Sorting out media players for digital signage: Q&A

We sat down with Eric Farkas, Senior Research & Development Engineer here at Black Box, and asked him a couple of questions about what kind of media player is needed for digital signage deployments.

There is much confusion in the industry about the kind of “media player” needed for a digital signage deployment. Many screen manufacturers now have PCs embedded into the screen– so is the need for a separate media player less in today’s market? I think the thing to keep in mind is that it's still a media player either way. You can call it an embedded PC in the display, but it is still a media player. What the screen manufacturers don't necessarily tell you is that built-in media players typically suffer from heat-related issues, have smaller storage capacities, and have less processing power. I think cleaning up the cabling mess by integration does add some value, but losing the freedom to size the hardware resources appropriate to your hardware outweighs it. Also I'm wondering where the guarantee is that this slot will be available on the next generation of displays. If I buy embedded PCs for my signage and a few years from now I need to replace displays due to EoL or I desire to upgrade, can I still use them? External hardware is a pretty definite yes.

Doesn’t the embedded PC act as the media player? Yes.

And don’t some content management software platforms run on Windows, so they need a full PC/player in each screen, not just a "media player"? That’s a good question, and frankly, a lot of us suffer from the same confusion as those who ask this question. A media player to me is a PC whether embedded or external, and it has all the same attributes one would associate with a PC. To answer the question, complex digital signage requires an operating system and an application running on PC style hardware. There is technology that simply decodes a network stream or plays a loop from some type of flash storage, but I'm not sure this fits the current definition of digital signage. I guess it begs the question, is a DVD or Blu-ray player digital signage? Is a digital photo frame digital signage? If your answer is yes, then the PC is no longer required but if it's no...

There are now a lot of low-cost, high-definition digital signage media appliances that support third party open source digital signage software as well as offer the ability to input from physical media like Compact Flash. But how does the user tell them apart? There are many aspects that influence the right digital signage system for your needs, and I feel the most important is your definition or vision of what digital signage is. If you want to show pictures, movies, slideshows, or flash and wish to update the content on-site, a physical media player is probably acceptable. Most physical media players cannot incorporate dynamic content (HTML, RSS, widgets, social media, etc.), interactivity (touchscreen, gesture control, facial recognition, etc.), nor can their content be updated through network-based distribution. In most cases, this also eliminates the integration of emergency management systems and localized content as well.

What about output capability? Is HDMI and/or VGA output needed? HDMI appears to be the front runner as far as adoption, but it is not without its problems. Compatibility and no method to securely fasten it are the leading issues. VESA has officially announced the end of support for VGA and placed DisplayPort as its successor. I believe the ability to support multiple screens on a single bus will give DisplayPort an edge in the future, but it will struggle to compete with HDMI.

What is the role of the media player in remote playlist updating, scheduling, interactive syncing, and even zoning for digital media and advertising needs? In the simplest terms, the media player displays the media it is presented with or has cached on the display. However, as digital signage evolves, the need for interactivity and localized playout control/content selection is increasing. Synchronization can be important in some environments, but in most cases, good planning and implementation is a better choice than trying to synchronize content on multiple screens.

How should the systems integrator, or end user, start to separate what is needed–and what’s available–in media players for digital signage? Ask good questions during the design phase and understand the features of the products you sell intimately. By laying out a matrix of features and price levels, the customer can easily pick the level of signage they desire and can afford. Be sure to focus on the features one level above what they pick and stress their value. If these features are truly unimportant, then the customer probably picked well. If there is hesitation, be sure the features hesitated on can be added later or make it clear that only a forklift upgrade will get them to the next level. Some customers realize the potential of digital signage only after it is implemented and the features outside of the original scope are not available in the solution they deployed.

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