Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Is this the future of Video?

Video files represents a huge portion of digital signage content today and as screen resolutions increase, so do file sizes.  This has a big impact on everything from hard drive storage to Internet bandwidth.  Codecs have been developed to help keep video file sizes lower but this requires faster CPUs and more powerful video cards.  It's a delicate balance... compress the files too much and playback quality degrades; not enough and you end up with files so large they require too much bandwidth.

Up until now, digital video has been pixel based just like your average JPEG file.  The higher the resolution, the larger the file but this is all about to change.

Researchers at the University of Bath in the UK have recently developed a vector based video codec that can potentially revolutionize digital video.  By using lines and shapes instead of pixels to compress images they have reduced file sizes while retaining a very high level of quality, just like vector images can be scaled up massively without losing any detail (think of Adobe Illustrator EPS or Corel Draw CDR files).

Researchers say this codec could render the pixel based video obsolete within 5 years and this can have big impact on digital signage.  If this codec is as good as claimed, this technology could mean higher screen resolutions and better image quality than today using less powerful (and less expensive) PC hardware.

Digital signage network operators will also benefit from reduced storage needs and lower bandwidth requirements.

Good news indeed!

Monday, November 26, 2012

Navori software now supports mobile digital signage applications

Digital signage software publishers are constantly looking for new and innovative uses for their products, which is "driving" (pardon the pun)  a big push into mobile applications.  With PC hardware shrinking in size and widespread access to mobile Internet via 3G and WiFi, it's a safe bet we're about to see a lot of innovation in the mobile sector.

Take for example Navori SA who recently introduced a GPS add-on for their QL digital signage software platform. With this add-on is installed on a PC running the Navori QL Player software, an operator can associate a media file to any GPS waypoint.  Media playback is triggered whenever the PC comes within range of the programmed location and by "daisy-chaining" multiple waypoints together, network operators can manage entire routes.  The process is as easy as dropping pins on a map.

Setup is easy enough.  On the vehicle side, you will need a mobile PC.  Essentially a small form factor, multimedia-capable Windows PC that can be run off a 12v DC power source.  You will also need a GPS antennae for the PC and a copy of the Navori QL Player software with the GPS module activated.  A screen is only required if you only wish to play more than audio announcements.

Once the system is fully operational, media will be triggered according to the vehicle's location.

It should also be noted the Navori QL Player software can be programmed to automatically switch between 3G and WiFi connections on the fly and you can even specify which WiFi connection to use by restricting access to a specific SSID.

Here are some potential applications:
  • City buses, tour buses, subways or tram cars: Trigger audio announcements as the vehicle approaches the next stop or station.
  • Taxi cabs: Play visual or audio announcements as the vehicle approaches paid advertiser's location (restaurant, retail store, bar, concert hall, etc...)
Since mobile digital signage works off GPS coordinates, you're not restricted to streets.  Perhaps one day we'll see mobile digital signage pop-up on golf courses, boat tours and other outdoor venues.

photo credit: oscar juarez via photopin cc

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Flypaper announcements

Flypaper has recently made a few important announcements so lets take a closer look and see.

Flypaper Connect - Show Live Data with No Coding

Flypaper creation tools (DS and Pro versions) already support live data display via RSS feeds and web services.  Previous and current versions of Flypaper still let you create digital signage content that displays news, sport scores, live weather feeds with no coding required but with Flypaper Connect we go even further.

Flypaper Connect, lets you display content stored in Google worksheets, CSV files, and other live data sources.  I have seen this product in action and I can honestly say it's the easiest way to display live data in a Flash SWF file with no coding required.

Content development shops already using Flypaper will be thrilled with the enhanced functionality.  Small corporate teams who don't have access to technical staff will also benefit from this product.

The Flypaper Connect components help you create dynamic menu boards very quickly and your customers can update the content in real time simply by editing a Google worksheet.  You can use this technique to display sales figures, call center response times, share prices or any other useful data from a wide variety of sources.

The list of Flypaper Connect components will grow over time.  For example, there are plans to add Google Calendar, PHP and .Net connect components in the near future.

Flypaper connect is billed annually and pricing will be set according to the number of connections that you require (0-50, 51-250 or unlimited).  An example of a connection being one Flypaper app connecting to one page of a Google worksheet in a user's Google Docs account.  Consulting, custom programming in PHP or .Net and training will all be extra.

Flypaper Marketplace - Buy and Sell Content

The other piece of news concerns the new Flypaper Marketplace.  This new website lets Flypaper and Flypaper Express users share templates, components, media and entire projects in one location.  Flypaper version 3.7 and Flypaper Express users can access this service directly from within the application by selecting the Flypaper Marketplace from the toolbar menu.  You can also visit directly from your web browser.

Use the site for inspiration, share your creations for free or you can also sell your creative content for a fee.

I think this site has great potential and hope to see it become populated with good content as word spreads around the Flypaper user community.

These new features help make an already good product even better.  Now more than ever, Flypaper will appeal to the casual user and to professional content developers.  There is something here for everyone.

For pricing and other information, I suggest you contact your local Flypaper reseller or visit the Flypaper website.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Open source software gets an update

Xibo is an open source digital signage software platform that has been around since 2004 and the latest version (1.4.0) has just been released.  Xibo offers many of the features commonly found in commercial products but setting up the software requires some technical expertise.  People familiar with web technologies (PHP/MySQL) should feel quite at ease with this product. Non-technical users can rely on a growing user community that maintains an online support archive.  The product is also supported by a commercial hosting partner so it's possible to get a hosted server set up without too much fuss.

Since Xibo Server is built on a web platform, you can run it on Windows, Mac or Linux.  The client requires Windows 200, XP, Vista or Windows 7.  No word on when Windows 8 might be supported.

The software supports most common multimedia file formats including Flash SWF and PowerPoint.  Note you will need a full copy of PowerPoint installed on the client PC to play back this type of media.  The Xibo website also features a "layout exchange" which is essentially a library of user generated layout background images.

One of the benefits of open source projects is the level of information that is made accessible to users.  For example, software bugs and feature development is openly discussed and posted on the project's launchpad  forum.  Rarely will you see this level of transparence with commercial applications and for a good reason.

So who should take the plunge?  Anyone with access to the right technical resources or who is working under tight budgets.  I am sure many schools and colleges are running this product.  There are probably a few corporate networks out there as well and I'm sure it's working out fine for them.  I am not sure I would run a large commercial network on it but with the economy's current state, I wouldn't be surprised to hear someone has tried.

The Xibo website claims there have been 12,245 installs since the product was launched with 1,837 currently active.  It's a far cry from many commercial software installations but it's comforting to know the product has an active user base.

It will be interesting to see how the product evolves in the next few years.

Review: Adfotain Manager Express

This is a review of the Adfotain Manager Express software is bundled with various SMIL player appliances from IAdea.

At first I didn't expect much, considering this is a freebie that IAdea throws in with their players. I was surprised to find this software packs a lot of useful features and can substitute for a paid software as long as you don't need to update your screens over the Internet. The software works great over a private LAN and you can also update your players using a CF card or a USB memory stick.

