Digital Signage What

Components | Glossary | Black Box Explains

The components

Standalone media and digital signage players
• Media players
• Digital signage players

Network-side components

• LCDs or plasma screens
• Touch screens
• Hi-Def projectors
• Other display devices

Extenders, splitters, and other distribution-system products
• Extenders
• Splitters
• Switches
• Scalers/image rotation units
• Converters

Cabling distribution technologies
• Fiber cabling
• CAT5 and other UTP
• Other cables

Audio speakers

Mounting hardware, kiosks, and video wall frames

Standalone media and digital signage players

Media players (those designed for professional use, not the consumer-level USB devices) function essentially as storage devices to play back digital media content, such as recorded video (MPEG video or Windows® AVI media, for example), Flash® animations, text tickers, PowerPoint® files, and audio. They can operate on their own, or they can be networked so you can update your digital signage more easily.

Digital signage players (also called digital signage appliances) have all the above functions but can also deliver live broadcasts, RSS feeds, and other Web-based content in real time to your displays. They're usually Windows OS-based PCs by design with spacious drives and high-performance processors. You can even order them bundled with sophisticated design tools that enable you to set up multiple zones within a single screen to show recorded and live video alongside static images.

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Network-side components

To enable the playing back and control of prerecorded and live content, you may need an authoring console that's equipped with content management software. Network-side devices can also include media storage drives and devices, as well as dedicated or shared servers, hosted centrally or in a distributed environment, that bridge the connection between your media players and a content management system. They're also used for uploading content and distributing video, audio, and other multimedia to multiple digital signs on a network.

Prerecorded video and other content can originate from the content management system or a video library. For corporate applications, your system can be connected to an Oracle® database or a CRM system, and in retail applications, your digital signage can link to a PoS system database running on a network and tracking available inventory.

Network-side components can also be whatever it takes to link a broadband Internet or WAN feed to your digital signage system, including DSL, satellite, or leased-line modems or gateways.

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Plasma screens
These flat-panel displays give you a way to present digital signage images with superb color, resolution, and contrast on a large scale. Because plasmas use each and every pixel on their screens, color information is reproduced more accurately. What's more, plasma screens display moving images with remarkable clarity.

For displays with lots of light and dark imagery, plasma panels provide excellent performance with their high contrast levels, color saturation, and overall brightness. This makes them great for digital signage setups in brightly lit rooms and areas receiving indirect sunlight.

Plus, they're well-suited for use in larger rooms where viewers aren't necessarily in front of the signage. Brightness on the screen is consistent corner to corner because every pixel is used, which makes viewing the images on the screen easier to see from a variety of angles—better than the angles of LCDs. In fact, plasma screens have as much as a 160° viewing angle (LCDs display at 130—140° viewing angles).

Plasma technology outperforms LCD screens in contrast output, too. A contrast ratio is the measure of the blackest black compared to the whitest white, and some plasma displays have contrast ratios as high as 3000:1 (LCDs displays typically don't produce more than a 1000:1 contrast ratio).

Burn-in, however, can be an issue with plasma screens, particularly if they're used in always-on digital signage that features the same shapes or patterns. And then there's the matter of overall life. Plasma screens use a combination of electric currents and noble gases (argon, neon, and xenon) to produce a glow, which in turn yields brilliant color. The half-life of these gases, however, is only around 25,000 hours, so the glow they produce for the plasma display grows dimmer over time.

Like plasma screens, LCD panels offer sharp contrasts for super-clear displays that are pleasing to the eye. They're better for smaller displays (under, say, 40"). And even though LCDs offer a lower contrast ratio than plasmas (1000:1 vs. 3000:1), they do rather well at displaying the blackest black against the whitest white. This is because LCDs use electric charges to untwist liquid crystals, thereby blocking light and emitting darker pixels.

LCDs display at 130—140° viewing angles, which isn't as good as the angles provided by plasma screens. But, keep in mind, their use of fluorescent backlighting requires much less power to operate than plasmas. This also makes LCDs less prone to burn-in (a possible issue on plasma screens) or ghosting of images.

