Outdoor advertizing signs, also called billboards, are ubiquitous in many countries. The United States has more than 500,000 billboards in place along the nation’s highways. Historically, outdoor and indoor advertising in commercial settings has been updated and maintained by sign painters and sign installers. Now improvements in electronics hardware technology and software have improved the capabilities of the traditional signage application, and added creative new opportunities in the digital signage market.


Digital Signage encompasses a wide variety of uses, software, hardware, and network topologies. Signage includes billboard replacements, airport shadow boxes, retail signs, interactive kiosks, and previously unanticipated applications. The complexity of each system is based on the type of information to be displayed, the number of displays, the type of embedded server, and the degree of networking employed.



University of Illinois first Kiosk


Digital Signage is a collection of important technologies assembled in new and unique ways. The market for digital signage is large enough that multiple trade publications like Digital Signage Today and Digital Signage Universe report on new developments. A respectable number of hardware manufacturers that belong to the Intel Embedded Alliance offer hardware platforms to operate digital signs and kiosks. Digital Signage systems are as varied as the network topology of the signs to be managed. The simplest configuration is based on a single embedded computer servicing a small number of locally installed screens, while complex networked systems may span hundreds of signs and many miles.  More information on embedded Ethernet based hardware and software may be found at an earlier Ethernet blog.


The Digital Signage model based on a small number of displays can be serviced by a single embedded video server in many cases – assuming that the displays are physically close enough to the embedded server. Such systems are most often based on proprietary software and hardware configurations and do not interoperate with other digital signage systems. There are a great number of alternatives for storing video images for advertisements. For the simplest and most limited system, picture formats such as  JPEG are retrieved from storage, decompressed, and displayed on the display devices. A standalone system, such as this, functions in a manner similar to the popular Consumer “Photo Frames” employing an LCD display and images stored in nonvolatile memory. An Open Source program for displaying pictures can be downloaded from SourceForge.


Conceptually, the single display, simple image display, system operates:


     Do {



           Delay(read_time);}  forever;


To handle additional displays driven by the same system, additional display spaces used to hold information allows each display to potentially present different advertisements. The potential complexity of relatively simple hardware systems comes from the selection of image formats to support.   It is straight forward to have upwards of a dozen still image formats, and if the sign includes images in motion, complexity increases and another handful of movie formats is possible.  Typical control software for Digital Signs is anything but typical. Each signage system supports its own selection of display formats, choices of special effects like image wiping and morphing, how advertisements are entered into the system, and the robustness of 24/7 operation. Many of the signage systems assume that a human operator will periodically check on correct operation, but some operating systems are notorious for hanging the system from once per day to once every few weeks.


Two example of Open Source software for signs are BroadSign Player which  operates under Microsoft (1) Windows and Linux operating systems for Intel processors, and Oxygen SMIL Player designed for  Windowshttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Microsoft_Windows, Windows CEhttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Windows_CE, and Linuxhttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Linux. These packages are available from  http://www.broadsign.com/  and http://www.42mediagroup.com/ respectively.

Digital Signage has plenty of room to extend advertising services, but its major shortcomings are the lack of interaction and personalization. Some companies, like Intel and Microoft, are actively using facial recognition technology to improve the advertising experience.


Interactive Kiosks (Kiosks) can solve both shortcomings. Where Digital Signs present information according to the operator’s selection of advertisements and the duration that each ad is displayed, Interactive Kiosks aim to make the users’ interaction highly personalized and relevant. Kiosks began shortly after the “home computer” revolution in the mid 1970s. The first of these kiosks was developed at the University of Illinois (UI) to provide visitors, students, and staff with relevant information that would have been given by a person providing information services. While the UI kiosk was widely popular on campus, commercial kiosks would wait thirty years for the first company to specifically develop a kiosk for use beyond a local application.     