I think this product will be more than adequate for many small businesses and corporate environments.  I can also see someone using this product to program and manage content on players that are not connected to a network like you sometimes find in a trade show or in high security environments.

Here are some of the main features:

  • The software is easy to learn and use 
  • Online documentation and knowledge database available
  • Auto-discovery of all compatible player appliances on a LAN
  • Complies with the SMIL standard
  • Includes a few HTML5 templates with calendar, clock, RSS, social media widgets
    (assuming you are using a HTML5 compatible appliance from IAdea)
  • Non-HTML5 IAdea devices have access to templates that don't include widgets but you can still display RSS feeds in a scrolling ticker  
  • Supports external triggering of media at the player (requires additional hardware module)
  • Updates are really quick on a LAN but you can also push updates to a CF card or USB dongle for disconnected players
  • Supports many multimedia formats in HD
  • Audio is also supported
  • You can set screen on and off times
  • The software displays the status of the connected players on a LAN and you get confirmation when the updates have been received
  • Cost isn't an issue... It's free!

My testing revealed a few irritating problems:

  • You're limited to the template layouts that are provided.  There is no way of modifying the size and locations of each zone
  • Not much control over the HTML5 widget's look and feel.  You can only change the widget's duration and background color
  • There is no support for Flash animations (SWF)
  • The playback of successive video files can cause the appliances to display a few black frames.  To alleviate this IAdea recommends inserting a static image between video clips to reduce this effect
These are by no means show stoppers but it's important you take these into account when deciding if you should give this software a try.

In conclusion...

If you are deploying a few screens on a private LAN (like in an office, a small restaurant or retail store) and you settle on the IAdea player appliances, you may find this product will serve many if not all of your needs.  Given this software is included for free, I would recommend giving it a shot and see if it works for you  If you find it doesn't meet your needs, simply switch to one of the many commercial products that support the IAdea players (like signagelive, Dynamax or Scala).

Please note that everything mentioned above also applies to the Viewsonic branded appliances.  They are essentially the same product and include the same bundled software.  The names may change but what's under the hood remains the same.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Review: XMP-3250 Full-HD Digital Signage Appliance

I have recently become interested in non-PC based digital signage appliances so here is a short review of the XMP-3250 Full-HD digital signage player.  

This product has been available for a while now under various brands (IAdea, Viewsonic and others).  It's a small form factor, fanless device that can display content on your screens in full HD (1080p).  The case features VESA mounting holes so you can mount the unit behind a screen or on a wall.  This makes for a very attractive, low-cost/ low-maintenance digital signage solution.

Here are my impressions...


  • No fan so it's super quiet.  The metal case does get warm to the touch after a few hours but not to the extent it would be a problem.
  • Very small external power brick with long cables.
  • This solution is quite affordable compared to PC/software based solutions and there is no operating system to buy or maintain.
  • Uses solid state memory so the unit is very reliable.
  • Can be ordered with built-in WiFi (Model 3350).
  • Features VGA and HDMI ports.  Supports 1080p full HD playback.
  • Works with HTML5 which is supported by many digital signage SaaS providers.
  • Comes with a simple remote scheduling application but for those who require a more complete scheduling/management system, these units are compatible with SaaS products from 42media, CoolSign, Dynamax, Scala, Stinova, signagelive, SignChannel, Rise Vision.
  • The unit's firmware can be updated remotely.
  • It supports a wide range of file formats: 1080p Full HD video/stills, Streaming H.264 over RTSP multi-casting.  Video codecs: H.264 (1080p), VC-1 (1080p), MPEG-4 ASP (720p), MPEG-2 (1080p), MPEG-1 (720p).  Image codecs: PNG (1920x1080), JPEG (1920x1080).  Audio codecs: MPEG L2/MP3 up to 320Kbps, AAC in H.264 streams.
  • PowerPoint is supported but only when managed via the unit's own Manager Express software (PPT files get converted to video on the fly).
  • RSS feeds and live web content are supported.
  • Remote media triggering is possible using an add-on module.  You can trigger content from motion sensors, keypads, etc...
  • Supports landscape and portrait playback.
  • Scheduled screen activation/deactivation is supported. 
  • The units are delivered with a free management application called Adfotain Manager Express.  The software lets users create continuous loops or schedule playlists over time.  
  • Updates and content can be transferred to the device via USB key, Compact Flash card or LAN/internet.  The unit features 2 USB ports and an Ethernet port.
  • You can add a module to play Live TV on your screens all managed by this appliance.


  • No Flash SWF support.
  • May see some black frames between video clips depending on the content used.
  • This unit's capabilities vary depending on the management application used.  For example, the free software included with the unit lets users select from a list of pre-designed templates and there is no way you can modify the layouts.  You get to pick what plays in each zone but you can't change the zone's size or position on screen. Users who require more flexibility will probably need a third party SaaS provider like Rise Vision, signagelive, or other compatible service to manage their players.  In some cases the service will be free (Rise Vision) but others require a monthly fee.

In summary...

I come from a PC/software background so I wasn't expecting much from this appliance so I was quite surprised with what I found.  Used to be these all-in-one boxes were very basic, single purpose devices much like a digital photo frame.  You could play pictures or videos in a loop but not much more.  Since then things have changed and they have changed a lot...

In my opinion, digital signage appliances that support HTML5 now have capabilities that are on par with many PC based solutions.  The biggest difference remains the lack of Flash SWF support but I suspect this won't be a big issue for most people.  

For example, Flypaper content can be exported to video as well as SWF so animations developed in Flypaper can be shown on any appliance or device.  PowerPoint content can be exported to video and there are many other types of content that you can display without any conversion.  You also get support for data feeds, calendars, clocks, web pages, etc...  Which is essentially what most people want to display on their screens.

Anyone looking for a digital signage solution that is low-maintenance and future-proof should consider these types of appliances.  They are less expensive to acquire and deploy than most PC based solutions.  In many cases the bundled software will be sufficient for your needs and if you require more flexibility you can switch to one of the many SaaS solutions that provide additional features.

Having said that, It's not all perfect.  You may find PC based applications offer smoother transitions between content.  They have more sophisticated playback engines so they provide better image rendering and often support multiple layers and transparency.  I think it's safe to assume high-end digital signage installations will continue to be driven by PCs running specialized software for quite some time.

The type of venue and budget considerations should dictate which option is best for your next digital signage project.  Remember that many PC software solutions carry annual support fees which add costs over time.  Dedicated appliances do not have any recurring fees and unless you sign up with a SaaS provider, you have no additional cost after you purchase the product.  This should be quite appealing to people who are looking  to deploy a few screens on a tight budget.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Infographics for everyone

Wouldn't it be great if you could broadcast sales performance data, call center wait times or other mission critical information to your team members? What if you could deliver this information visually and update it in real-time?

The solution is dashboards.  Dashboards let you take snapshots of your raw business data and generate charts or infographics in real-time.  It's the perfect way to visualize your data.

Dashboards used to require complex software packages and dedicated programmers but things are changing with the introduction of web based dashboard tools.