What's more, LCD displays have an advantage over plasma screens with their higher-than-average number of pixels per square inch. These additional pixels make LCD technology better at displaying static images from computers or VGA sources in full-color detail. Applications containing a lot of data—such as those containing spreadsheets or constantly updating lists or text crawls—display particularly well on LCD monitors. Plus, there's no flicker.

The brilliant displays provided by LCDs last over time, too. With LCD screens, there are essentially no parts to wear out. They last as long as their backlights do, with displays lasting, on average, 50,000—75,000 hours. That's why LCD screens are especially good for long-term applications, such as digital signage displays that require around-the-clock use.

Touch screens
The same technology you see at ATMs and information kiosks can supplement your digital signage setup when you want to give the viewer the ability to get information on demand. You can use standalone screens or touch bezel overlays that affix to existing plasma or LCD screens and make them interactive.

The interactivity of a touch screen is most commonly made possible through resistive surface technology. When a finger touches the glass surface, layers are pressed together, resulting in a voltage change that causes the system controller to register it as a touch event and, in turn, trigger a change in the screen's content.

Capacitive touch screen panels, which use sensors to detect changes in a field of electrons in both the horizontal and vertical axes, are also common. When a finger touches the screen, the sensor detects the change in the capacitance field and sends this info to the controller to be processed as a touch event.

Also available are DST (dispersive signal technology) touch screens, which use sensors that interpret mechanical vibration waves to determine which area of the glass is being touched.

Hi-Def projectors
If you're setting up a temporary display—at a trade show, for example—it may make more sense to use a high-quality front or rear LCD/DLP projection display system instead of lugging along a standalone plasma or LCD panel, or footing the bill to rent one.

The portability of a projector is certainly an advantage. It can be transported, set up, and taken down quickly, and content can be streamed from a laptop PC or a portable player. This is great for showing large video images without the need for a large-screen plasma or LCD panel.

As long as you have the space, a high-end projector with ultra-bright luminance can give you crisp 1080p display in rooms with even a fair amount of overhead light. Plus, you have a number of high-quality screen fabrics to choose from: matte white, high-contrast gray (ideal for LCD projectors), pearlescent, fiberglass, and others.

A rear-projection setup, however, may be better for a trade show floor environment. Because the image is from behind, you don't have to worry about people casting shadows on the screen. It involves using a high-power DLP projector to project a very clear image onto the rear of a semi-transparent screen. There are translucent vinyls and other some fabrics specially designed for rear projection (and there are screens that can be used for both front and rear projection).

Retailers, however, prefer to use thin, holographic glass screens that adhere to the inside of a storefront window to display a projected image to attract the attention of passersby. Or you can use acrylic polymer screens. They're available in different shades to suit your lighting conditions and can also be suspended from a ceiling or placed on a wire stand to capture the image projected from behind.

But bulb life can be an issue, even among projectors with advanced cooling features. And because incandescent bulbs are expensive to replace, projectors aren't ideal for use in always-on digital signage applications—unless you have one of the newer SVGA projectors that use longer-lasting LEDs for image projection.

Other display devices:
These include:
— LED sign boards (well-suited for outdoor displays)
— DLP rear-projection TVs
— traditional CRTs or standard monitors
— older tube-based TVs
— and OLEDs, which will soon be made commercially available

OLEDs are similar to LCDs but don't require a backlight, need less energy to operate, and offer much better viewing angles. But because the film on an OLED screen contains compounds organic in nature (hence the "O" in the OLED name), they have to be properly sealed from moisture, which complicates the manufacturing process. Also, the conductive organic polymers offer a shorter life than LCD materials.

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Extenders, splitters, and other distribution-system products

For maximum reach and image control in your digital signage application, you'll likely need multimedia and presentation products that enable you to extend, split, or switch between video signals, or manipulate images to fit your screen setup.

