on larger signs, 36" and higher."

 

As you can see, the make or break proposition hits on most of the elements of a system pointed out earlier. We'll tackle graphics and multimedia in our next segment. In the meantime, what do you see as the needs now for digital signage systems? How would you answer the make or break question based on your experience?

 

Don Dingee
OpenSystems Media®, by special arrangement with Intel® Embedded Alliance

 

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