Monday, January 26, 2015

Intel beefs up its NUC line with faster processors, better specs

Android gets a lot of press with their digital signage devices but that isn't stopping Intel from expanding its PC offerings.  In fact, Intel's NUC or Next Unit of Computing line will expand with more processor options for 2015.  NUC models will soon be available with an i3, i5 or i7 processor.  One model (NUC5i3MYHE) is specifically designed for kiosk and digital signage use but nothing's preventing you from selecting a more powerful model for multi-screen installations.

Intel/Windows is still attractive for many industrial and commercial applications.  The big advantages being remote access and maintenance, especially if you select an Intel vPro model (Core i5 or i7). That's one area where Android is still lagging.

Here is another reason for Intel NUCs appeal.  Many CMS products still only support Windows.

Before the Intel NUC, folks sometimes used Mac Minis running Windows as their main digital signage player hardware.  The Mac Mini's format meant they were easy to hide behind a display screen but Intel's new hardware is half that size and it has very competitive specs.

Intel NUC continues to be a great option for many digital signage applications.

Here is a great article on ZDNet that covers the specs in detail.  There is also more information about the new NUC models on Intel's web site.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Microsoft Holographic shows us the future of wayfinding

Microsoft is trying very hard to be cool again as the company announces a new technology that uses a headset to superimpose holographic images right in front of your eyes.  Created by the folks behind the Kinnect, the Microsoft HoloLens headset lets 3D holograms integrate with the real world.  You can display video screens, icons and other graphical elements in full 3D within your field of vision.  Holograms can be fully interactive and this is where things can get really interesting.

Imagine a world where information currently delivered through an interactive kiosk gets freed up from its confines.  You can walk a trade show floor or visit a museum and have access to a wealth of information displayed right in front of you, blended into the physical world. This goes way further than current mobile applications because the holographic media becomes part of the environment. 

I can see a parallel with Google Glass, and we all know how that went.  Now, it's easy to criticize their experiment but Google was testing something entirely new. Based on Microsoft's announcement, I'm sure we will see improved versions of Google Glass and other similar technologies before long.

With Microsoft jumping into the fray, it's becoming quite evident that sensory based computing is here to stay and this will have huge implications for interactive kiosks, wayfinding and even digital signage.

Expect some interesting times ahead!

Monday, January 19, 2015

The pros and cons of smart displays

Some of the biggest names in electronics have been selling smart LCD screens that feature on board media players.  At first glance this seems a great idea but are smart displays for everyone?

This article is a reflection on the pros and cons of this approach so you can make an informed choice when selecting the right technology for your project. This is not intended at criticism of any specific brand or model.

What's great about smart displays.

  1. Simplified digital signage installation.
  2. Simplified content deployment and management.
...and many other advantages, such as the cost of the player hardware, operating system and basic CMS software are all included in the price of the display so you will pay less than if you were buying all the components separately.  Also, smart displays require a minimal amount of preparation work before they're up an running.  It's basically all plug and play and many products are supported by third party software developers who can deliver more advanced features than the basic CMS included with the display.  One last thing... No wires or devices hanging behind the screen means neater installation.

So on the positive side, smart displays should be more economical and easier to deploy.  They are a great starting point for folks who don't have access to technical resources and who want to handle their digital signage installation on their own.  Think small convenience stores, restaurants and bars...  These displays are easy to buy and you get to display your content with a minimum amount of fuss.

Why haven't they taken over the market yet?

There are some applications that are still out of reach.  For example, many smart displays can't synchronize content across multiple screens and their basic CMS can't handle advanced scheduling and multi-zoned content. Smart displays are often delivered with a series of canned layouts that can't be easily modified or personalized. In some cases the operating systems and built-in CMS can't be upgraded or patched.

Many first generation smart display products were little more than glorified digital picture frames where you slipped in a SD card and the built-in hardware would let you loop the content indefinitely. Since then, many display manufacturers have bundled free desktop software that will let you organize content with a bit more control but it's still very basic.  

Newer products offer improved CMS features but they lag behind dedicated software from third party developers.

