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Flashy Digital Signage

Sep 1, 2006 12:00 PM, By Jeff Sauer

In the future, Flash could take digital signage to a new level.


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In the June issue of Sound & Video Contractor, I offered an overview of digital video file and compression formats (see svconline.com/mag/avinstall_digital_video_compression). It was, by design, basic stuff for AV contractors who, while probably familiar with digital connectivity such as HDMI, DVI, and SDI, may not be aware of the nature of the bytes being moved. It's becoming increasingly important for AV pros to distinguish between digital source artifacts from infrastructure shortcomings, but also to appreciate the business opportunities from using digital video technology.

Flash could be increasingly used to lend richness to digital signage displays such as this one driven by Scala.

Most of the formats listed in that article should at least be somewhat familiar. There was, however, one format — Flash video — that was tucked down at the bottom of that article with web video “streaming” formats that may be less familiar to AV contractors, at least professionally. Flash is, of course, all over the Internet, bringing rich media to otherwise static web pages. For example, the main consumer interface at www.sony.com is driven by Flash, with menus and graphic elements flying in — as are the majority of banner ads that include anything more than old motion GIFs (i.e., flaming or spinning logos).

Flash is also the format behind those annoying web ads that appear to walk across your computer screen while you're trying to read an article. You've been accosted by them — those transparent background figures or graphics that seem to take over your browser until you can find the close box, which good convention, if not good conscience, in the developer community mercifully includes in most Flash ads. Exasperating, perhaps, but those ads do hint at some powerful possibilities for a tool that was born 10 years ago as a rather straightforward vector animation tool.

In the June 2006 article of Sound & Video Contractor, and in the context of digital video basics, Flash was listed simply as Flash video, and video is an increasingly important aspect of Flash's capabilities. Yet, motion video is hardly at the core of Flash, nor is it likely to be the focus of Flash for AV communications.

To commemorate the 10th anniversary of Flash, Adobe devoted a section of its website to the tool. Visitors to the site voted for the best Flash-enabled websites from each of the last 10 years. Road Runner’s website (the current version pictured above) is the winner for the 2003 poll.

FLASH IN THE AV PANEL

Why is Flash important to the AV contractor? Admittedly, it probably isn't all that important just yet, but I see a couple of strong reasons why AV pros ought to at least understand it — particularly those who work with digital signage or with increasingly sophisticated houses of worship or image-conscious corporations. But first, what is Flash, and what can it do?

Flash is a vector animation tool capable of flying shapes, graphics, and text around your computer screen. Flash animations originally played in a standalone Flash player, much like Macromedia Director projects did — if anyone remembers the early days of computer multimedia. The difference was that Flash animations, and the Flash player itself, were small files that were capable of surprising richness in the old dial-up days.

More interesting: That was the age of the emerging web, and the tiny Flash player shrewdly became one of the first browser plug-in applications to get installed automatically when you installed Netscape Navigator and, shortly after that, Internet Explorer. The result was, and still is, almost universal compatibility on personal computers. Independent studies going back to before 2000 regularly put Flash player penetration at more than 97 percent in the United States. In other words, just about every computer out there can now play a Flash movie without installing or configuring anything new. Admittedly, not all those Flash players are up to date, and newer Flash content may require a player upgrade.

That alone is pretty cool, but Flash became even more powerful. Along the way, Flash gained the ability to incorporate other data types, such as JPEG photos, GIFs, PNG files, audio files, and, most recently, video of all different types. Flash video does imply a default compression format that enables special features such as non-rectangular and/or interactive presentations of video, but Flash can play virtually any video format in a traditional 4×3 window. More importantly for web and kiosk development, Flash became interactive, driven by a dedicated scripting language called Actionscript.

It's Actionscript and interactivity that have made Flash powerful enough to be the programming tool for sites such as Sony's and many others. It's also what could make it so important to the AV industry. Indeed, it already is used for kiosk development for museums and other public spaces. StrandVision's Digital Signage service is also built on Flash. It uses Actionscript to automatically generate custom digital signage content from text and images uploaded by the client. (See my review of StrandVision Digital Signage in the July 2006 issue or at svconline.com/mag/avinstall_strandvision_digital_signage.)

THE FUTURE OF FLASH

This year marks Flash's 10th anniversary, and its new owner, Adobe, is marking the occasion with a section of its website (adobe.com/products/flash/special/flashanniversary). The site reflects on Flash's history and growth, offers tricks and tips from Flash developers, and has the winning Flash-enabled websites that visitors voted on from a number of influential Flash-driven websites from each of the last 10 years. There are some amazing websites, especially when viewed in the context of traditional HTML or even Java-scripted websites.

It probably won't take too much looking at those sites to realize that Flash is extremely capable and presents information in a rich way. Indeed, it is far more mature and proficient at developing eye-catching content than any of the digital signage creation tools currently on the market. Of course, Flash doesn't inherently have the scheduling component that digital signage products have, and while it does have serious network management tools, they are not specifically designed for signage infrastructures.

Still, there is an army of Flash developers and creators out there on an order of magnitude far in excess of any digital signage tool, and many are already working in the creative and web departments of companies that might be interested in using digital signage. Therefore, it's inevitable that more Flash content will start to emerge as signage and information presentation reach the next level.

Nobody's arguing these days that digital signage won't be big, but thus far, it has been a slow road. That's mainly because of the human costs, rather than the hardware costs. StrandVision smartly helps smaller potential users move past those inherent roadblocks. Leveraging existing Flash content and expertise could very well be the catalyst for getting larger companies to move, too.

None of that means that AV contractors need to become Flash developers; however, it's becoming increasingly clear that contractors who enjoy success with digital signage will be the ones who understand the underlying technology and the possible solutions first — and that will probably include an understanding of the content itself and where it comes from.



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