I recently stumbled upon a product called Infocaptor that puts the power of dashboards in the hands of  people who may not have access to the resources usually required for this type of application.

Infocaptor lets anyone create dashboards and display information from any business class database (MS-SQL, Oracle, etc...).  You can also display charts using data extracted from XML files, Excel spreadsheets and Access databases.  Dashboards are updated dynamically so your audience only sees the most current information.

Here are a few examples:

  • Sales/Revenue/Production statistics
  • Call wait times
  • Tracking social media (Twitter followers, Facebook metrics)
  • Wordpress metrics
  • Search engine position trackers

You can create an Infocaptor dashboard for virtually any type of data then publish it through a web server. This solution is compatible with any digital signage software application that supports HTML content.

The advantages of broadcasting this content using a digital signage solution are obvious.  You can publish a dashboard inside a template with other relevant information (the current time, AP news, etc...).  You can also display a series of dashboards in sequence or change dashboards at various times of the day.

Infocaster is easy to use, inexpensive and quite flexible.  You no longer need to be a Fortune 500 company to have access to sophisticated dashboard tools but if you are, you will be able to do more at less cost.

Tapping into corporate databases for business intelligence has traditionally been a difficult and expensive process.  Tools like Infocaptor lets companies of any size publish sophisticated dashboards with little effort.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Picking the right RSS feeds for your screens

Digital signage is creating a lot of demand for current and meaningful information.  We're talking data that is useful, that is easy to access and readily available.  There are many sources for this type of data. but you  will need to do some research.  A great place to start is you local government's web sites.

Lets take hospitals, doctors offices and other health service providers.

Government offices publish feeds that can be of interest for visiting patients.  If you're in Canada, you can check out the Canadian Food Inspection Agency web site where you can link to RSS feeds listing food recalls and allergy alerts.  You can access the complete list of available feeds on this site from here.

For US information, check out the RSS page.

This type of information can be extremely useful for the public and it be displayed in a ticker or as a full screen element.

Screens located in travel agencies, used by law enforcement or installed government offices can use feeds from the Canadian Border Services Agency or their US counterpart, the US Customs and Border Protection.

You can even retrieve information about border wait times which can be of interest to businesses near the US/Canada border.

Government agencies constantly refresh their data and make their feeds available to everyone.

Here are some other practical examples.

The Ontario Ministry of Transport publishes RSS feeds with information of interest to all motor vehicle operators.  You can find similar data published on the web sites of most province and state transportation offices.  These feeds would appeal to automobile and motorcycle repair shops, car dealerships and other related businesses.

RSS feeds published by government agencies can be more useful that your common TV news feeds for the following reasons:

  • You can select news that is relevant to your specific venue or audience.  
  • Since you are showing public data there are no usage fees or copyrights to deal with (just to be on the safe side, always check with the feed provider before redistributing their feeds).
  • By publishing information of public interest, you contribute to your community's health and safety which benefits everyone.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Flypaper for Digital Signage Review

I have been spending a lot of time recently with Flypaper's Digital Signage content creation software and thought I would share my experience.

First off, I have to say this product is really great for rapid Flash content development.  Anyone can create compelling, high-quality content regardless of their technical skill level or creative expertise.

Beginners can rely on an extensive template library that ships with the product and I am told Flypaper will soon be providing access to an online content store where users can share and even sell their custom designed templates.  This can prove to be extremely useful to novice users or small screen network operators who lack access to in-house talent.

There is a built-in weather module for example which lets you add a live weather feed to any template.  And this is only one of the modules the product ships with.  You can integrate RSS feeds, YouTube videos and more and it's as simple as dragging and dropping a Flypaper component from the "Flybrary" to the working area.

Experienced Flash developers can also leverage Flypaper's capabilities by integrating their own SWF modules into the application.  These modules can be re-used in future projects saving a lot of development time.  There are plenty of features that will appeal to technical users like access to dynamic data, integration with Intel's AIM suite,  video support and also import external data from web services.

Content can be exported out as Flash SWF, multiple video formats and even a full screen executable file.

Flypaper will let you even import and convert PowerPoint material to Flash.

A well rounded multi-purpose tool

I must say I didn't quite know what to make of Flypaper when I first encountered it because it's not just for digital signage.  For example, Flypaper can help you create sophisticated e-learning applications and you can also create multi-touch kiosk content using the built-in components included with the product.

The Flypaper Pro version goes even further.  It adds features that let entire teams collaborate on their Flypaper projects.  There is a dashboard to track your progress, a file sharing tool and a built-in feedback app.  Someone has spent a lot of time developing the collaboration side of the Pro version and I can see this being a huge productivity enhancer.

Pros and cons...

  • Flypaper is a great tool for anyone who needs to develop content for any digital signage application.
  • It creates content that can be imported and managed by most digital signage software platforms.
  • It offers a bundle re-usable templates and components that novices and experts can use.
  • It offers a live preview of your content.  This is huge for anyone using a digital signage platform that doesn't offer full preview capabilities.
  • Support, training and webinars are available.  There is a growing community of Flypaper users eager to share their experience. 
  • Some may find the price a bit high, specially when compared to basic PowerPoint to Flash converters.  However this product does much more.  You can create digital signage content, touch-enabled applications, interactive kiosks and e-learning applications.  Try doing this in PowerPoint!
There are currently no other product on the market quite like Flypaper.  It a bit like Adobe Flash but far more accessible to non-technical users.  There is no scripting involved.  Just drag, drop, double-click to edit the module's options, then preview and publish.

Anyone who is looking to feed their digital signage screens with high quality content should take a long hard look at Flypaper.  There is a 30 day trial version available online so it's worth downloading if only to see what you can achieve.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

McDonalds to display calories on their menus in the US starting next Monday

Starting next Monday, McDonalds to display calories in their restaurants in the US (not yet in Canada).  Check out this latest article from LaPresse (french Montreal newspaper). 

See this English article on the same subject from the Calgary Herald.

This has big implications for digital menu board acceptance in QSR restaurants.

Digital menu board tips

Digital signage is quickly becoming a common sight in quick service restaurants.  There are many reasons for this.  For example, many US states have passed legislation that require nutritional information be displayed prominently so customers can make healthier food choices.

This is great for digital signage and mobile communication technologies.  They are ideal for distributing detailed product information while providing a useful marketing platform for QSR  chains.

Large corporation with access to quasi-unlimited resources are all over this stuff.  Walk into any modern McDonalds, Burger King or other similar chain and you will see some great examples of digital signage hanging behind the counters.

By now, we all know the benefits of digital menu boards...

  • Flexibility: Instantly change the menus being displayed according to the time of day, promotion, competitive environment, etc...
  • Visual impact: Attract and retain customer's attention with bold animations or video content.
  • Immediacy: In many cases, menu board content and pricing is driven by the operator's POS system ensuring the information is always kept up to date.
  • Consistency: By updating content across every location, restaurant chain owners can ensure their messaging is kept up to date and consistent across pricing or geographic regions.  Promotions are synchronized and kept up to date without local staff's involvement.