It's easy to understand why this category hasn't been more popular when you realize integrated devices are usually more difficult to repair and near impossible to upgrade.  If the media player or memory storage fails in a smart display, you have have to remove and ship out the display.   If your digital signage uses external PCs, Android media players or even OPS hardware, you can swap the media player without having to replace the screen. You're back in business faster and you can even swap out components if you ever decide to upgrade them later.

The solution? Do your homework.

Don't just base your purchase decision on price alone.  What may look appealing at first glance may not be practical in a year or two.  Consider more than one product and keep in mind your long term needs.

While you can create and maintain restaurant menus on smart displays alone, some of the best menu boards installations are still driven from a single PC feeding multiple displays.  Using external hardware components may require a bit more integration and technical expertise but in the long run you may find it's worth the expense.

There is a definite market for smart displays and I expect this sector will continue to grow.  In my opinion, the biggest factor preventing a more widespread acceptance is the lack of a common operating system.  OS fragmentation means you can't easily integrate solutions from different display vendors.  You get less CMS options because there are less incentive for third party developers to support multiple operating systems and proprietary hardware.

This probably explains why OPS enabled displays remain so popular and why the media player market is still booming.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Still playing live TV in your restaurant, office lobby or retail store? Think again!

Do you think it's a good idea to show live TV broadcasts in your restaurant, office lobby or retail store?

You may want to rethink that...

  • It may be easy to stick a big flat screen on a wall and punch a cable news channel but you will never have any control over the programming and advertising.
  • When that happens your audience will see content that may not be relevant or suitable to the venue.
  • Also, you can't block ads from competing businesses.

A really good lesson is this incident in which a McDonald's franchise in Switzerland decided to show a sports channel on their in-store TVs not realizing the channel switched to hardcore porn during the evening.

Another problem is audience tampering.  We've all heard of people using infrared devices to switch TV channels on public and private TV screens.  Digital TVs are not the same as professional digital signage displays that are designed for commercial or industrial use.  A pro-grade digital flat panel does not have a TV tuner so it's not possible for the audience to change what's playing.
Digital signage is not TV and it's important to remember what makes these two technologies so different.  With digital signage you control what content is shown and when it will be shown. Your audience won't see your competitor's ads and they won't be shocked or otherwise offended by the content because you're in charge of what they see.

Of course, live TV remains a great source of content for sports bars, but I would still argue that digital signage can augment this type of content by providing branding opportunities and localized advertising that can be mixed in with the broadcast TV feeds.  Many digital signage solutions support broadcast TV either in full screen mode or in multi-zone layouts so it makes sense to investigate these products and see how you can get more control over what your audience sees.

Digital signage gives you content control plus advertising and branding opportunities that you won't get from broadcast TV.  However, programming digital signage content is not a trivial matter.  It requires some time and effort but those who have tried it know the rewards are well worth the investment.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Thinking of digital signage? Think bigger

I try and stay on top of the latest digital signage news and there have been some very interesting announcements over the past few weeks.

Here are a few...

Newest outdoor LED board in Times Square gets turned on.

This sign measures 330 feet and wraps around the front of the Marriott Marquis Hotel on Broadway making it one of the largest LED boards out there.

Aquarium invests in big screens and video wall
The Georgia Aquarium recently paired up a LED video wall with a couple of 84”, 4K screens to enhance their exhibits.  You can find out more here...

Microsoft builds video game buzz with video walls.
Another great article from Digital Signage Today describes Microsoft's use of in-store video walls to promote a new video game.

So what's with all the big screens?  

It's all about the "wow factor".  

As digital signage becomes more commonplace, it’s getting harder to cut through the clutter and grab people’s attention. That’s where big screen installations come into play.  They can help turn a boring trip to the mall into an experience.

Lower equipment costs and technological advances are making LED billboards and other large format screens more affordable for more and more businesses.

Everyone's thinking big.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Do not underestimate the importance of fresh content

Anyone who has ever managed a digital signage system can relate with the following statement: "I feel like I'm on a hamster wheel".

Having to create fresh new content, day-in/day-out can be a pain regardless of the technology running the show. It's like publishing a successful blog or a popular social media feed.  You need to be disciplined and consistent otherwise your content quickly gets stale and viewers tune out.

