Software: The Brains Behind Effective Digital Signage
Increasingly sophisticated and affordable screen technology has led to the expectation that the next generation of in-store and outdoor advertising will be "digital." Yet it is vital not to neglect the "brains" needed to run the body of a screen network. The following is an overview of the software requirements behind successful digital-signage networks and how they can be fulfilled.
by Chris Frampton
SCREEN-BASED advertising and information networks are now a feature of daily life, from plasma, projection, and liquid-crystal-display (LCD) screens in shopping centers, bars, and railway stations to light-emitting-diode (LED) screens in public spaces (Fig. 1). Such signage enables advertisers to target consumers in the mood for shopping or in need of a diversion with relevant information. Yet, the huge leaps and bounds made in display technologies that have made this possible are only half the story. Content-management software is the unsung hero of the digital-signage revolution, but its advances and triumphs are often trumped by announcements of developments in screen technology. However, without an adequate means of reliably delivering, displaying, and, perhaps most importantly, updating content across a network, even the most impressive screen is little more than an expensive poster frame.
To truly understand the importance of content-management software, it helps to go back to the very beginnings of the medium. Site-wide networks of cathode-ray-tube (CRT) displays controlled by a processor-based system were originally employed in train stations and airports 40 years ago, and they were quickly recognized as the ideal vehicle to show passengers when and where to go. The value of these networks was the relevance of the information they displayed (no different than today). Displaying relevant information could only be achieved via systems that allow content to be instantly updated – after all, this was information, not TV.
It is impossible to overestimate how much the advent of broadband networks transformed digital signage from a bright idea into a reality. The ability to connect and freely exchange information between computers thousands of miles apart was highly exciting, and many companies and organizations began investigating in how to use it to their advantage. However, as with the beginnings of widespread computer usage, actual uptake depended largely on the development of usable applications. Just as writing a letter on a PC requires a word processor, running a network requires network software.
Case Study: Titan Transvision
This was the situation in which U.K. media owner Titan Outdoor found itself when investigating ways to maximize its Network Rail portfolio in the late 1990s. Having determined that simply adding more poster sites risked devaluing the rail environment for advertisers, Titan began research into new advertising methods. They analyzed traveler behavior around its prime advertising site, situated on the train indicator board at Victoria Station in Central London.
Titan identified that about 5.2 million people traveled through Victoria Station every 2 weeks and that those traveling by train spent an average of 16 minutes on the concourse. This meant that the solution Titan chose would have to address a number of important objectives in order to be effective.
Firstly, it would need to be high impact, both as a means of attracting and retaining the attention of travelers and advertisers. Secondly, the number of advertisements appearing would need to increase significantly. Finally, the site would need to be multi-functional, displaying news and travel information as well as advertising content. The display solution would need to be combined with a content-management system that worked in the way media sales houses do and would be robust and powerful enough to schedule, store, and broadcast constantly evolving information. TV-scheduling systems were not sophisticated enough to provide the accountability required by out-of-home style advertising.
This was the starting point of the media owner's long-term relationship with Dynamax Technologies, from which grew its Trans-vision network of giant light-emitting-diode (LED) screens, which now encompasses 17 screens in U.K. mainline railway stations from London to Glasgow (Fig. 2). A significant part of this success can be attributed to PointOfView, the content scheduling and broadcasting solution that Dynamax originally developed for the Transvision network.
The process of designing a content-scheduling and broadcasting system robust and flexible enough to form the basis of a national network of screens required its developers to commit to combining power with usability.
This "usability" factor had to extend from the user interface right through to how servers communicate with individual screens. For example, as networks are run using a variety of displays, it is vital for software to be equally capable of driving content to flat-screen displays in kiosks – such as self-service ticket machines increasingly used in U.K. train stations – as it is to stand-alone LCD, plasma, or LED screens. Compatibility is also a major issue for the physical network and IT infra-structure used to power display screens. The software must, for cost and ease of use, run on standard PC architecture. A user-interface application that integrates seamlessly into Windows or, even better, can be run on an existing, familiar application such as a Web browser is also a major plus when it comes to ensuring user confidence. For an advertising-based network such as Transvision, another significant consideration was the file types that must be supported by the content-scheduling solution. Advertisers are highly cost-conscious and may wish to supply creative content in many existing formats from MPEGs to Flash or Shockwave animations.