But this is only part of the story.  Digital signage can do much more than just menus.  It's a communication platform. And what makes it great at informing customers also works for the restaurant's staff who require ongoing training, product information and guidance.

Smart operators should really consider the benefits of adding an extra screen for their common meeting/training area.  By then, the infrastructure is already in place so the cost of one more screen is easy to justify when it helps improve your company's bottom line.

So how can smaller QSR chains take advantage of this new technology without breaking the bank?

Start with a Google image search using the terms "digital signage menu boards" and see what comes up.  You may be surprised when the search engine returns hundreds of thousands of results. Take the time to explore these results and you will discover a wide range of menu applications, from static portrait layouts to fully interactive kiosks.  This will provide some really useful inspiration.

Take the time to figure out what you want to achieve before you consider any specific hardware and software solution.  Consider screen locations, layouts and orientation.  Decide if you want a lot of activity on screen or if a more static approach works better because these factors will drive your choices.

For example, video and Flash animations require a more powerful PC than static images and text.  This is even more critical if you choose to drive multiple screens from a single computing device.  Not every software product supports multi-screen and multi-channel installations so it's important to ask these questions early on, before you make your final selection.

Think of mounting options.  Do you plan to install the PCs at the rear of the screens or will you place them in a remote and secure area, away from heat and humidity from the kitchen?  These are very important questions that must be asked early on.

If at all possible, keep your options open and don't go at it alone.  The trick is to find knowledgeable  partners who can help build a solution that will meet your own specific requirements.

You don't need the resources of a McDonalds to do digital signage right but you must take the time to do your research and your planning before you get too far in the process.

photo credit: via photo pin cc

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Feeding the Beast (How to create good content!)

One of the biggest challenges facing digital signage network operators is how to keep their screens populated with a constant stream of attractive and meaningful content.

Travel to any large city around the globe and you will encounter some type of digital signage.  You may see large LED billboards, projection devices of flat panel screens hanging on a wall but more often than not the content will be irrelevant to the venue or of no real value to the viewer.

So why does this happen?

The first mistake is treating digital signage like broadcast TV.  You see, broadcast television can afford to retain a viewer's attention for 30, 60, 90 seconds or longer but digital signage only has a few seconds to make an impression.  Next time you encounter a digital signage screen in your local mall or in a public space, check out how many people actually pay attention to the screen.  See if you can figure out how long viewers have to notice and absorb the content as you walk by.  Chances are it's a lot less than you think.

Knowing how long viewers have to absorb digital signage content should be the first step in the design process.  Consider what happens when someone encounters a static (printed) poster or banner.  Digital signage impacts viewers in a similar way but you need to consider how long will it take to put the content up on screen and how long it must remain there so it's noticed and absorbed by your target audience.  If you are designing for an outdoor venue, also consider people who are biking or driving by.

So the first lesson is: Simplicity and legibility is key.  Don't cram too much content on screen at once.  Don't overuse content channels and zones because this will impact the viewer's ability to notice, absorb and retain your message. Follow good design guidelines and set your text using a bold, legible font.

If you plan to schedule content based on dayparting, don't overload your playlists with too much content and you may also find it's better to have your content cycle often to ensure more viewers are exposed to it.

Adding live news feeds and weather is also quite popular but this must be done with proper planning and care.  For example, do you really need to cover part of the screen with a permanent scrolling news ticker?  Sometimes it's better to show news items and weather forecasts as part of your playlist content instead of using a ticker permanently displayed on screen.  Remember that mixing informative content with your advertising will help attract and retain a viewer's attention.

It's very important to consider the venue as this will have a huge impact on your content and your layouts.  In some cases you can get away with a "denser" screen layout that uses scrolling tickers and multiple content feeds.  This would be the case in a hotel or convention center where you need to publish a lot of information for a very broad audience.

If you have in-house creative staff used to work with print media or the web, be sure to have them trained in motion graphics.  Your creative team should be familiar with popular tools like Adobe After Effects or Apple Motion.

Another good content creation tool is Flypaper.  It lets you create high quality digital signage content quickly and effectively.

It's best to avoid Microsoft PowerPoint or Apple Keynote for anything other than corporate or small business applications.  These tools can be extended with other third party applications but if you need to create high impact and effective content, stick with the tools of the trade.

I often tell my clients digital signage is the marriage of print media and TV so you must adapt your creative  accordingly.

If you don't have your own in-house creative staff or if you are looking for inspiration, check out some of these useful resources:

photo credit: x-ray delta one via photo pin cc

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Consistency is the key!

I read a good article this morning on about showrooming.  The article references a white paper published by Wireless Ronin Technologies that talks about "omnichannel retailing".  The article goes on to describe how brick and mortar retailers are increasingly relying on a mix of technologies to better service their customers.

Retailers who are good at connecting with their customers rely on many technologies like social media, email marketing, mobile applications and digital signage. Unfortunately, each of these tools operates independently so keeping your message synchronized and unified is a difficult task.

For example, promotions must be coordinated across every channel otherwise you can end up with conflicting information.  You can't have digital signage screens displaying an expired promotion in your stores while your web site is showing entirely different ads.  Same goes with coupons that are published via the web or on mobile applications.

If you're not coordinating the message across every channel, you run the risk of alienating your customers and that's when showrooming comes into play...

It's important to publish your content across every channel using a unified look and feel.  It ties all of your communications together and reinforces your brand.

Retailers are putting a lot of effort to make this happen using the tools they have available but at some point we need all of these platforms to converge.  We're already seeing a few digital signage applications that can communicate with PCs, Linux and Android devices.  These applications let you publish content in a format that can be displayed on flat panel screens, tablets and digital frames.

When you're dealing with a single platform, it becomes much easier to deploy content across multiple channels in a coordinated manner. Until then, we need more checks and balances because consistency is the key!

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Exterior Digital Signage Blues

I spotted this 4 screen digital signage tower in Kingston, Ontario last week...
The execution is quite professional and it must have cost a pretty penny....  There are 4 screens mounted in weatherproof (and vandal proof) enclosures.  The enclosures are ventilated (you can hear the fans as you get closer to the structure).  The entire unit looks really sturdy.

The location is perfect. It's in a high traffic area, right next to a busy waterfront park and marina.

So what's wrong?

Well as you can probably tell from this picture, you can't see anything.  This was taken during an overcast day and the content on each screen was practically unreadable.  There is a lot of reflection coming off the enclosure's surface and I noticed a dark film which seemed to be applied to each screen's surface.  Not sure the purpose of this film but as a result you can't see the content during the day.  Even from up close.

I haven't visited the area at night so I can only assume it's a lot more readable but this is practically useless during the day. You would think having the screens mounted behind a protective glass in a thick enclosure would help with contrast but it doesn't work here.

There are really bright LCD and LED screens that are visible in full sunlight. I can only guess as to why they weren't used in this application (probably a cost issue).

This installation could have been designed and executed so it would work all day but someone decided to cut corners and this is the result.  Why would anyone go through all this expense and not use the right display  technology?