You must come up with fresh ideas to keep your audience's interest.  Might sound easy but at first but you will soon discover that running a screen network requires a lot of work.  Many popular CMS systems offer content creation tools but it's not much help unless you have your own creative team on staff.

So here are a few suggestions to take some of the pain out of running your own network...

Online resources

It makes sense to spend a bit of money and sign up with a good royalty-free content source like fotolia or shutterstock.  Most of these stock media resources offer annual memberships or sell credits that you can redeem for content.  It's worth the time to look around and check out some of these sites even if only for inspiration.  There are also new free image sites that you should check out like Flicker and Unsplash.   Just be sure to respect all copyrights and usage agreements.

For those who require video content, there are web based services that will let you create your own clips for a small fee.  Most are aimed at the online advertising community but there there are a few that cater to digital signage.  One such service is called Spotomate.  These folks let you create full HD video ads for around $75. Best of all you get access to professional templates designed specifically for the digital signage market and you don't need any special video editing skills.  You just need a few good photos and a story to tell.  The site has many examples you can check out before you get started.  The content is very slick and the results are quite impressive.  Best of all it's affordable and easy to use.

Online News

RSS feeds can be a great source of dynamic content.  This can be really useful because the content is maintained and updated by someone else and your screens will receive regular updates which helps keep the content fresh and interesting.  However, make sure you read all licensing documentation and usage agreements.  Assume RSS feeds available to the general public are meant for personal use and are not intended for re-distribution.  If you run across one of these feeds and wish to use it on your screens, make sure you contact the rights holder first to find out if they offer an agreement for commercial use

Publicly available RSS feeds do not come with the same guarantees as commercial feeds and public servers may go offline at any time creating gaping holes in your carefully designed layouts. You might end up with empty news banners or weather widgets unless you use paid content that is meant for digital signal use. 

Fortunately, several creative studios have jumped into the commercial news and sport feeds business to help network operators get online content specifically designed for digital signage use.  BlueFox, Screenfeed and Seenspire all offer rich, professional looking content that is updated daily and they make sure news organizations behind each feed have been paid for this type of use.  Expect to pay a small monthly fee per screen per month.  Large screen networks can negotiate volume discounts and new topics are constantly being added.

It's important not to underestimate the importance of fresh content so feeding your digital signage network should be priority one.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

What's wrong with this picture?

I was visiting my local walk-in clinic the other day and noticed the news feed zone across the bottom of the screen was blanked out.  But that wasn't the worst of it.  There's a lot more going on here.

If I were the venue owner, I would be concerned about seeing a large portion of the screen  dedicated to promoting the screen network itself.  In fact this self-advertising graphic occupies more space than the venue's own branding. Then we have the main content area squeezed between a header at the top and the news and weather feed at the bottom.  This significantly reduces the impact of the main content zone in the middle of the screen.

It's unfortunate because a lot of the content shown on that screen was useful and informative but it was squished and stretched into an ugly layout.

If I were redesigning this layout, I would...
  1. Drop the venue operator/owner's logo from the screen.  If the person looking at this does not know where they are, they either need glasses or they have serious cognitive issues.  This particular venue is a walk-in medical clinic so you kind of expect the audience to be aware of their location.  This is something I would classify under... "Duh!"
  2. Take out the entire branded header area and resize the main content zone so it occupies at least 80% of the screen.  Better yet, I would also take out the scrolling banner (see point 4 below).  If the network operator wants to promote themselves, they should make their branding less conspicuous.  Speaking to network operators... Unless you have statistics to the contrary, you should assume folks looking at your screens are interested in the venue's content, not who is delivering it.
  3. If you need to display news and weather feeds, consider using a commercial provider like Screenfeed or Seenspire.  This will ensure a more reliable service and you won't breach any acceptable use policies with the content owner.  Redistributing a publicly available RSS feed is almost never permitted.  Read the fine print.
  4. Instead of filling screens with multiple channels of information, why not opt for full screen content with larger text and bold graphics.  Multi-channel/multi-zone content layouts are becoming a big issue for an aging population that cannot read the smaller fonts used in these layouts.  Legibility should be paramount.
Remember folks.  People don't have to look at your expensive TV unless they have a good reason to do so.  If they don't like what they see, they'll just grab their smartphones and ignore it all.  Give your audience a good reason to look at your content.