Digital Signage Goes Wireless
With the official launch of NBC's Everywhere network of digital out-of-home platforms and SeeSaw Networks' announcement of its partnership with interactive screen network Ripple to place displays in more than 2,000 retail and fast-food venues, it appears that digital signage might now be considered a mainstream AV application.
WITH THE OFFICIAL LAUNCH OF NBC's Everywhere network of digital out-of-home platforms, which will appear in gyms and on college campuses, and SeeSaw Networks' announcement of its partnership with interactive screen network Ripple to place displays in more than 2,000 retail and fast-food venues, it appears that digital signage might now be considered a mainstream AV application. Still, despite all the good news for this industry, most digital signage remains tethered to cables and wires, which can limit where displays are installed and how often, if at all, they can be moved to different spots.
However, at least two companies could make those barriers a thing of the past. Avocent and Wireless Ronin Technologies have wireless HD digital signage systems up and running. Plus, Gefen has a wireless HD extender due out in May.
“We've been shipping wireless HD for over a year,” says Matt Nelson, director of marketing at Huntsville, Ala.–based Avocent. “We use a very standard off-the-shelf 802.11a radio and customize the hardware to deliver wireless HD from source to destination.” By transmitting in the 5 GHz range, the same space where Wi-Fi travels, Avocent avoids most of the RF clutter. “All RF devices experience interference, but the nice thing about the 802.11a frequency band is there's a lot more bandwidth available than in the 2.4 GHz space,” which is where most RF devices transmit. Bandwidth is a major concern for transmitting HD signals, because they're much larger than VGA signals and require more bandwidth to travel.
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What's the secret to successfully transmitting HD content wirelessly? For Avocent, it's all about the link. “We know for digital signage you can't afford a sign going down, so we build our products to operate 24/7,” Nelson says. Avocent's new Emerge MPX1500 extender wirelessly streams live HD content to multiple destinations from a central source. “People expect wireless [HD] to perform like their cell phone does,” he quips. “We refuse to drop the link.” According to Nelson, Avocent does whatever it takes to maintain a continuous signal, even if it means temporarily reducing the quality of the video. It's not something the company likes to do, “but you would rather have that happen than to drop the signal altogether.”
For Wireless Ronin, a software company based in Minneapolis, the secret is not giving the signal a chance to disconnect. The company — or the customer, depending on the solution package —creates the content to be displayed and sends it via Wi-Fi to the customer's central computer as a Flash or movie file after business hours. Once the company confirms the file is secure, a transmitter sends the file to the media players connected to the displays.
“So we're not streaming the HD content from the back-end to the displays; we're sending the file in whole over to the displays and then scheduling a time to play,” says Scott Koller, Wireless Ronin's executive vice president of sales and marketing, of the company's RoninCast system.
Nelson says that digital signage customers not only want the latest and greatest, they also want something future-proof. With video resolution steadily increasing and media companies rapidly moving to HD, the ability to display HD content is of high importance. HD video also has the obvious aesthetic benefits. “As long as you have the right hardware in place that can support the system, it's going to produce very dynamic content,” Koller says. And that's the purpose: To provide a target audience with an attention-getting experience.
No matter how the content gets to the display, customers can benefit several ways from using wireless technology in signage applications, particularly if they have a pre-existing Wi-Fi network.
At Foxwoods Resort Casino in Ledyard, Conn., using a RoninCast wireless digital signage system saved the resort a significant amount of money. “They were able to put 20 more displays in that area under the same budget than they would have if they had to run Cat-5 cables,” Koller says.
A wireless connection also addresses installations in challenging locations such as historic buildings and gas stations. “Gas stations are one of our largest customers this year,” Advocent's Nelson says. “You cannot trench the line to put in a data line from a convenience store to the gas pumps because of regulatory and safety issues. So the stations just put the media player inside the convenience store, put the transmitter there, put receivers and panels on top of each gas pump, and distribute content out to the pumps.” Nelson adds that clients that regularly change their look, such as retail establishments, appreciate the mobility of wireless signage, because, if all goes well, it can be as easy as moving a display and plugging it in.