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Expert Viewpoint: Digital Signage Trends

Jun 2, 2009 12:00 PM, By Ken Goldberg

A look at where digital signage networks are headed in the future.

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Server and centralized software

The centralized server will house a content library and host software that will typically have important functions including:

  • Enabling management of content and creation of player and group-level playlists
  • Distributing the content to players
  • Allowing remote administration of media players and displays
  • Managing communications between media players and the server
  • Collecting and reporting diagnostic data
  • Managing users.

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The server can be owned and hosted by the network owner (also referred to as an enterprise model), although this is typically only economical for either very large, geographically diverse networks or small, single-site networks.

A more pervasive model is the software as a service (SaaS) model, in which the server and software are owned and managed by a software provider and paid for on a per-media-player, per-month subscription basis that covers the cost of bandwidth from the server to the media players. The SaaS model has proven to be more popular for startup and growing networks, as it drastically reduces initial capital costs, reduces the need for IT personnel, and provides for predictable, scalable costs. Most SaaS software is accessed by a web browser, but some providers require proprietary client-side software for user work¬stations. SaaS models also allow AV integrators to offload technical support and training to the software provider so they can focus on the design and deployment of the physical network.

Media players

The media player is the device that provides the interface between the server and the display. The media player is typically an IP-addressable appliance or a small-form-factor PC. In each case, it is capable of storing and playing content, managing playlists, and providing a communication link to both the server and the display. Appliance media players will typically have the required software embedded by the manufacturer. PC media players may require the installation of player software prior to deployment. Key factors in determining the appropriate type of media player for a specific deployment include:

  • Reliability: Fanless players will have fewer failures than players with fans; some devices even offer a solid-state hard drive, eliminating moving parts altogether.
  • Operating system: Offerings will include Microsoft Windows, Linux, and Windows XP Embedded. Windows XP Embedded and Linux offer the most security and lower cost of ownership. Windows Vista or XP Pro may be fine for smaller networks.
  • Output: Media players offering multiple channels of output may be able to drive different content on multiple displays from a single device. The cards are expensive, and there is then a single point of failure for multiple displays. Single-channel output devices will require one player for each desired channel of output, but they can be outfitted with a signal splitter to drive the same content to multiple screens. Choices will depend upon the objectives of the customer and his or her budget.
  • Peripherals: Media players should have the ability to support a USB keyboard in case field service is required. They should also handle Wi-Fi antennae, remote controls, and other peripherals.
  • Storage: Most media players store content and playlists locally and play them directly from a hard disk drive. Others are more like set-top boxes and manage a stream of content from the Internet. While the streaming devices are significantly less expensive, the store-and-forward architecture is far more pervasive in large part because it does not require a persistent Internet connection to play content. Choices will depend upon the planned content strategy.

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