If you don't have the budget that can support 4 daytime readable screens, install 3.  Better to scale back and spend the money where it's needed.  Otherwise you end up with something that does half a job.

It's still possible to go in and retrofit better displays but you would think this could have been done right the first time.  Time will tell if this eventually works out.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Why retailers should warm up to "showrooming"

I discussed the practice of showrooming in a previous post and since then I've read more articles on the subject (like this one).  I was surprised to learn that Deloite predicts smartphone's impact on in-store sales in the U.S. will represent 5% of total sales in 2012 and eventually grow to 19% by 2016.

If you are a retailer or a marketer, you can't ignore these figures. Chances are smartphone use is already impacting your sales and will continue to do so for years to come. In order to be ready for these changes you must act now and consider every tool at your disposal.

Take digital signage for example.

When properly implemented, digital signage can engage smartphone users and turn them into paying customers.

Here's how:

  • Incite smartphone users to interact with your digital signage by adding QR Codes to your programmed content.  This way smartphone users will be able to obtain additional information on your products or download valuable coupons redeemable at the store's check-out.
  • There is nothing more frustrating for customers to drive up to a store and discover an advertised item is out of stock.  Instead of losing a sale to Amazon or eBay, display stock levels in real-time on your digital signage screens.  If you run out of stock, publish directions to the closest store that still has the item in stock.
  • Invite customers to shop online and then match your competitor's prices whenever they are lower.  You may lose a few points on one or two items but you will make it up in overall sales.  Many retailers are already doing this for their "bricks and mortar" competitors so this is just an extension of the same program.
  • Highlight your online competitor's shipping charges and point out all the disadvantages of shopping online (waiting for delivery, receiving the wrong item, product returns, etc...).
  • If you really feel daring, install an internet kiosk in your stores and let customers check out prices online.  Since you control the environment, you can always add some elements to the screen for in-store promotions.  You should also promote a shortcut to your own e-commerce store's web site.  Here again, digital signage technologies can provide added value by delivering ads while the kiosk in unattended.
  • Provide free in-store WiFi and be sure to publish a splash screen when customers log in so you can display links to your own e-commerce site or QR codes.

Smartphones will continue to add new features so this technology is not going away anytime soon.  Better get used to it and take action now rather than face declining sales in the years ahead.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

If you can read this... you can rent an apartment!

Fellow consultant and blogger Dave Haynes published an article yesterday about a local (Toronto) digital signage company that is getting into the apartment rental market.

The idea may not be as strange as it sounds and I agree with David on these points:

  • The content needs to be big, bold and simple.  If the picture on his blog is reflective of the final product, I can see a lot of problems.  There is way too much text and it looks tiny. I guess we're not targeting most 50+ tenants with these signs because you probably need to walk right up to the screen to read what's being displayed.  There is no way someone driving by be able to read this screen.
  • The application may be better served with a large format LED or other type of high impact outdoor screen.  I would also be really concerned about issues with the sun washing out the image or with  reflections making the thing unreadable from some angles.  There are many outdoor applications that use smaller size screens (I am thinking here of the Tim Hortons drive-throughs for example) but you're inches away from these things, the content is high impact and the screens are BRIGHT.
  • There is a definite risk of vandalism.  The screens look encased in some type of weatherproof case which is good but I shudder at the thought of some hooligan taking a baseball bat to this thing. Never mind the graffiti and assorted other indignities this will certainly face.  Better hope they have a webcam pointed at the screen.  They may need it as a deterrent (or for evidence gathering).
I looked at the company's other products and they seem to have a good business based on restaurant menu boards.  Their installations look very well executed and quite professional.  I suspect they come at this from a  web site design background and found a way to re-purpose their material for digital signage use.  It also makes lots of sense sense to leverage their content management system to support their digital signage installations.  It's a nice extension of the business.

I am more concerned with seeing what is better suited as a wall mounted digital concierge board used as a digital sign to increase the drive-by (or in this case, probably walk-by) rental business. Seems to me this application would be better served by using more visually effective content with a tie-in to MMS or Bluetooth to push out info about the rental units available.

It's certainly interesting and it gets me thinking about other untapped opportunities like adding cross-property promotions...  Perhaps integrate local business advertising to help promote the area or even partner with the city and push useful information as part of the loop.  Lots of opportunities there when you think about it.

Criticism aside, I wish these folks well and hope this works out for them.  It's always good to see people take digital signage into new directions and test new opportunities.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

New advertising startup lets you target and engage customers at a local level

I just stumbled upon a new tech startup that wants to do for digital signage what google did for online advertising.  The company is called locbit (for "local bit of information") and they are located in San Diego California and their concept is quite simple.

You create an advertising campaign by choosing the locations where you wish to display your ad and you set your bid.  Next you enter your online coupon or web site link  and you enter a short text message to be displayed with your ad.  Your ad is assigned a unique QR code that will be shown with your text message.

Your ads will be displayed on digital signage screens in the area(s) you select and you only pay if someone interacts with your ad by scanning the associated QR code.  You also get access to usage data so you can adjust your bid to ensure the best possible exposure.

I think this will be really appealing for small and medium sized screen networks who cater to businesses that need to reach a local audience.  The system is compatible with any content management system capable of displaying a web page.  All you have to do is assign the URL that was assigned by locbit to a template or screen layout zone and ads will be streamed and displayed in the proper area with the rest of your content.

As you go through the registration process, you can select which type of advertising you want to be shown on your screens.  For example, a coffee shop can restrict the scope to food related ads.  You can select one, multiple or every type of ads and locbit will take care of the rest.  Your bid amount will determine how often you own ad will be shown as part of the rotation so you can increase the ad repeat rate by increasing your bid.

The network operator gets relevant content that can easily be added to their existing content and local businesses get to advertise where their customers shop.

It's a clever idea and it will be interesting to see if the company takes off or if it gets gobbled up by a bigger player.  Stay tuned!

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The impact of smartphones on digital signage in retail applications

Anyone who follows emerging technology trends already knows mobile internet usage is on the rise. Smartphone popularity is at an all time high and there is no end in sight.  Having access to the internet anywhere, anytime is empowering consumers who can now research products and services wherever they go.  What has proven to be very useful for some (consumers) has been less useful to others ("brick and mortar" retail stores) since this practice is starting to impact in-store sales.

Major national chains are now seeing customers enter their stores, check out the price asked for an item and then use their smartphone to see if they can find cheaper prices online.  Retaillers must adapt quickly if they are to compete with this new form of competitive shopping. They must offer a more informative and entertaining shopping environment.  They must also add value otherwise they will continue to lose sales to their web based competitors. 

Digital signage can be extremely useful in helping retailers increase sales and retain customers but this requires some changes to traditional advertising practices.  It is no longer sufficient to simply push product advertisements using a digital signage solution and expect sales to increase just because you have screens hanging in your stores.  To be effective, digital signage content must evolve in order to compete with the mobile internet on its own terms.

For example, dynamic real-time data is preferable over static ads as there are less chances of displaying outdated information.  You don't want to be caught showing a clip with expired pricing.  It's also important to display compelling content that is relevant to the viewing audience at their current location.  One of the things digital signage is great at is having the ability to display highly targeted content so every effort should be made to use this capability and speak directly to the consumer at a local level.

