“We are seeing more integrated, IT-centric approaches accompanying more ambitious rollouts – but with new network efficiency needs”
Today’s digital signage deployments are larger, more ambitious and more connected than ever before. Managing them requires new rules for network efficiency, cost and security, writes Jeff Hastings, CEO, BrightSign.
Digital signage has come a long way from the airport information display screens of a decade ago. Today, whether you’re buying fast food, filling up your car or registering your arrival at the dentist, the chances are you’re interacting with some form of digital display. From retail to leisure, education to finance – there are few sectors where digital signage is not playing an increasingly important role.
Unsurprising, then, that the market is expected to be worth almost $30 billion in five years’ time, or that the technology underpinning this rapid rise is changing quickly too. What is perhaps less obvious to the casual observer, however, is the accompanying shift in responsibility and ownership within user organisations, and what it means for IT managers.
Digital signage was traditionally a separate ‘AV’ space with a discrete and rather anachronistic ecosystem of non-connected screens and media players running on consumer PCs and operating systems or TV-streaming technology. In the early days, most digital signage screens were not even connected to the Internet and there was no sophisticated management mechanism. Content was often couriered from head office to display locations around the country on USB devices or SD cards.
Digital Signage: A New, More Mature Landscape
Those days are all but gone. Today’s complex, global rollouts and real-time interactive, data-driven systems now demand a far more holistic and strategic approach. Digital signage is increasingly becoming part of the warp and weft of users’ wider IT networks – with all the opportunities and challenges that entails.
It’s no longer acceptable for AV integration suppliers to cobble together solutions using a hodge-podge of consumer hardware and software which lack good security, network visibility or network management tools. Those responsible for constructing and managing corporate IT architecture want to be sure that any proposed solution will work in concert with existing systems, as well as being robust, secure and future proofed.
Bamboozled by Choice
Meanwhile, the proliferating quantity of options generated by the mushrooming digital signage market can be confusing. There are numerous offerings tailored to vertical sectors, often without the requisite robust APIs to enable easy and effective integration with even other digital signage software hardware – let alone wider systems.
In a market that’s evolving as quickly as this, it’s not always easy for network managers to understand the options or stay on top of the latest best practice. So, what are the key landmarks to look out for in this new terrain?
Happily, some new best practices are emerging. The digital signage market has evolved neither to simpler, short-cut approaches, nor to cumbersome and expensive Windows-based systems. Instead we are seeing more integrated, IT-centric approaches accompanying more ambitious rollouts – but with new network efficiency needs.
A reliable media player has always been, and still is, the baseline the whole digital signage solution rests on. But, until fairly recently, the options available were limited and quite problematic.
In the absence of dedicated management software, some users opted for Chromeboxes, because they have a management console. However, that was a separate and very difficult system to set up – and one that incurred additional costs. We also saw the proliferation of Android-based media players a decade ago – though most of the cheaper ones have vanished from serious consideration today. Next, came SoC (system on a chip), introduced by some of the large screen manufacturers as an ‘easier’ way to do digital signage – ostensibly, no need for a separate media player at all, as it was built into the screen.
All these approaches have largely now been eclipsed by a gravitation toward methods that leverage the new capabilities of the best and latest software-driven media players, combined with cloud control of those players in the field.
As in other areas, the march towards more cloud-based services for digital signage content and management, too, is inexorable – and beneficial.
As well as being much quicker and easier to configure, cloud-based digital signage systems allow users to see all connected media players more clearly and deeply and manage them in real-time. Rich and engaging content is easier than ever before to input and manage, with the potential to create powerful, immersive experiences. Providing real-time performance information, logging proof of play for advertisers, pushing OS updates, sending subscription notifications and conducting remote reboots are some of the benefits offered by cloud-based platforms and appreciated by network managers.
System security is always key, but it’s now simpler to achieve. Good cloud-based digital signage services offer levels of security that put network managers at ease, while allowing them to leverage features that only a well thought out cloud approach – backed with the right hardware and CMS – can deliver.
The best of today’s digital signage packages consist of dedicated technologies – media players, content management systems and operating systems – that work well together and integrate seamlessly and securely into other corporate systems. Key to this is a robust, industrial-grade, API-enabled media player, engineered to perform like well-integrated software – not problematic hardware.
The availability of media player APIs now greatly increases ease of setup and facilitates access to robust network management tools that many content management systems simply didn’t offer before. Increasingly we are seeing setup processes for large groups of media players becoming simultaneous and automated, greatly increasing the speed and scale of what can be achieved. While, at the other end of the scale, small rollouts can now be set up using an activation or QR code on a mobile device. That gives an indication of just how much smoother the setup process has become.
The fact that digital signage is increasingly becoming part of the larger IT space is a very welcome development and a sign of the sector’s maturity. For too long it has been straightjacketed by ill-fitting technology and approaches borrowed from other markets. While it might be a new area of responsibility for network architects and managers, it’s comforting to note that the latest signage technologies are more than equal to the ambitions of their users. Their new simplicity and ease of use has multiplied the scale and scope of what is achievable.