By Ben Nielsen
Chief Technology Officer and Senior Vice President of Product Development
Digital signage is fast becoming a "price to play" marketing tool, with an expected 22 million digital signs and 10 million media players in use worldwide by 2015, according to Intel. Yet there are so many options and the technology is changing so quickly that it can be difficult to know which signage technologies are best for your company.
Because displays are the most visible component, they tend to get the most attention when considering a digital signage system. But media players are the heart and soul of every system; they determine the quality, speed and reliability of the content that deployers hope will attract and inspire loyal customers.
Certainly, newer low-cost media players may seem appealing if deployers have tight budgets or hundreds of sign locations. However, deployers still need to make sure the players they choose can accommodate their content, location and security requirements.
With the price of higher-end hardware coming down, too, it's worth a little time to explore all levels of media players to ensure choosing the most appropriate device. And not only do deployers need to consider how the digital signs will be used today, but also what they may want to do with them in the next few years.
There are six main types of media players most commonly used in digital signage and interactive kiosk deployments today, from multi-output players and standard or performance players to embedded chip systems to Android- or ARM-based players. As with most hardware, price is relative to processing power and, thus, to functionality.
Here are five key factors to consider when deciding on a media player:
1. What content will you display?
One of the most important considerations with a media player is the content you'll be displaying on your digital signs.
One of the key benefits of digital signage over print signage is that it can accommodate moving images. But choosing the wrong player can result in poor image quality, including pixilation, resolution issues and video playback issues, such as freezing, skipping video or inability to play content. A disrupted visual experience can frustrate customers and reflect poorly on your brand.
Ultimately, with content, it comes down to processing power. The more functionality you want — e.g., moving images and video, high-quality screen resolution, multizone applications — the more processing power your player needs.
2. Do you require an Internet connection?
You may not be thinking about an omnichannel solution today, but you'll want to consider the possibility for the near future.
Smart marketers are already linking their digital signs and kiosks to:
- their e-commerce sites to create the endless aisle;
- their customers' mobile devices to drive personalized sign content and send customers promotions;
- social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram so customers can share brand experiences with their social networks; and
- RSS feeds to stream news headlines, blog entries and other frequently updated information.
Another reason you may want Internet connectivity is to easily update your content via a Web-based content management system software package.
If you look at media player specifications, all the latest models say they can handle Internet connections. The question is how reliably and how securely?
3. Do you need touch interactivity?
You'll need to look at player compatibility if you plan to use touch or Kinect motion-sensing gesture-based interactivity.
For touch, there are two key types of interactivity available in digital signage systems today:
- Single touch — a user places a finger or stylus on the surface to trigger a predefined action. The application can only detect one touch at a time.
- Multitouch — a user places multiple fingers on the surface, and certain gestures trigger certain predefined functions.The application can detect two or more touch points at a time.
Consumers have become comfortable with multitouch functionality in their personal devices — thanks largely to the popularity of the Apple iPad, which enjoys 81.9 percent of the North American tablet Web traffic. The more you can mimic this everyday functionality in your digital signage, the more likely consumers are to interact with it.
For single-touch displays, you can use a standard media player. Not surprisingly, more complex multitouch functionality (more than five fingers) requires more processing power, so you may need a high-end performance media player to accommodate multitouch solutions.
For Kinect near-sensing and spoken-command interactivity, you'll need a Windows-based player, since Kinect is a Microsoft product. That rules out Apple TV, Android or embedded chip players. The same is true if you use a newer display product like Microsoft PixelSense, which allows a display to recognize fingers, hands and objects placed on the screen.
4. How many displays, and where will they be located?
If you're looking at a large-scale single-site deployment — like a casino or other large public venue with dozens of displays — you might consider a site server.
A site server allows you to download content once to the server, which feeds each player in the venue. This not only saves bandwidth, it also can allow solution providers to offload some processing and reduce your processing power requirements at the individual player level, enabling you to use less-expensive embedded chip players. The savings can add up quickly when you consider each embedded chip player is about one-fifth the cost of a performance player.
5. Do you require additional hardware?
Whether or not you need to integrate additional hardware will impact your media player choice. Digital solutions today are using many different kinds of devices — including lift triggers, proximity sensors, printers, touchscreens, speakers, amplifiers, keyboards and cameras that display customers on the screen. These all require a media player that can talk to other device drivers.
Android and embedded chip players have limited driver support, so your considerations here are generally performance or standard players.
When considering digital signage system components, careful consideration needs to be given to the media players that drive your all-important content. Factors like Internet connectivity, touch interactivity, temperature and possible interference — both today and any anticipated in the next few years — need to be weighed against cost. By spending time now to understand your options, you'll ensure you get the most out of your hardware investment and that your content can be delivered consistently and reliably, with the quality expected of your brand.
Ben Nielsen is the CTO and senior vice president of product development for marketing technologies company Wireless Ronin Technologies Inc., which combines interactive digital media — signage, kiosks, mobile, social media and Web — to create a 360-degree solution so companies will be "Communicating at Life Speed" to deliver the right content at the right place at the right time.
Learn more about digital signage hardware.