Thursday, January 31, 2013

Lockbit enhances PGA tour signage

There is a great article from the DailyDOOH on Locbit's involvement in the latest PGA tournament.  It's great to see the company grow from targeted ad-delivery into a solution that lets viewers interact with digital signage screens.  Network administrators can also leverage the technology to control which content is shown on screen.  It's a smart solution and I hope we'll the company expand even more in 2013.

Digital signage network owners should take a look at this platform.  It lets you engage your audience in ways that most content distribution platforms can't.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

5 common misconceptions about digital signage

#1 - This is going to be EASY!

Not to burst anyone's bubble but deploying digital signage can be quite challenging.

There are many variables to consider:

  • What hardware/software should I use?
  • What am I going to show on the screen(s)?
  • Should I host the software or should I go with a hosted solution (SaaS)?
  • How am I going to hook this all up together?
  • Where should I locate the screen(s)?
  • Does the location have internet access and power available?
Going at it alone can be a very costly proposition and often vendors will downplay this complexity.

As a good friend once told me... "If this was easy, chimps would do it!".

So before you hand out your hard earned money, seek some professional advice.

You will avoid costly mistakes.

#2 - We can do this for free

Let's see...  We'll grab some free software, throw it on that old Windows XP box sitting in the back room.  We'll hook it all up to the plasma TV from the board room and voila!  Instant digital signage.

Before you dust off that PC, consider this.  Time is money and free software will often lead to a lot of work.  Unless you know what you're doing, prepare to spend many hours going through documentation, help files, you'll be posting a lot on user forums just so you can get your installation working.

It's true that many free and open source solutions are backed by paid support and consulting services.  You will get the software for free but you should be prepared to pay for support, otherwise you'll be wasting a lot of time.

With so many affordable SaaS and self-hosted solutions on the market, it doesn't make much sense to try and "build your own".  If you don't have the the budget for professional software, stick with PowerPoint (or Google Docs).  You won't be able to schedule content or display live news but at least you'll have content on your screen and you won't need to spend too much to get there.

#3 - Content is free

On the internet, images and videos are but a few clicks away... As long as you're willing to pay.  Unless you are acquiring the content from a "free" source (under a creative-commons license for example), scraping content off the internet is akin to stealing.  Same goes for displaying RSS feeds or playing live TV in a public venue without consent.

Most digital signage software applications let you publish pictures, videos and real-time data with a few mouse-clicks.  It is the software user's responsibility to secure the rights of all content displayed on their screens.

Unless you're in the business of creating content, you will need to acquire it from outside sources.  It's best to shop around for royalty-free content providers that have images that fit your needs (see: Corbis Images, Getty Images...) and consider dealing with a content aggregator that has secured the rights for the content.    A good example would be Screenfeed or Blue Fox.

If your budget won't afford professional content, at least look for content that is distributed under the Creative Commons license.  Google and Yahoo will let you specify this criteria in image searches so you should use that switch when searching for content online.

#4 - Consulting? Training? Who needs that?

Perhaps you're a video production whiz.  Maybe you know your way around Flash.  Doesn't mean you know how to prepare content for distribution in a digital signage system.

Digital signage requires a special set of skills that cuts across many disciplines. It's not broadcast... It's not web publishing either.

Digital signage content must often be displayed for days or even months.  It's one thing to load content when someone hits your web page but it's an entirely different thing to have your content loop hundreds and thousands of times in a stable and reliable fashion.

A well designed digital signage platform will manage key memory parameters to ensure trouble-free playback.  However, the need for proper content preparation should not be ignored.

Knowing how to prepare your content can save you hours of troubleshooting and downtime.  These skills are as important as knowing how to configure your digital signage software to ensure a reliable and trouble-free operation.

Spending one or two hours with an expert at the beginning of your deployment will save you many hours of frustration regardless of the software platform that you use.  You will get up to speed faster and become productive much sooner.

#5 - I can't afford this!

After reading this, some of you may think of digital signage as this black hole that will swallow all of your cash.  This may sound like a funny description but if you don't plan ahead, you will end up paying for it.

It doesn't have to be.  Digital signage can be deployed in a viable and self-sustaining manner as long as you do a bit of planning and have a good understanding of the potential costs.

Remember that digital signage can generate its own revenue stream. If you are in retail, healthcare or in hospitality, consider co-op deals with your vendors and suppliers.  This is a great way to offset ongoing maintenance and production costs.

Here are some useful tips:

  • Determine what you want to achieve with your screens
  • Perform a thorough assessment of all in-house expertise and capabilities (technical and creative)
  • Define your budget
  • Target specific technologies that will support your vision (SaaS, Self-Hosted platform)
  • Put out a RFP and evaluate multiple options
Before you get started, consider hiring a qualified digital signage professional who can help nail-down your requirements and translate them into a RFP that is clear and easy to follow.  This person can also help in evaluating the proposals you will receive from potential vendors.

A large portion of your budget will be spent in the planning and roll-out stages. This is when you acquire, install and begin using the technology.  Once this period has ended you will enter the production stage at which point you will face ongoing operating costs  These are: content acquisition and development, administration and support.