We know major brands are great at "speaking" to national audiences but since we can now target tightly focused groups, it makes sense to adapt our messages and make them even more relevant to a local audience.  Maximize your screen's impact by mixing up your content. Show a national ad on one side of the screen and a local call to action on the other.

Leverage in-store promotions and advertise locally even as you roll-out global campaigns.  Blend local and global content distribution to better compete in a connected world.  Remember you're no longer going head to head with the store across town.  You're competing with global online retailers who can ship goods from warehouses anywhere in the world.

Whenever possible, look at integrating interactive applications as part of your digital signage rollout.  Use Bluetooth and SMS so customers can interact with your screens and download promotional coupons or pull down product information on demand.  This can also be useful to store staff who can interrupt scheduled content to bring up specific product information at a customer's request.  This form of interaction is great for all types of retail applications whether you are selling cars, appliances or fashion items.  These solutions leverage technologies people already carry in their pocket. Better to have them interact with your screens than surfing your competitor's web site.

Retailers should pay attention to screen locations and route content that is appropriate to each screen whenever possible.  It may be easier to push a common set of content or playlists to all the screens in your stores but are you really getting the most out of your investment?   Remember that it's all about offering relevant information to the audience at the point of decision.

There are many other techniques you can use to compete with online retailers.  If you comparison shop your competitors, be sure to include major online retailers and make it a point of highlighting any product where you either match or beat the best online price.  You should also highlight the advantages of shopping on-site and remind customers of the various disadvantage of shopping online (shipping costs and delays, difficulties with warranties and other related services, etc...).  Use your digital signage screens to inform your customers and turn them into savvy shoppers.

If your company operates its own online store, promote it on your screens.  It's a great way to show you are committed to new technologies and it lets customers know you are accessible on the web.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Beware the zombie screens!

I don't know if it's because I'm in the industry but it seems I can't go anywhere without seeing some digital signage that's misbehaving.

For example, I often see screens in public venues displaying content that was not meant for them (wrong content, wrong aspect ratio, wrong image orientation, image meant for multiple screens "squished" on a single screen, etc...).  This is almost worse than having screens frozen, locked up or displaying a big error message right in front of the intended audience.

And it gets worse... I once saw a screen showing a back-end player rebooting itself in a continuous loop.  The scene was quite surreal and I don't know how long it took the network operator to figure out there was a problem but I sat there for a good half hour and it didn't get resolved.

This screen was mounted in a prominent location, hanging from the ceiling right behind the sales counter.  The  staff was taking orders from customers with their backs to the screen.  No one working behind the counter seemed to notice what was going on, and frankly I don't know if they could have done anything other than turn off the equipment.  Meanwhile customers had a great view of a Linux boot up screen in all it's glory.  Looping over, and over, and over...  This was now a "zombie screen" and it would remain this way until someone put it out of its misery.

I have seen zombie screens in shopping malls, fast food restaurant chains and other high traffic environments. Places where we are told digital signage is at its best and most effective.

So why does this happen?

  • Lack of resources post-network launch.
  • Lack of follow up.
  • Bad planning.
  • Indifference...

It's easy to get everyone all fired up prior to launching a digital signage network.  After all, there is lots to do.  Budgeting, planning, testing, purchasing, deployment...  Deadlines are tight and everyone's focused on getting the job done but what happens after the screens are turned on?  Does everyone go home?

The work's far from finished... in fact you're just getting started!  There is content to be created, schedules to be managed and screens to be monitored.

Continuous monitoring and event tracking is almost as important as having good content because screens that malfunction won't display your content the way it was intended.  This affects your image, your client's image and eventually it impacts your bottom line.

So what should you do?  Well, you can start by enlisting your staff's help.  For example, they can let someone know if there is a malfunction. Set up a 1-800 number or an email address that goes straight to your IT support staff.  Let everyone in your organization know this is important.  Don't just rely on technology to tell you when it's failing.

Put in place a clear and effective troubleshooting policy.  Have spare equipment on hand ready to deploy in case of a breakdown.  Don't rely on suppliers to come running to your help unless you have a support agreement.  Remember to keep your support agreement active by renewing on time.  Don't wait for a problem to come up before you renew as you may be billed for any unplanned work.

Perform periodic content audits to make sure the material being sent to the screens is appropriate.  This will help eliminate the "portrait content in a landscape screen" issue.  If feasible, deploy a few web cams at various sites to get a real-time view of what's actually going on.  If that's not possible, have someone at each location check and report periodically on the status of the screens.  It may be low-tech, but it works!

Don't be indifferent to this problem.  Equipment will fail and people do make mistakes.  It's your job to be on top of things before the problem gets too much attention.

You wouldn't want your zombie screens to be featured on YouTube now, would you?

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Guidelines when encoding your videos for playback in Navori QL

Here are a few simple guidelines when preparing video material for playback in Navori QL.

  • Do not exceed 10 Mbps.  You're just asking your PCs to work harder at rendering the file and there is no visible advantage at playback.
  • For best performance you can encode the files in AVC1/MP4 or H.264
  • Do not use the FLV format as it is known to cause memory leaks that will eventually affect playback and could cause crashes.
  • Do not re-encode files because this will cause all sorts of issues.  For example, file size will increase and playback quality will significantly decrease.  Always go back to the original uncompressed content and work down from there.
  • 720p files (normal HD quality) play very well on older Intel Atom based PCs while 1080p files (full HD quality) are probably better used on higher end PC equipment.
  • It's probably best to stay away from proprietary codecs like DivX as they can be unreliable.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Managing multiple screens and videowalls in Navori QL

Ever wanted to manage multi-screen/single PC installations using Navori QL?  Ever wanted to position the QL Player window at specific screen location or perhaps restrict its size?  Need to manage content to be displayed in mixed screen orientations all running off a single PC?  Check out my latest tutorial: Managing multiple screens and videowalls in Navori QL

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Live TV on digital signage screens... pros and cons

Many digital signage users want to display live TV on their screens since it's relatively easy to do.  There are lots of software and hardware components available that will let you display live TV from any source (cable, satellite or over-the-air) so why not do it?  After all, you can install a good digital TV tuner card or USB device in most PCs and this will let you display live TV on your digital signage screens.  If your software platform supports the TV tuner card you will be able to schedule playback of the channel and in many cases you can even integrate the live TV feed in a screen layout with other content.

So what's stopping you?

Well... before you take the plunge you need to ask yourself if live TV content is worth the cost.  I am talking here about licensing costs, not just the costs associated with acquiring and deploying the hardware and software required to make it work.

You see, anyone who wants to re-broadcast a live TV feed must first obtain the rights from the TV networks or from their cable/satellite company.  Laws vary from country to country so anyone interested in displaying live TV on their digital signage screens should definitely seek advice from a lawyer before they proceed.  No one wants to get sued or fined for not complying with local copyright laws.

Here are a few links where you can find more information about the legality of displaying live TV on digital signage networks:

Does live TV fit in your overall content strategy?