From a network perspective, it was vital to develop flexibility around the way in which content would be physically delivered to screens and how they would be updated. For large-scale networks, Dynamax solves this problem by dividing its solution into two parts: the PointOfView Media Players (Fig. 3), which run individual screens, and the PointOfView Enterprise Server, which manages the overall network. Both are web-based ".Net" compliant software solutions hosted on standard Windows server hardware.
For Titan Transvision, this means each LED screen is controlled by an on-site PointOfView Player linked to the PointOfView Server viaa standard British Telecom broadband (minimum 512 kps) network. Individual campaigns and schedules are created by Titan operators with the PointOfView user interface and are then uploaded and hosted at the server (Fig. 4).
From here, campaigns are cached in the PointOfView Media Players ready for playback using "forward and store" technology. Titan users only need to connect to the Player from the server when updating or changing the campaign. Furthermore, as Players can be grouped according to any criteria, campaigns can be sent to the entire network, specific groups of Players, or individual displays.
This solution is particularly effective in making efficient use of the bandwidth required by the overall network, thus avoiding glitches that can occur when content is streamed directly from a remote server to a display device. It also aids the delivery of one of Transvision's biggest selling points to consumers and advertisers: the regular Sky news and travel information which is scheduled alongside advertising. The Sky news feed transmits information to one of two Titan Hubs located in Euston and Waterloo stations in London, respectively. From here, news information is sent directly to the Players for broadcasting. This information can be updated to keep it current in a number of ways. For example, news headlines are fed to screens manually at pre-ordained times of day. Alternatively, news, weather, and share-price updates can be updated automatically from database or RSS feeds.
Automatic updates are used to ensure that all advertising and news content displayed on Transvision screens is current; "play" commands relayed to the PointOfView Media Player via the Server act as an instruction for it to search for external assets, such as pictures, movie clips, news pieces, or the latest version of an advertisement. These assets can be located anywhere accessible to the Player, such as on the Internet or on an internal hard drive. An example of this intelligent updating in action is the regular advertisement for The Financial Times run on the Transvision. Each time the advertisement is displayed, an image of the latest front page of The Financial Times is found on the Server and automatically shown as part of the sequence.
Integrating with Third-Party Systems
There are also occasions where networks will need to be controlled by interlocking software. In-store networks, for example, have the potential to be highly responsive to current trading conditions if they can be connected to today's intelligent electronic point-of-sale (EPOS) or stock control systems. This kind of integration often has been seen as the Holy Grail for the digital-signage sector and can be easily achieved by PointOfView due to its open ".Net" architecture and standard Windows components such as SQL and IIS. This design is favored by many companies as it offers a flexibility of application.
With an integrated EPOS and digital-signage network in place, the EPOS system can issue a "trigger" to PointOfView to customize the message displayed. For example, in the event of certain products going through the till, an in-store screen will show a pre-determined advertisement or trailer. There are myriad ways the "trigger" system can be utilized: reacting to fire alarms, updating stock pricing, displaying price changes in the EPOS database, avoiding advertising out-of-stock items, or automatically advertising underselling products, to name a few.
Maintenance and Network Security
A key part of running an efficient network lies in inserting fail-safes for when problems inevitably occur. This is especially important for digital-signage networks, whose effectiveness depends on keeping an enormous array of co-dependent components in full working order. To help guard against screen-hardware failure, PointOfView NG2 has been engineered so that users can monitor the "health" of their network through a combination of log files, polling, and Simple Network Management Protocols (SNMPs). The fact that large networks are controlled from a central, remote server is also useful if a screen or a Player is destroyed or stolen, as hardware can be easily replaced without loss of content by downloading it directly from the server.
While it is widely recognized that screen networks will play an ever-larger part of out-of-home media (Fig. 5), a potential problem lies in the disparity that occurs when sophisticated display devices promise technical marvels that the software cannot deliver. Effective and profitable networks require content-management systems equal to the huge logistical task of keeping dozens, hundreds, and even thousands of screens up to date. Economies of scale also come into play when planning a large network. To achieve this, suitable software systems need to be developed with the commercial realities of running a network in mind. For suppliers and developers, this means working with end users to understand and deal with these realities rather than seeking to persuade them that a less than perfect system will do. With the right tools in place, network owners can easily make money from screen networks. •