Perhaps the single largest current application of Interactive Kiosks is airlines reservations/check-in. The de facto standard for kiosk design includes a touch sensitive display screen for the user to make selections from presented information. In the airlines check-in system, the flier identifies themselves either by selecting the flight that they’re on or scanning a credit card. Credit cards are used to obtain a name, and in some systems retrieve the actual flight reservation in the fewest possible steps. Fliers who elect to enter flight information often have to select/identify a city and flight number, followed by their name. The kiosk then alerts the reservation system that the specific flier has checked-in, offers upgrades if available, checks baggage, and prints boarding passes.




In the case of flight check-in systems, most airlines interface these kiosks with their proprietary reservation system. The use of these kiosks reduces the time required to check-in each flier and improves data reliability. For low fare airlines, the kiosk has become a primary mechanism to enforce fare regulations (there’s no effective way to circumvent the system) and offering an up-sell to fliers if premium seats are available.   Developing Embedded Kiosks is a question of deciding on the extent to which the system will support all Internet browser features. There are many Open source and for-pay kiosk software products. Three of these kiosk packages include:



     GNU/LINUX Kiosk Project



Kiosk-in-a-Box from TouchScreens is a low cost commercial product with a full feature set. Touch screens have become a requirement for kiosk applications, so any serious package must support the technology, but as a caution, not all touch screen systems support the same programming interface. Generally, modern kiosks are based on a Web model. Most often, the kiosk is made using your existing Web site or Intranet. Increasingly developers are using one of the ready-to-use turn-key kiosk applications. These applications feature “No Programming Required” in which you just add content.


The Kiosk-in-a-Box software is available by download only and offers a full free trial working demo. The demo version has a “nagging” function that prompts the user to acquire a fully licensed version every five minutes, but it’s adequate to try the software to see if it fits your needs.  Kiosk-in-a-box also offers free sample applications to get development started for real world applications. These include: internet newspaper, library information desk, tourism advertising kiosk, and a trade show booth application.

If you decide that Kiosk-in-a-Box fits your needs, you can order the license online or call TouchScreens to order by phone. TouchScreen follows the shareware model of licensing software requiring you to complete a number of steps to register the products.

Regardless of the system, users demand high uptime. There are a number of ways to ensure that systems continue to work, especially Operating System (OS) alternatives. In an earlier blog I wrote about OS techniques to provide reliable systems. Designers must carefully consider how the application will be used, and what kind of availability is required.

Software is necessary for any application, but it all requires hardware to actually create a working system. Roving Reporter Kenton Williston wrote a great blog on hardware for digital signage. Another Roving Reporter blog by Mark Scantlebury details touch panel display technology for use in kiosks and other applications. There is a wealth of information about hardware vendors on the Intel Embedded site.  Hardware vendors often also offer basic operating software for their products. Some of the hardware vendors from the Intel Embedded Alliance site include: 


Advantech (2)


Emerson Network Power Embedded Computing (2)


Kontron (2)


RadiSys (2)




ADI Engineering, Inc. (3)




AXIOMTEK Co. Ltd. (3)




Eurotech (3)


IBASE Technology Inc. (3)


IEI Technology Corp. (3)


Lanner Electronics Inc. (3)


Nexcom (3)


Portwell (3)


Avalue-BCM (3)


Corvalent Corporation (4)


Diversified Technology Inc. (4)


DUX Inc. (4)


Hectronic AB (4)


Micro Industries (4)


MSC Vertriebs GmbH (4)


Norco (4)


Trucomp Inc. (4)



What use of Digital Signage and Informational Kiosks can you image?


  1. Microsoft Corporationhttp://www.intelcommsalliance.com/kshowcase/view/view_profile/6d159267f91bb113f2a842f9209f37ac538563d3 is an Associate Member of the Intel Embedded Alliance.
  2. A Premium Member of the Intel Embedded Alliance
  3. An Associate Member of the Intel Embedded Alliance
  4. An Affiliate Member of the Intel Embedded Alliance

Henry Davis
Roving Reporter (Intel Contractor)
Intel(r) Embedded