Here are a few very important points that many digital signage users overlook.

  • Does live TV add or detract from your message?  
  • Do you feel you need to display live TV on your screens because your own content is "weak" or uninteresting?  
  • Have you considered adding live data feeds or soliciting viewer involvement through interactivity, QR Codes, SMS or Bluetooth?  

In most cases, you will get a better outcome if you update and refresh your content often or get your viewer involved in what's playing on screen.

On one hand, live TV is seen by many as a way to display professional, high quality content at zero cost (because they don't factor in the cost of acquiring the distribution rights).  They are not aware that live TV may in fact reduce the impact of other content displayed on your screens.

If you operate an advertising network in a public area and mix live TV with your own content, you may simply end up diluting the impact of your client's advertising.  Viewers who are looking at the TV content will be less inclined to pay attention to other ads on your screens.  You may get more total viewers but are your clients really getting their money's worth?

However, there are plenty of venues where live TV works...  Take sports bars for example.  But sports bars are required to pay their cable company for redistribution rights and in most cases they are forbidden to alter the signal.   This means they are not allowed to re-purpose the live TV broadcast and mix the signal with other content like 3rd party advertising.  So, they can play the latest hockey or basketball game on a big screen but they cannot add their own advertising at the same time (on the same screen).

Assuming you have acquired the proper redistribution rights, you should be allowed to play back live TV on your digital signage in full screen format for any given time as long as you do not alter the TV signal in any way.  I don't see any problem with switching back and forth from a full screen live TV feed to local programmed advertising as long as you don't integrate the live TV with other advertising content on the same layout.  Ultimately, I would caution anyone reading this to seek the advice of a legal professional and confirm this with your local TV provider.

In a sense, digital signage technologies give users the ability to create their own private TV channels.  When treated as such, users can distribute content that they create themselves or that they commissioned from a 3rd party.  In any case, they own the content so they are free to distribute it in any way they want.

Things can get complicated when dealing with content that you don't own.  You must decide if the content is worth the cost of acquiring the usage rights.  In most cases you may find it's better to stick with your own content.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Taking control of your PC player network

Have you ever deployed a PC based digital signage solution? If so, you have certainly experienced the odd PC crash or equipment failure.  It doesn't matter which software solution you're running on... PCs like any tech devices can and will fail.  This is why you must be adequately prepared to detect when a failure is imminent and take action to prevent or recover after the PC becomes unresponsive.

Most digital signage operators already use software based solutions like LogMeIn and GoToMyPC or hardware based solutions like Wake-on-LAN.  These inexpensive and often free technologies are great for simple PC troubleshooting.  However, you need a more robust solution when a PC experiences a major crash due to a memory leak or other catastrophic failure.  A non-responsive PC can still be rebooted and restored to a working state, buying you time to determine the cause of the problem.

If you want to know more about PC remote control and troubleshooting, download my latest tutorial in PDF format.  This document covers a wide variety of tools and services you can use to restore a PC to working order in no time.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Video encoding and file conversion tips

Most digital signage users will incorporate video material at some point in their playlists and schedules.  In many cases the bulk of the material will be provided by the client or re-purposed from another source... and that's when things can get messy.

Sometimes, you'll get a video that plays fine on your big old desktop PC so you figure it's fine and you upload it to your players.  Then you find out the clip causes all sorts of problems after looping for hours on your micro fanless PCs and you don't know what's going on.

This is where a little knowledge can go a long way...

So what's the best codec or file format?

I am often asked, "what's the best video format/codec that I should use for my digital signage" and my answer is always... "depends!"

There is no single answer because each situation is different.  You have a wide range of PC and display screen configurations out there so it's impossible to guarantee perfect playback all of the time.

Having said this, there are a few rules you can follow to ensure the best possible outcome and high reliability:

  • MPEG-2 is a good place to start.  It's a decent compromise of quality and performance. This video standard offers decent image quality but WMV9 and H.264 encoded files often look better. Not the most efficient in terms of CPU usage but not the worst either.
  • WMV9 is a good video encoding choice for Windows based PCs.  However the resulting WMV file can be quite CPU intensive at higher resolutions.
  • H.264 will provide really good image quality at a price.  Higher compression rates mean more CPU load.  The faster the PC, the better the results with this one.
  • In some cases, MPEG-1 can still be a viable option so you should test it if nothing else works for you.
Learning about video formats and codecs isn't for the faint of heart. In fact, it sometimes feels a bit like alchemy... part magic and part science. Now you may ask yourself, "Shouldn't my digital signage software take care of all this?".  Well the short answer is... No!  If you plan to display video on your screens, you should have a basic understanding of what's going on behind the scenes.

Digital signage is made up of many components:  PC hardware, TV screens, software, content, etc... And each component can affect the performance or stability of the entire system. If you feed the system bad content, you will get a bad outcome.  It's really that simple.

So let's dive in and learn something...

Lesson #1.  What is a codec?

Raw or uncompressed video files tend to be very big.  These are the files that you get out of a professional quality video camera.  This is the raw footage that is used for editing.  These files are not meant for playback on your PCs.  They are way too large and would require too much storage space and computing power to be useful.  This is where codecs come into play.

A codec is a program designed to compress or decompress a video file.  Videos are encoded to reduce their size and make them playable on a wide range of PCs and consumer devices.  So it's important to know what codec was used when someone hands you a video file.  That's one way you can determine if the content is suitable for your application.  If not, you can go back and specify the codec of your choice or you can ask for the original file and convert the clip yourself.

There are basically two types of codecs.  Those who perform lossy compression (meaning some image and audio data is removed to achieve smaller file sizes) and those who perform lossless compression (very little data is lost).  Lossy codecs are the ones you will encounter at the playback end.  Most videos meant for playback are encoded with lossy codecs.  Lossless codecs are used when archiving files or for high end editing.  They are never used for playback.

Lesson #2. What should I look for in a codec?

A good codec should provide a decent amount of compression while delivering good image quality.  And here's the rub, there are always compromises.  Codec A creates really small files but image quality sucks.  Codec B creates huge files however image quality is amazing. So your answer lies in the middle.  You want a codec that will give you the best of both.  Good compression and good playback quality.

Oh, and one more thing...  You want a codec that manages memory well.  There are codecs that perform amazing feats of compression and deliver high image quality that will deplete a PC's memory in hours.  They consume memory each time the clip is played and never fully release it so eventually the PC runs out of resources and crashes.  This is one of the most common issues you see related to video playback.  

Here are some common codecs you will encounter:
  • DivX - There are 2 flavors of DivX.  One follows the MPEG-4 standard and the other follows the H.264 standard.  This is a proprietary codec.
  • XviD - This is a video codec library that follows the MPEG-4 standard.  It is a free codec.
  • WMV - Windows Media Video is a video compression format that supports several Microsoft codecs. The most common codec you will see used with this format is called WMV9.
  • MPEG - Represents both a series of video formats and standards.  The most common are MPEG-1, -2 and -4.
  • H.264 - Also known as: MPEG-4 or AVC, is probably the most common high definition video codec available.
  • Sorenson Spark - This is a codec used to encode videos delivered in Flash Video format (FLV).  You use the Sorenson Squeeze encoder to generate these types of files.  Note that Squeeze can also transcode to other codecs and formats as well.  

