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2009

Like many people, I'm an information freak. I especially like a lot of information before I plunk down hard-earned cash for something. The bigger the purchase, the more information I want. I've walked out of many stores or backed out of retail websites because I didn't have enough information to make a purchase. There's also a time element in play here. I'm a busy guy. I have a full-time job, a family, and like to spend as much time as I can outdoors. So I don't have much time to spend on buying decisions. And little patience for sales people who can't tell me what I need to know.

 

For all these reasons, I find interactive digital signage exciting. It can put the information I need right in front of me when I need it – and lets me navigate to it. How cool would it be to walk into an electronics store, head for, say, the printers, and using a touch screen, quickly drill down into specifications about the model I'm interested in and perhaps comparisons with competing models? In that scenario, I'm likely to walk out in a few minutes with the printer in my hands. The retailer is happy. And so am I.

 

The same could be true for informational displays at something like an event. I might be at a conference and want to see what sessions are happening in the next hour and what I might learn from them. Give me a touchscreen and a way to quickly find the information I need and I'm a happy camper. In the age of the Internet, interactive digital signage makes great sense – it's how we are all used to looking for information these days.

 

I had a chance recently to talk with the people at Advantechabout their All-in-One Digital Signage Station (DSS). This is something you should really see. It's a high-end interactive public signage kiosk solution tailored for middle- and large-scale public signage networks. It comes in 42”, 52” and 65” LCD panels, all specially integrated with industrial PCs and touch screens and wireless connection (LAN and WAN). It's the full package including a rugged aluminum frame design. You can even add proximity sensors to recognize when someone is in front of the display and web-cams for “gesture-based” interaction. The design is so hot, the film studio promoting Transformers: Revenge of the Fallenand Nike have already used them to attract shoppers' attention in Taiwan (see case study).

 

Inside the DSS, there's an embedded PC that manages the content (slide shows, clips, videos, movies, Flash demos, web pages, text etc), which can be loaded and downloaded through the built-in wireless (WiFi*, Bluetooth*, GPRS/UMTS, GPS, HSDPA, WiMAX*) connections, and/or via cable to the Internet or simply through direct access.

 

This embedded PC deserves mention because it's an Intel® Core™2 Duo processor. That means, compared to earlier generations, this processor will deliver greater performance while consuming less power. A cool trick indeed. What's more, with the graphics capabilities integrated into the accompanying Intel® chipsets, the platform can further reduce system costs and power consumption compared to having to add a discrete graphics solution. In fact, the available high performance Intel® Graphics Media Accelerators 4500MHD and 4500HD won't miss a beat in delivering captivating graphics, 3D rendering performance and HD video playback.

 

Advantech also makes the DSS series available with Intel® vPro™ technologyenabled. This means money-saving remote management and energy-saving capabilities. IT professionals can query, fix and protect networked embedded devices even when they’re powered off, not responding, or have software issues. This means many failure modes can be fixed remotely so you can get systems back online faster and avoid on-site service calls. Intel vPro technology also allows devices to be remotely turned on/off to reduce energy consumption during off hours. That means you don't have to depend on staff people at a store or other location to turn the units off and on each day. You can handle it from headquarters.

 

The DSS series is a product that can be placed in any indoor and semi-outdoor area – the front cabinet meets IP55 certification for dust and water protection. The front screen can be fitted with either tempered (vandal-proof) glass to prevent damage, or with a rugged touch panel. You can even personalize the front bezel design with a logo, color or image.

 

Have any thoughts on interactive display signage you want to share? In my own opinion, I think we're going to see many more of them in the next few years with fingerprints all over their screens.

 

We've looked at a digital signage overview, graphics capability, and hardware maintenance and security ideas and trends. Now, we shift gears and take a look at the content presentation software side.

 

In simple architectural form, digital signage systems are a display powered by a media player (a dedicated computer with multimedia capability) attached to a network. They are often called on to just display information today, but these systems are increasingly becoming more interactive with a touchscreen for user input. The implementation usually includes an application which manages content on a schedule, running over a standard operating system which performs the network, display, and storage management with support for the multimedia content presentation.

 

Content presentation

There are three aspects related to content - creation, delivery, and presentation. Creation depends on desktop applications and toolsets, delivery involves the network, storage, and scheduling information, and once ready the content can be presented accordingly by the system. We'll look at what a digital signage system typically needs to support for content presentation, namely the display and management functions.

 

A flexible signage system is capable of accepting content in a wide variety of formats. Legacy formats include Microsoft PowerPoint, and jpeg formats. Modern signage systems are dealing with much more dynamic formats, such as Adobe Flash 10.1, Microsoft Silverlight, and a range of full motion formats including .avi, .mp4, .wmv, and others. After all, to be engaging to consumers, full motion multimedia formats are now the expectation based on the desktop and mobile experience.