Here's a summary of the various components:

These handy transmitter/receiver combos enable you to send DVI, VGA, or other types of video (as well as audio) from a network or PC to remote screens. UTP-based extenders work over CAT5 or higher-grade cable, which means you can use inexpensive wiring for your long-distance extensions, while fiber-based extenders support extended, interference-free digital signage runs over fiber optic cabling. The extender family of products also includes baluns, compact devices used to match or transform an unbalanced coax cable to a balanced twisted-pair cable.

For displaying digital images on multiple screens, order a splitter. They divide a PC's VGA, DVI, HDMI, or other type of video signal without sacrificing quality. In some cases, splitters buffer output and drive signals extra distances without any loss, so they essentially function as extenders, too. They're a great choice for splitting signals in retail applications where you want to keep source equipment in a secure area.

Available in VGA, DVI, HDMI, and other versions, these enable you to switch video from PCs with multiple video outputs to a common display. Do this manually or or set it up to switch automatically based on input detection. Matrix versions are also available for showing video images from separate sources on multiple displays.

Scalers/image rotation units
These not only scale images for larger displays, but they also enable you to manipulate and rotate images on multi-screen video walls. Use them to display multiple images horizontally and vertically on a single screen, rotate an image for display on a screen that's turned on its side, or link multiple screens together to create a video wall displaying a single image.

These convert signals from one video interface for another type of video interface. Some also work as video scalers.

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Cabling distribution technologies

Another important component in a digital signage system is the distribution cabling. This infrastructure transmits the digital video and audio from the server to the displays, and it's a key contributor to actual digital signage performance.

The distribution technology can take advantage of an existing platform, such as your data network, or be new fiber, UTP, or coax runs, or a combination of various media. Both fiber or copper offer superior data transmission. The decision on which one to use may be difficult. It often depends on your particular application, including bandwidth, distances, environment, cost, and more. In some situations, fiber offers advantages; in other cases, copper may be a better choice.

Fiber cabling
Fiber optic cable is a transmission medium favored for digital signage because digital signage requires high resolutions and the transmission of large, bandwidth-consuming files, particularly over long distances, in sometimes electronically noisy environments. The fiber is made of glass, which is an insulator, so no electric current can flow through. This makes it immune to electromagnetic interference and radio-frequency interference (EMI/RFI). You can run fiber cable next to industrial equipment without worry.

Compared with copper, fiber is less susceptible to temperature fluctuations. Plus it's lightweight, thin, and more durable than copper cable. And, contrary to what you might think, fiber optic cable has pulling specifications that are up to ten times greater than copper cable's. Its small size makes it easier to handle, and it takes up much less space in cabling ducts. Although fiber is still more difficult to terminate than copper is, advancements in connectors are making termination easier. In addition, fiber is actually easier to test than copper cable.

There are two main options for fiber optic cable: single-mode or multimode. Single-mode fiber provides a higher transmission rate and up to 50 times more distance than multimode, but it also costs more. In general, the distance and level of resolution or performance required versus how much you want to spend will help you decide which type of fiber to select.

CAT5 and other UTP
Although CAT5 (as well as CAT5e, CAT6, CAT6a, or higher cable) covers shorter distances than fiber optic cable, CAT5 cable costs considerably less than fiber. CAT5 cable's low cost, ease of installation, and flexibility make it a good choice for a primary distribution technology as well as a leading "last-mile" option for combination platforms.

Plus, it's a great alternative to using coax or expensive VGA cables, which often can't be easily pulled through tight conduits or trays in many buildings and are more difficult to terminate. And, assuming theres not a controlling computer next to the signage display, standard coax or VGA cabling installations usually require a separate RS-232 or other line for transmitting the control signal for the display–yet another cable to fit into the conduit. CAT5 or higher cable, however, delivers both the video and control signals through a single transmission medium. What's really nice is in many applications, it's already installed at many sites to service data communications.