NOTE: These are the most common codecs you will see. I didn't list them all so if you find something else and you're not sure if it applies to your situation... Google it!

Lesson #3. What's a container format.

A container is a file format that can host different types of data (compressed audio and video for example).

Here are some common container formats:

  • AVI - These files can contain audio and video content that are encoded with different codecs.  AVI is not a codec.  It is a container format that is mostly used on PCs.
  • QuickTime (MOV) - The QuickTime format originated on the MAC but it is popular with PCs as well.  You will often see MOV files encoded with the H.264 codec but other codecs can be used.
  • Flash Video (SWF - FLV - F4V) - This is another container format based on Adobe Flash.  This format is mostly used to deliver video on the web.

Don't confuse AVI, QuickTime and Flash Video with codecs because they are not the same thing.  They are containers.

Lesson #4. Bit rates and frame rates, Oh My!!!

To make things interesting, we have a couple more variables that affect playback performance.

  • Bit rate: In digital video, bit rate represents the amount of information, or detail, that is stored per unit of time of a recording. The bitrate depends on several factors (which we won't discuss) but you can read more about it here.

    Bit rates can be expressed in kilobits per second or megabits per second.

    Here are some examples of recommended bit rates for a given video resolution and compression level:
    • 9.8 Mbit/s max: DVD (using MPEG2 compression)
    • 8 to 15 Mbit/s typ: HDTV quality (with bit-rate reduction from MPEG-4 AVC compression)
    • 19 Mbit/s approximate: HDV 720p (using MPEG2 compression)
    • 24 Mbit/s max: AVCHD (using MPEG4 AVC compression)
    • 25 Mbit/s approximate: HDV 1080i (using MPEG2 compression)
    • 29.4 Mbit/s max: HD DVD
    • 40 Mbit/s max: Blu-ray Disc (using MPEG2, AVC or VC-1 compression)

  • Frame rate: Represents the amount of frames that are shown per second.  Without getting too technical, it's recommended to keep your frame rate below 30 frames per second when preparing files for PC playback.  You can go lower that 30FPS (like 24 or 25 fps) but you may see some blurring if your clip features quick motion shots and panning.

    Anything above 30 FPS is a waste of CPU cycles and you won't notice the difference on screen.
    The higher the frame rate, the more the PC's CPU must work.

Lesson #5. What's "transcoding"?

Transcoding refers to the direct data conversion from one encoding method to another.  For example,  whenever you convert a file from a DVD VOB format to WMV you are transcoding the video file.

Here are a couple of things to remember.  Transcoding a compressed video to another compressed format will result in loss of quality and often increase the file size.  It's better to transcode from a lossless (or uncompressed) file to a lossy format.  That way you won't lose too much information and the file will be smaller.

Lesson #6. Why is it a bad idea to use a VOB video file in my digital signage software?

VOB is the standard container format for DVD video.  You will find these files on video DVDs (usually on commercial DVDs). A VOB file can contain much more than just audio and video.  The file can contain subtitles, DVD menus and navigation content. VOB files found on commercial DVDs are usually encrypted and it is illegal to decrypt them.

Unencrypted VOB files can be played by renaming their extension to ".mpg" because these files are a special version of MPEG-2.  However the results may not be great because the files are not optimized for PC playback.  If you are stuck and need to play the content of an unencrypted VOB file, I would first try transcoding it to a more "standard" format like WMV or H.264.

Last but not least. What's the best video resolution for digital signage?

Full HD or 1080p has become a popular video standard for good reason.  A big screen displaying full 1080p video is a thing to behold.  But in terms of digital signage one can ask if the juice is really worth the squeeze...

Consider this:
  • 1080p video really comes into play when you are using large display screens.  Any screen size above 32" is a good candidate for 1080p because the image is so much larger.
  • The 720p HD format is great for screens below 32" because smaller images tend to look sharper. It becomes much more difficult to see the difference between 720p and 1080p below this screen size.
Now, it's pretty difficult to tell which screen resolution is being used on a  42" screen hanging 10' from the floor from any given distance.  So you must ask yourself it's it really worth using 1080p given that video files become exponentially larger and require more PC resources than lower resolution content.

In my opinion, you need to look at the big picture.  What PC hardware are you using or planning to use?  If you use low-cost Atom based PCs with limited resources, why not give yourself an edge and feed it 720p content instead of 1080p?

This isn't to say you can't play 1080p on an Atom box but you put all the chances on your side if you stick with a lower resolution and you get more benefits, such as: 
  • Lower storage requirements.
  • Quicker file downloads/reduced bandwidth usage.
  • Faster transcoding.
  • Opens up the possibility of using WiFi instead of hard wired connections.
  • Etc...

In conclusion...

There are many factors that affect video playback performance and PC stability.  You need to figure out what is the target resolution for your screens and then work beck from that.  Look at your hardware. Test using various file formats for at least 48 hours before settling on a particular file format and codec pairing that works for you.

You need to test... test... and test some more...

Here are a few links to helpful resources:

Friday, April 20, 2012

Using mobile marketing techniques on your digital signage screens

Audience interaction is a great way to capture your viewers attention and this is where mobile marketing comes into play.  By asking your audience to perform a simple act like sending an SMS message or entering a short code into their mobile phone, you engage them and create an immediate connection.  The reward can be a downloadable coupon or text message that can be redeemed in exchange for a rebate or other incentive.

Mobile Marketing is gaining traction for the following reasons:
  1. It is easy to implement: There are many companies that offer these types of services online.  Setup is quick and in many cases you will find the cost is reasonable enough for a very small campaign.
  2. Results can be measured immediately: Mobile marketing service providers offer statistics and online tools you can use to measure your campaign's effectiveness in real-time.
  3. Mobile marketing is ideal for reaching younger consumers: Younger demographics have embraced this medium while older folks are getting used to the concept of receiving coupons and incentives on their mobile phones.
Consider this...  smartphone use is increasing and the public is already familiar with mobile applications so the rate of acceptance continues to grow.  This is why you should consider adding a mobile marketing component to your digital signage advertising plan.

Mobile marketing campaigns are not dependent on any specific digital signage solution technology.  In many cases, these ads can be rolled out as static images so they require very little effort on your part.

Here are a few suggestions:
  • Think of one or more promotions that would benefit from an instant coupon.
  • Check out one of the current mobile marketing agencies like BlueFire Digital, Mozeo or Trumpia.
  • If you plan to use mobile keywords for your campaign, remember your audience will be using a smartphone keyboard so keep it short and simple.
  • Be sure to include all the necessary information into your digital signage ad.  Leave the information on screen long enough so viewers can absorb the message and react accordingly.
  • Consider all of the available mobile marketing technologies for your campaign.  SMS, mobile keywords, Bluetooth and QR codes are all great tools you can incorporate into your digital signage advertising plan.