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.




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.





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