Other cables
For some digital signage runs, you can use cables optimized for your specific video connections (and in these situations, it may make sense to use the VGA cable instead of CAT5), including:

HD15-terminated VGA cables.
These can be cables that contain both 28 AWG mini coax and 24 AWG tinned-copper VGA conductors to provide support for all control leads and for longer video links; as well as cables with a ferrite core, double shielding, and pinning for Display Data Channel (DDC) compliance. Others include VGA c ables with audio connectors, as well as super-flexible VGA cables designed for fast pulls through 3/4" conduits.

DVI cables.
These cables eliminate annoyances such as pixel-lock adjustments on a projector and resolution or color changes on a screen. The types most used are those with a digital-only connector (DVI-D), those for both digital and analog RGB connections (DVI-I), and those for carrying an analog DVI signal to a VGA device (DVI-A). These high-speed cables have the bandwidth necessary for high-definition video and are ideal for linking digital signage screens and other equipment. In dual-link applications, DVI cables enable blistering speeds up to 9.9 Gbps and support QXGA resolutions up to 2048 x 1536 at 60 Hz. For single-link applications, data travels at speeds up to 4.95 Gbps and the cable supports a UXGA resolution of 1600 x 1200 at 60 Hz.

HDMI cables.
Use these to connect screens and other digital signage equipment with the High-Definition Multimedia Interface (HDMI), which was the first digital interface to combine uncompressed high-definition video, multichannel audio, and intelligent format and command data in a single cable. HDMI supports standard, enhanced, and high-definition video. What's more, it offers resolutions of 1920 x 1080p and has a bandwidth of up to 5 Gigabytes (GB), so it supports all HDTV standards and has bandwidth to spare for future applications.

Plus cables, such as:
· S-Video cable
· RGBS cable with four BNC connectors on each end
· VGA cables with M1 connectors for projector links
· VGA cables terminated with RGBHV connectors on one end and an HD15 connector on the other
· Mac® compatible monitor cables
· Standard coax cable
· Modular UXGA video/audio cabling systems that support quick terminations and changes
· Standard and stereo audio cable

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Audio speakers

Digital signage doesn't just mean pretty visuals. It should be a truly multimedia experience with hi-fi audio complementing the Hi-Def video. The trouble is, the sound from speakers built into an LCD or a plasma screen is insufficient for a lot of environments, such as on a trade show floor, along a busy campus thoroughfare, above concourses at sports venues, or anywhere there's a lot of ambient noise and competing media. You need to supplement the sound with booming speakers, as well as any necessary behind-the-scenes amplifiers or other electronics.

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Mounting hardware, kiosks, and video wall frames

In addition to hardware that enables you to mount your displays safely out of the way on the wall or ceiling, there are accessories for mounting screens on poles at odd angles with either portrait or landscape orientation. Your choice of mounting hardware depends a lot on where it'll be mounted, whether it's on metal or wood studs behind plaster or drywall, or to a much harder surface, such as brick, concrete, or marble.

Keep in mind though, testing confirms that consumers are more apt to notice screens positioned at eye level, so when selecting a spot for mounting, that should be the space to aim for–especially in retail store aisle applications (where this prime vertical real estate commands higher rates).

Or you can use a floor stands, aisle end caps, or kiosks to hold your display panels. Kiosks with many screens attract attention and conceal wiring and other video and audio equipment at the remote end of your digital signage link.

For a video wall, you'll need either a freestanding cube-based structure or a wallmount tiled frame. You set the cube-based system up like scaffolding, leaving room at the rear to allow for system maintenance and troubleshooting. Then, in building block fashion, you just slide in the screens into uniform spaces within the structure.

But, if space is tight, you'll want to use the wallmount type. It has brackets and hardware that attach to the wall. Or you can even place it within the wall. Cables are fed through the wall and attached to equipment inputs in the rear, so no sloppy wiring connections are visible.

Both types of video wall frames feature a modular design, so they are easy to expand if you want to add screens to the wall.

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