 

The presentation manager software on each digital signage system should provide several common functions:

 

  • Network distribution of content files: As we said in part 3 of this series, digital signage systems are "edge" devices in enterprise apps. They are connected over a network to a content server. The server manages where content goes - it might go to all signs in a network, to only some, or to just one.
  • Web-based scheduling management: not only are content files distributed, but they have to be slotted into a playlist including many other pieces of content. Each player has to maintain its content storage, playlist, and player software. (This is another reason content usually isn't streamed in real-time - it's often played over and over again during its usage life. It might be streamed on the first usage, but then captured locally for replay on its schedule.) Also needed are functions to remove outdated content files, and update schedules or replace content files with newer versions.
  • Recovery and synchronization: a really important function. Let's say the player has a problem and requires maintenance, and the remedy is installation of a new computer. The tech has no way of knowing how to reload the current content set - that information is stored on the server and is completely time and location dependent. The player software needs to go out, and pull in the required current content based on its location in the physical setting of the signage network.
  • Emergency mode: many signage systems are capable of displaying urgent or emergency information which preempts regularly scheduled content.

 

This diagram from Intel® Embedded Alliance Premier member Advantech shows a simplified version of a signage application, and highlights that a single signage display may actually be composed of several content "zones" with video, images, and text sourced in a cohesive view. The content may also be directed to different types of players: an LCD panel, a projector, or even a mobile device.

 

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The larger the signage application network, the more complex and important these functions become. Modern digital signage management software provides many more sophisticated functions, and there are hundreds of solutions on the market from a wide range of VARs. Embedded solutions can benefit from some enterprise-style technology, such as Intel Active Management Technology appearing in several processor families, to improve the manageability of these large distributed systems.

 

Operating systems

Digital signage content management applications are of course based on an operating system, running on the signage system's computer.

 

One choice is from Microsoft, an Intel Embedded Alliance Associate member. Microsoft Windows Embedded is an easy choice for a digital signage system, because it contains several pieces of needed infrastructure.  Windows Embedded in its various forms obviously supports the required networking, whether it be wired Ethernet, Wi-Fi, or WiMAX. It supports the necessary playback formats, including legacy formats like Microsoft PowerPoint and new advanced formats such as Silverlight and Adobe Flash 10. Interactivity, power management, and rich traffic management are some of the additional attributes that are essential for a digital signage media player. Windows Embedded is well suited to offer these capabilities. There is also the possible need to deploy content on both fixed devices running Windows Embedded, and mobile devices running Windows CE Embedded or Windows Mobile. Intel works closely with Microsoft, building on applications from the enterprise side for embedded applications as well.

 

With the portability of Adobe Flash, Linux is also a possible choice especially at the entry level, from providers like Intel® Embedded Alliance Affiliate member LynuxWorks and Associate members MontaVista and Wind River. Linux offers similar networking benefits, and with more and more open source applications there are a range of solutions emerging. Intel's experience with projects like Moblin is driving some of this new development.

 

The next choice

Digital signage is no different than any other application development and deployment choice. The system architecture, development methods, installation requirements, licensing, performance, and many other factors need to be considered to arrive at the right choice.

 

As we wrap up this series, we've touched on many ideas in developing hardware and software for these systems. To finish up our discussion, we'd like your thoughts: What is the right operating system for today's digital signage systems? What features do you look for in a content management system for a digital signage player? What are you looking for in terms of networking, storage, or display capability at the player to help with performance or quality? Ideas welcome.

 

 

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

 

We've looked at an overview of digital signage computing platforms and integrated graphics capability supporting signage displays, and we're ready to take a closer look at the physical characteristics of a system, including maintenance and security. These aspects will help identify what I think are the trends coming into play soon.

 

Digital signage systems are in public places, by definition - they are meant for information or advertising content. This means physical mounting and security are more of a concern than the average embedded system. The units can't dislodge easily for operational and safety reasons and they have to be tamper and theft proof. They are often mounted either out of reach or in some type of secure cabinet.

 

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But at the same time, two other design challenges exist. Digital signage systems are usually networked in order to deliver regularly updated content to them for use, so they can't be totally isolated to provide physical security. Additionally, they have to be maintainable in case the display or the compute electronics fail or need upgrading, to avoid huge lifecycle costs.

 

How does a designer tackle this problem set, and what are some key trends to watch for? Let's break this down into the main parts of the hardware implementation.