This scenario applies to pretty well any digital signage platform on the market.  If you purchase a self-hosted software platform you will encounter a "one-time" acquisition charge early on.  Choosing a SaaS solution will let you amortize this cost over many months or even years which is sometimes preferable.

So there you have it!

I hope you find this little check-list useful and I welcome your comments.

photo credit: Jeremy Brooks via photopin cc

Monday, January 28, 2013

It's a sign of the times!

Sometimes we find inspiration in the strangest places.  It can happen while driving in your neighborhood or while doing your grocery shopping... Me?  I like to go out for a nice drive.

So I'm driving around the other day and I notice my local Applebee's recently installed a big LED sign on a pylon sign, right in front of their restaurant.  The sign is animated, bold and bright.  You can see it from quite a distance, in fact it's pretty hard to miss.  The sign tells you the time, it displays weather forecasts and lists daily specials and featured menu items.  It was doing it's job because the parking lot was full.

Not long after this, I noticed a couple of churches in my neighborhood had also installed LED panels.  They were using them in a similar fashion and judging by their parking lots, "business was booming".

This got me thinking... We mostly see LED signs used outside restaurants, hotels or houses of worship but I haven't see them used much in retail, at least not in Canada, and I wondered why not?

The cost of deploying LED signage has been going down every year.  The software applications are mature and affordable.  In fact the software is often thrown in with the sign's control hardware. In many cases, retailers have already invested in web sites so they have digital assets they can reuse on their signs.

There are boatloads of LED panels shipped out of China every year so why aren't we seeing more of these signs outside retail venues?

When you think about it, your typical big box retail store has it's name bolted on a wall and little else.  Maybe you'll find a pylon sign and some banners hanging in front of the building or on lamp posts.  Some retailers spend tons of money deploying digital signage in their stores, however they don't exploit the huge expanse of empty wall space that is visible from the street.

While it's true most municipalities regulate the size and design of exterior and road side signage, many are becoming more tolerant of LED signs simply due to their visual appeal.

We've all driven by those cheesy mobile letter signs that litter main street in many small towns.  Mobile signs make sense for temporary applications but in many cases they have become permanent fixtures that eventually fall apart and rust away.  These garish orange and yellow lettered signs are simply not meant for permanent use and some municipalities are outlawing them for good reason.

There is an obvious need for innovative and appealing road side advertising. I just hope municipalities and businesses can work together and support the deployment of LED signs for retail applications.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Hot Digital Signage Trends for 2013

It's a new year and with trade show season about to begin,  it's time for my 2013 predictions!


You can expect to see a lot of vendors launching Android based solutions at upcoming trade shows.  The trend began last year with Capital Networks, Mediasignage and signagelive releasing their first Android products and we can expect this category to grow as more established software vendors jump on the bandwagon.  What's behind all this activity?  Cheaper hardware.

2012 saw many tablet hardware manufacturers introduce small "streaming media" devices that were based on Android tablet hardware. They simply repackaged tablet hardware components into a very small form factor minus the screen (some look like big USB memory sticks and others more like a ROKU or Apple TV device).

Since these devices were optimized for media playback (mainly audio, video and HTML), they grabbed the attention of software vendors who are always looking for small, reliable and inexpensive hardware to run their products on.

Will this trend take hold?  You bet!  There is a lot of work being done behind the scenes to deliver highly reliable and more affordable digital signage solutions.  Some vendors will be conservative and limit the types of media they support while others will enhance their offerings with template and multi-zone capabilities, Flash SWF support and other useful features.    Expect pricing to vary depending on the feature set and support level.

One thing we can be sure... Android is poised to take a lot of market share away from traditional PC hardware.

Ultra-Small PCs

Last year, Intel released a new reference for ultra-small PCs built around their Core i3 and i5 processors.  They called it "Next Unit of Computing" and it was presented more as a proof of concept than a commercial product.  This changed by the end of the year with many Intel partners releasing new hardware based on the new platform.

The reason is simple... With Android gaining steam, there is a race to cram ever more processing power into smaller (and cheaper) packages.  These new ultra-small PCs are Intel's response to the Android threat.  Problem is  these Intel PCs cannot compete on price because when you factor the cost of a Windows licence (even in Embedded version) Android simply comes out on top.

In order to compete, Intel's products must perform at a higher level (full HD), they must support more media formats and offer a more compelling solution than an Android based solution.

Then there is the Raspberry Pi.  This is a super affordable ARM based hardware platform that was initially developed for hobbyists and students.  It is pared down to the bone and all of its components fit on a board the size of a credit card.  The platform runs on a version of Linux Debian (called Raspbian) so it's closer to Android than a traditional PC and there is at least one digital signage software developer who has started to develop a solution for this platform.  The open source product is called Screenly and a commercial version is currently in beta.  

If digital signage software vendors start developing Android and Raspberry Pi based solutions that can compete directly with PCs, we could see a vastly different hardware landscape by the end of the year.

