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.