 

Computer

The packaging of the computer complex (or media player as it is typically referred to in the industry) attached to a digital signage system is important. It takes into account three primary aspects related to maintenance and physical security:

 

  • cooling, which drives reliability,
  • cabling, which drives reliability, ease of installation, and maintenance,
  • mounting, which also drives installation, maintenance, and physical security,

 

Small digital signage systems can be constructed by OEMs using small computer boards (like COM Express modules or Mini-ITX boards) or custom small form factor systems, similar to what we showed in part 2 of this series . Larger systems can use larger form factors depending on performance and functionality needs, space, cooling, and power permitting.

 

As digital signage systems are moving to deployments with more systems involved, like the Beijing airport example  cited in part 1, most digital signage OEMs/VARs are looking for an integrated solution: an external box or signage "appliance" of some type that is self-contained, attached to the display, and can be installed and changed out quickly. By integrating into a single box, cooling and reliability can be tested, cabling can be simplified into a unified I/O area, and mounting can be made very secure as a box can be fastened by its flanges to a signage display.

 

As with many embedded computing applications, people are debating the pros and cons of a box approach versus a pluggable form factor approach. Pluggable form factors would have benefits of faster maintenance without potentially having to dismount the entire digital signage display for repair. For instance, Intel® Embedded Alliance Associate member Axiomtek is innovating with their slot in PC design for signage applications. Other Alliance members working on pluggable solutions are congatec and Winmate. The tradeoffs involved with compute boxes versus pluggable solutions is a trend to watch.

 

Network

Obviously the choice for a networking protocol of almost any "edge" device, embedded or enterprise, today is TCP/IP. Digital signage systems operate like endpoints in an enterprise network, and need to connect quickly and easily. Operating systems which support TCP/IP are plentiful. The driving question: is the medium wired Ethernet, Wi-Fi, or WiMAX?

 

While there's something to be said for the ease of setting up a single wired Ethernet system, personally I'd be leaning toward a wireless implementation for the future. Pulling cables for 600 systems isn't cheap. Keeping cables secure, especially Ethernet cables with RJ-45 connectors, is a bit of a concern in a public area if the system is exposed. Digital signage systems don't usually move once installed, so any issues of signal coverage and integrity can be handled.

 

Until recently, content wasn't usually streamed on-demand for playback on a digital signage system. It's usually been delivered as a multimedia content file that is to be stored and played in some type of recurring schedule. This means the network bandwidth demands haven't been huge. Content files can be transferred prior to use, and as long as they get there in time for the intended use that's sufficient. If there was real-time content, it was usually smaller information types like weather, stock quotes, and the like that is relatively quick and easy to transfer.

 

That moderate bandwidth need made Wi-Fi a viable option for many installations, and in many cases it still is. If there's a Wi-Fi infrastructure already in place, connecting a point-of-sale or inventory control system in the vicinity, piggybacking a signage system on it makes sense. Wi-Fi scales relatively inexpensively and supports the necessary bandwidth. It also supports encryption which can keep content secure. 802.11n improves the available bandwidth and keeps Wi-Fi a viable option for many applications.

 

There is a growing demand for more streaming content, and corresponding higher bandwidth. While 802.11n is a big improvement over earlier implementations of Wi-Fi, WiMAX (802.16) brings 75 Mbps of bandwidth to the network.

 

WiMAX also provides much stronger security than Wi-Fi, supporting AES and 3DES today, and Intel is pushing for even stronger additions to 802.16 such as EAP and AES with up to 256bit keys. The bottom line is WiMAX will be very secure for distributed applications.

 

As WiMAX rollouts are beginning on a larger and larger scale, it's becoming a more attractive option because of the combination of bandwidth and coverage. WiMAX networks operated by service providers cover large geographic territories, and the infrastructure is set up and maintained by the service provider.

 

With all this in mind, WiMAX will probably become an easier and easier choice for distributed digital signage networks. Even without integrated chipset capability on a motherboard, WiMAX can be added today via Intel WiMAX modules or third-party ExpressCards easily. Integrated chipset capability isn't far off.

 

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The "sign" part

Care should be given to selecting a screen that has the right reliability and environmental characteristics for the application - in most cases, a commercial grade LCD screen will be the best choice. The good news is that whether a commercial grade or consumer grade LCD is selected, driving the display is probably the easy part of a digital signage design. Most systems today are driven in a standard HD format, over an interface like HDMI or DVI.

 

Once the challenges of mounting the computer and networking the system are solved, it's really about mounting the display to keep it secure and safe from the elements. There are a wide range of wall, ceiling, and cabinet mounting options to look at - too many to explore here.

 

With a strong implementation accounting for physical security, reliability and maintenance, and secure and fast networking, a digital signage system can be implemented and kept in operation more cost effectively than ever before.

