Digital signs are rapidly replacing posters and placards in settings ranging from department stores to advertising in outdoor public areas to kiosks. Early on, most digital signs offered the benefit of an attractive dynamic presentation, but mainly provided information flow in one direction. Today, touch-sensitive signs provide an interactive experience with the user and a bidirectional connection to the back office so that the sign supports sales, subscriptions, and other real-time transactions. Embedded systems for the signage market require the latest in wired or wireless connectivity, remote management capabilities that minimize expensive truck rolls, and security capabilities that protect personal and institutional financial data. Indeed the application can require most of the features found in the latest in Intel® Architecture (IA) processors such as the second-generation Intel® Core™ i5 and i7 processors.


The digital signage market is poised for rapid growth. Analyst firm NSR projects that digital signage installations that are supported by third-party advertising will grow from 596,000 back in 2009 to 1.45 million in 2019. Moreover annual advertising revenue on the signs will grow from $1.68 billion to $7 billion over the same period. And many industry participants believe that the sector is growing at an even more rapid pace.


The market potential is driving embedded designers to develop signage products. Moreover, it’s led a trend among manufacturers of modular boards and systems that target the embedded space to design building-block products specifically for the signage market. For example, Norco* and Emerson Network Power Embedded Computing**, among others, offer such products.


Until recently, digital-sign installations were driven primarily by aesthetics. Walk by a restaurant in a mall, airport, or hotel, and the sign provided compelling images. Today, you can interact with the sign checking the menu and perhaps reading diner reviews. You might use the sign to make a reservation or even order an autographed copy of the chef’s latest cookbook.


It’s the interactivity that is driving the need for high-end processors, ubiquitous connectivity, and security. Emerson, for instance, has published an ebook entitled “Digital Signage Gets Smart” that comprehensively describes the application and the required technology.




A digital-signage design clearly needs to support the latest in network connectivity. Connectivity enables new content pushed to the sign and bidirectional transactions. Gigabit Ethernet and the fastest versions of Wi-Fi are a given and of course all of the IA platforms include such support. In some installations, 3G and 4G cellular connectivity may be more convenient especially with bandwidth escalating on the cellular networks. Some IA processors and chipsets directly support 4G WiMax technology and modular products allow any IA-based system to support all of the 3G and 4G networks deployed around the globe.


What may be surprising is the complexity of the software used in state-of-the-art digital signs. Emerson notes that such signs must concurrently run transaction-processing software, security algorithms, the user interface with touch control, and even video recognition. Video recognition could be used for identification purposes and implies the need for a camera and imaging hardware.


Clearly a design must isolate the different software tasks and technologies such as Intel® Virtualization Technology (Intel VT) and Intel® Trusted Execution Technology (TXT) provide secure capabilities. Virtualization allows a task such as transaction processing to be isolated from the user interface. Indeed while both run on the same processor, they would likely be hosted on isolated virtualized operating systems. Search the Intel Embedded Community site for virtualization, and you will find plenty of background on the topic.


TXT technology integrated into IA processors can further protect digital-signage systems that are connected to the Internet. For background, see my recent article on TXT and the Trusted Platform Module.


Several other key IA technologies are important for digital signage:


The Intel® Advanced Vector Extensions (AVX) instruction set and single-instruction multiple-data (SIMD) execution unit are vital in high-end multimedia and security-centric analytics functions such as face recognition.


Intel® Active Management Technology (AMT) allows for remote management of digital signage and even recovery from basic system faults without a truck roll.


Intel has also developed a modular standard specific to digital signage that can help reduce system cost as my colleague Warren Webb covered recently.


As for how you can implement a digital-signage system, the options are broad. Emerson targets the market with small-form-factor Mini-ITX and microATX motherboards. For example, the company announced the MITX-CORE-800 series earlier this year that customers can specify with either second-generation Core i5 or i7 processors.


Emerson also targets the market with its Com Express product line for computer-on-module (COM)-based systems. The COM approach allows a design team to develop one base board that can easily be upgraded with the latest processor technology using a COM product.


Norco targets the market with both ruggedized turnkey systems and board-level products including motherboards and COM products. The company has published the “Norco Digital Signage Platform” whitepaper that describes its approach. The company recently announced the MITX-6920 ITX motherboard based on the latest I3, I5, and I7 processors.


Have you developed digital-signage products? Do see the potential in high-end systems as we’ve discussed here or will lower-cost, lower-performance system prevail. Fellow followers of the Intel® Embedded Community would greatly appreciate it if you share your experiences via comments.


To view other community content focused on connectivity, see -- Connectivity-Top Picks.”



Maury Wright

Roving Reporter (Intel Contractor)

Intel® Embedded Alliance


*Norco is an Associate member of the Intel® Embedded Alliance

**Emerson Network Power Embedded Computing is a premier member of the Alliance