Due to the extra cost and complexity, traditional PC hardware will be relegated to deployments that need the additional processing power and storage capacity that only an Intel or AMD based PC can provide.

Don't expect Android and other hardware manufacturers to sit still either. Their core business will continue to be the retail consumer so they must continue to innovate as more broadcast TV viewers migrate to content on demand from the cloud.

Interesting times ahead for everyone!


There was a lot of buzz  about HTML5 in 2012 and we're going to hear more about it this year as well.  Some predicted HTML5 would take over from Adobe Flash and become the new animation standard for digital signage and it didn't happen. There are many reasons for this...

First, it was a bit premature since the HTML5 standard is still in evolving and we won't see the final standard for quite some time.  This means some features aren't fully developed, others aren't fully supported by software vendors and may not be for a while.

It should also me known there are many Flash capabilities that have no direct counterpart in HTML5 and what makes HTML5 great for delivering righ web content to someone's web browsers, may not work as well in a 24/7, 365 playback environment.  While it's true that poorly written Flash ActionScript code can create memory leak issues that can affect a PCs performance over time, the same can be said about HTML5s well documented memory management issues (Google "HTML5 memory leak" and see...).

So as things stand, HTML5 occupies a small niche in the digital signage market.  At least on the media playback side.  There are a few HTML5 compatible hardware devices such as the Iadea players that have garnered a following.  These devices are supported by major software vendors and perform quite well but they can't compete with a full featured PC based solution.

I see HTML5 as having a much greater impact on the content management and scheduling side.  HTML5 is an ideal solution to deliver a digital signage management interface to a wide range of devices, much like Silverlight is used to deliver rich user interfaces to PCs.  HTML5 can be used across PCs, Macs, Android and iOS devices without having to rewrite any code and that's a big advantage over dedicated software applications.

The premise of HTML5 was "author once, play anywhere", but we're not there yet.  This should change once the standard is finalized in a year or two. Until then HTML5 will continue to be a technology better suited to simple content applications.

Interactive Applications

With it's "live tiles", Windows 8 was to introduce millions to the touch user interface.  It did but the jury is still out on what impact this will have as the launch didn't deliver the sales figures Microsoft was expecting.

Having said that, touch interfaces are becoming more common simply due to the number of touch enabled  tablets and smartphones that are out in the field.  If the trend continues (and it will), our grand kids will never encounter PCs that aren't at least touch or voice enabled.

We're all becoming used to poking and swiping on our screens so we're hearing more and more about touch enabled digital signage and kiosk deployments.  Currently, touch, motion and other non-keyboard based interaction has been mostly relegated to highly specialized applications such as special events and non-traditional (or "viral") ad campaigns.

In many cases we're talking about immersive experiences that require large screens, projectors, sensors and custom enclosures, but this can also be an interactive table display or wayfinding kiosk in a public space.

The reason we haven't seen more interactive applications yet is due to the costs associated with its deployment.  There is the cost of installing and calibrating the hardware, the cost of creating the content specifically for interaction and the cost of delivering the material using non-traditional means.

The good news is these costs are coming down as more touch enabled hardware enter the market with new software platforms that simplify the process of "touch-enabling" your content.

Be happy! Soon we'll all be winking, waving and gesturing in front of a screen just to find out where to find the closest coffee shop.

*Cartoon from

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Times Square Mac DS software crash

The DailyDOOH blog recently posted an article about a Mac digital signage software crash in Times Square.

The picture above was taken by "Instagram user and MTV Geek contributor Alexander Zalben”.  Click here for the DailyDOOH post or here for the original article.

Since a large portion of digital signage players run on Microsoft Windows, we often read about the infamous "blue screen of death". I have personally seen what happens when a Linux based DS player crashes and it's not pretty either.

What makes this event worth mentioning is the technology driving this installation is a Mac, not a Windows or Linux based PC.  Never mind it was located in one of the highest profile destinations in the world.

I don't have any hard numbers to back this up but I think it's safe to say most digital signage installations run on some version of Windows or Linux.  Macs only make up a tiny portion of this market, probably  due to higher deployment costs and lack of DS software options.

The DailyDOOH article speculated on the software running this installation but it's impossible to really tell just by looking at this picture.  For all we know, this screen could be running on a custom software application instead of a commercial product.

This isn't about picking one operating system over another.  It's about monitoring your players and setting up procedures to deal with crashes because bad things will happen, regardless of the OS running your players.  Prepare for the unexpected.  Pick a DS solution that monitors your equipment and alerts you in case of a crash.

Don't expect your Android, Linux, Mac or Windows players will run reliably 24/7/365 because in many cases, they won't.  Bad things will happen.  Power spikes, network outages, bad/misbehaving content, etc...  It's your job to know when a crash occurs so you can take immediate action.  Better yet, your DS solution should offer automated reboot capabilities in case of a major problem.

If your DS software platform doesn't feature monitoring or watchdog services, investigate third party software and hardware based monitoring. Also, make sure you install a reliable and secure remote control solution on all your players.

Make this part of your New Year's resolutions or you will find out when your player crashed on Twitter or Facebook.