 

In the next installment of this series, we'll take a look at software side of a digital signage system, but we'd like to hear your thoughts on this post. What do you feel is the best approach to packaging a computer for digital signage? Which networking strategy wins: cabled Ethernet, Wi-Fi, or WiMAX? What considerations are there in selecting a display best suited for signage? Discussion welcomed.

 

 

 

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

 

In part 1 of this series, we quickly named the elements of a digital signage system. We're ready to take a closer look at the graphics and multimedia capability a system needs.

 

"Signage" pretty much implies the graphics capability has to be good, because it's all the viewer really sees of a digital signage system, even though there is much more behind the scenes. The focus should be on content displayed crisply and vibrantly with rich media blending capability, but not necessarily at ultra high frame rates or polygonal fill rates found in say the latest video games. The media may include video, graphics, animation, text, and tickers displayed in different windows on a display. Also, we recall that size and power aren't unlimited - many of these systems are relatively compact and operate without a fan, so implementing a high end GPU on a standalone card with lots of memory and its own cooling often isn't feasible. Integrated graphics technology often fits the bill in digital signage apps.

 

There are also other considerations, such as:

 

  • Interface: Many solutions aren't running an XGA LCD panel "computer monitor", but they are actually driving a large format LCD HDTV. Interfaces like HDMI, LVDS, and DVI are becoming more important.

 

  • Codecs: We're talking about presenting both static images and multimedia with full motion video, and hardware assist for video is a must. MPEG-2 and H.264 are good examples of basic codecs needed, and higher end solutions can deal with codecs like VC-1 for higher quality HD video playback.

 

  • Operating system drivers: The choice of Windows Embedded, embedded Linux, or an embedded RTOS can be interesting, and we'll look at that in a future installment, but the main consideration now is how available and how good are the available drivers for the graphics chipset.

 

  • High-level programming: Support for DirectX, OpenGL, shader models and other features come at a price of hardware support and power consumption, but can increase the visual experience.

 

These are items well addressed by the range of integrated graphics technology offered by Intel. If you haven't investigated Intel Graphics Technology yet, you can see the full range of offerings at http://www.intel.com/products/graphics/index.htm . Rather than try to recap the entire range of chipset technology available which you can see, I thought we'd play this the other way and look at a couple examples of Intel® Embedded Alliance member company implementations in their latest digital signage system level solutions and how those selections address the challenge.

 

At the very low power end, the Intel Atom Z5xx processor can combine with the US15W chipset to make something tiny like the Portwell WEBS-1010. This system takes in an Ethernet or Wi-Fi connection and drives a DVI output.

 

 

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With a bit more power and room, vendors are selecting the Intel 945GSE chipset with Intel Atom N270 processors. The 945GSE can do many graphics tasks at a low power consumption level of around 7 W. This graphics chipset family handles MPEG-2 in hardware but relies on software to handle more advanced codecs. This solution often appears on a COM Express module - one of the more recent ones I've seen is from ADLINK, the Express-ATR.

 

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The 945GSE is also the core of a new Mini-ITX system from DFI-ITOX and Systium, the Model 132 "mini" . Based on the DFI-ITOX NP101-D16C board, the system presents an 18-bit LVDS interface and a VGA interface to drive an LCD panel. The Model 132 runs from a 12V wall AC adapter and consumes around 15W total.

 

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Breaking out of the very low power space, and tossing some considerations of lifecycle aside to be able to select from the most advanced Intel Graphics Technology solutions available now, there are much higher performance solutions. Some of these are even directly integrated with a display, such as the Axiomtek DS01-46 . Driven by an Intel GM45 chipset and a Intel Core 2 Duo T9400 processor at 2.53 GHz, this is a fully integrated signage platform with a 46" display using what Axiomtek calls a "slot in PC" for easy system configuration and maintenance. The G45 is one of the latest chipsets and brings enhanced HD support in hardware along with Intel Clear Video Technology for sharper image playback, clarity, and color. While these are cutting edge now, the GM45 and G45 devices will be mainstream for digital signage apps shortly as they offer rich processing and blending of content.

 

Just from these samples, the range of digital signage hardware solutions using integrated graphics technology is seen to be significantly wide. Designers can go very compact, go with a bit more performance and still small, or go to very high performance consuming more power and space - all with graphics integrated directly on the chipset and closely coupled with the Intel Architecture processor.

 

Note: Portwell, Adlink, DFI-ITOX and Axiomtek are Associate members of the Alliance.

 

In the next installment of this series, we'll take a look at the maintenance and security considerations for a digital signage system, but we'd like to hear your thoughts on this post. What's a novel digital signage solution powered by Intel processors and graphics that you've seen? What do you see as the pros and cons of integrated graphics over PCI Express add in graphics solutions? Discussion welcomed.

 

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

 

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