It’s been awhile since I wrote a blog, but trust me all has not been quiet on the techie front. I have been hard at work learning how to build digital signage displays. After playing around with a couple of software packages, I have settled in to one which I will be writing about in this blog. But first, let’s answer a few questions – what is digital signage and why should you be using it.
WHAT IS DIGITAL SIGNAGE
According to Wikipedia (and I could not have explained it better); Digital Signage is an electronic form of display that shows information, advertising and other messages. These are not the old static billboards that you see on the side of the highway, they are brilliantly colored displays that can deliver content very quickly in a variety of sizes and formats! As the administrator, you can also deliver specific content to targeted audiences for all of your business locales much quicker and easier that print and billboard advertising. Case in point; my company has 5 fixed site locations. I want to welcome specific people who are coming in to a specific place, personalizing the display for that place… a good digital signage software package will be able to do that! You may have to work with your techie group to get at some of the data you want to display, but targeting your message is a HUGE part of digital signage. Some examples of digital signage are:
- airline flight displays in airports
- Ad players at the gas station over the pumps
- Digital billboards on the highway
- Grocery store TV players
HOW DO THEY WORK
A signage display is made up of screens (could be 1 could be many) that play in succession on a timed loop. Each screen can be used as a whole, or can be separated into screen divisions (think of boxes on a screen). Even if the screen will only play one piece of content, it needs a ‘division’ to place the content in.
The screen division is a space on the screen that will hold a ‘channel’ of content. The more screen divisions you have the more different content you can have playing on one screen. Think about the TV’s that play at an airport while you are waiting for a flight. There is a screen that may be displaying 3 different things; the news in one box, the weather in another, and an RSS feed at the bottom with sports, all on 1 screen. Those are 3 different divisions on the screen, each playing a ‘channel’ of content. We good so far?? Cool…now it can get even more complicated than that! Every ‘channel’ in the screen division can play multiple pieces of content! In one of the boxes (divisions) on my screen, I may have the weather, which may play for 15 seconds, then in that same box I might switch over to some pictures for another 15 seconds, and then in that same box I might loop back to the weather. The more powerful digital signage solutions allow a ‘channel’ to hold multiple pieces of content that play on its own timed loop. Think of a radio station channel, you hear the news, you then listen to music, then it might go to weather…that is one channel playing different content…but other channels that you are not listening to are doing their own content…same theory except each channel on a screen does it all at once. Confused yet? I was…now you know what this is taking me so long to learn!!
Lets do a quick walk through of what I am describing here. I want a welcome screen at the main lobby of our company. We will focus on one screen to keep this straightforward for now. On paper, I would lay out what I want my screen to do so I can keep track of it as I build it. On that screen, I want a nice background picture, our company logo, I want text that says Welcome to, I would like the weather to display and I want a new RSS feed at the bottom of the screen. So picture a TV screen split into 4 sections, 1 for each piece of content I want to display. Those 4 sections are my divisions. I want the logo at the left top, the welcome right below it, I want the weather channel next to it to the right, and the RSS feed narrow at the bottom. 1 screen, 4 divisions. Good? Great…
Now I have to create a ‘campaign’. A campaign is a name for a ‘show’. You can have different campaigns assigned to stations start and stop dates for when they should play. I assign my screen to my campaign and now I am ready to create space for content.
Content plays in channels. So now I create channels and assign those channels to my divisions. Channels are where I will let my software know how long each piece of content should display as it works through its loop. How many channels would I have for my above exercise?….if you said 4..you’re on the right track but it is actually 5 because my background picture has to ‘play’ somewhere also. (I learned that the hard way!).
So now I have a screen, I have divisions that determine how many things I will display on my screen, and I have channels that will play in the divisions. Now I am ready to load content into my channels. Another decision to make? How long overall will this screen display for? You need to know this because each channel within the screen can be timed to play for a different length of time. If you are doing multiple screens you would not want to cut a video off because your graphic is finished displaying…your channels within the screen need to play for and complete at the same time to make transitioning from one screen to the next seamless and smooth. So for this example, lets say we are going to display the entire screen for 1 minute. That means the 5 channels I have must also be programmed to play for 1 minute. I am going to put a background image into my first channel, I am going to put a logo image into my second channel, I am going to place a text box (and edit the text to say Welcome To…etc…) into my third channel, place your news channel feed into the 4th channel, and put your RSS feed into the 5th. Make sure they all play for one minute.
Check your display and you should have 1 screen displaying 5 different things all at once.
I have simplified this process down to one screen, but you can continue to add screens, building them the same way. One screen will transition into the next. You can also place multiple images into a channel, and in our example about, if I want to play the channel for 1 minute, I can load 4 images, play each for 15 seconds and it would transition from image to image. For an introduction to Digital Signage this is a good video to watch
There are many commercially available software products to handle the signage. They range from the very pricey to free; managed applications and self-administered. For displays we are using 40 inch LCD televisions (you can go any size just make sure your software can handle the screen resolution) with a PC or laptop attached to act as the client (or station) for that display.
I have now worked with 2 software products; Xibo and MediaSignage. Both are free, but Media Signage blows everything out of the water. I am SO impressed with this free software package from Google Apps. (www.mediasignage.com). There is a learning curve and trust me I built a few screens and tore them apart, but once you get the lingo, you will be building signage like a pro.
There are 2 ways you can use this package; using Adobe Air Card (also free) over their servers, or installed on the client that is attached to the display. There are more features you can use (like displaying .html pages) if you install it, but when you go remote, like to a trade show, you could run it independent of your network.
Help is on-line videos where they walk you through each phase of building signage and what all the options are in the software. From my desktop I can manage thousands of client stations, updating my signage and pushing it out live with the click of my mouse. Because the application is web-based, I can get access to my boards from anywhere as long as I have an internet connection. So even if I have to change a sign on the weekend I can do it from home! This also allows me to take my digital signs ‘on the road’ without having to remote in to my network servers; a nice feature if you are a small business with no to minimal network support.
The package allows you to stay as small and simple as you want or to build some very complex screens! It also provides widgets for things like RSS, weather and news feeds. So besides the cost of your display and computer (and your time) you can be up and running digital signage in no time.
So here is the deal; for the price of a 20 inch monitor, a laptop, a wi-fi card, and some of your time, you can be running digital signage. Imagine taking a booth at a trade show, and having a nice digital display running of who you are and what you do. It adds a VERY professional touch to your booth! And in this day of ‘branding’ isn’t the image you project important? This software package puts what used to be a very expensive proposition into the hands of the small business owner for a fraction of the cost. I HIGHLY recommend MediaSignage for anyone considering running digital signage for their business or brand.
Check it out and let me know what you think! If you are already a MediaSignage user, let me know how you are using it!
I am not a reseller of Media Signage; this review and the opinions in it are my own.