ADFLOW Networks and Matrox Graphics are installing 120 displays to 60 OfficeMax locations.

Each of the PCs used will drive two 40-inch LCD displays using the multi-screen graphics cards from Matrox.

Multi-screen PCs are a great way to reduce per-screen costs for digital signage.

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A recent progress in dedicated (non-PC) digital signage technology is the removal of operating system and media player software from the hard disk drive (HDD) and store in on-board flash memory only. The change drastically lowers total cost of ownership (TCO) for digital signage networks.

Traditional digital signage solutions require storing most of the software on either the HDD or DOM (disk-on-module, or flash disk drives) shared with storage of media files. Since the media files are accessed 24×7 non-stop at duty cycles often exceeding their MTBF specs, the HDDs and DOMs are especially prone to physically failed sectors. Once this happens, the traditional technology requires a field visit by the support personnel to manually re-format the storage and re-install the software. This has been true for all Windows- and Linux-based digital signage systems.

The new technology, announced by IAdea Corporation as a feature of the Adfotain Foundations digital signage operating system, detects such conditions and moves necessary software components on the HDD into on-board flash ROM before it re-formats the HDD, all without human intervention. Once the HDD is repaired, software is automatically restored to make the system functional again. The entire process is done by server-side software without requiring any field visits, thereby saving a great deal of service costs.

On average, a network of 200 nodes incurs an average of one physical HDD failure per month. The new technology saves on-average $36,000 in field service costs for a network of such size. The technology effectively saves $1,800 per screen per year in maintenance costs.

Companies including digiSignage, IAdea Corporation, Digital View and Advantech are making the new technology available in their upcoming digital signage product lines powered by the Adfotain Foundations operating system.

Digital signage company NUVA publishes an article noting their experience with instability found in PC-based software systems:

NUVA ‘s article named Software Stability

Content partially extracted from the article (emphasis in typeface taken from original article):

There is a false sense of security given to the end user when their display system seems to be working without a glitch when their display must retrieve content by pulling media from a central FTP / HTTP server […] These multiple processes, under certain circumstances can destabilize a PC based display causing the entire screen to crash, show error messages, or just stop working.

[…] We can defiantly say, in our opinion, none of the software we have used is Crash-Proof, and no other company in the market today can Guarantee their software will NEVER CRASH.

Mature digital signage technology is on-display at the Infocomm 2006 show last week in Orlando, Florida. Despite a larger floor space and an increase in number of exhibitors, there seems to be a reduction of overall visitors compared to last year (not officially confirmed).

One area that seems to continue to attract more visitors each year is the Digital Signage Pavilion where a combination of display providers, PC software player and non-PC hardware player box vendors show their latest technology to draw in distributors and value-added resellers.

In terms of technology demonstrated, there is a drop in the number of software vendors at the show. Webpavement and Infocaster who had booths last year were absent from this year’s show.

A new category, media players, is created to encompass companies including AGNPRO, digiSignage, Visual Circuits, Advantech, Sony, and Chyron.

New Technology

Scala introduced the latest InfoChannel 5 product with a new web-based screen provisioning and schedule management functionality. This allows Scala to provide a more comprehensive solution in additional to its legendary content creation tool.

On the non-PC hardware player side, 1080i/720p high-definition decoders are a main theme at the show this year. Many of the players shown are capable of decoding HD content at full-speed while overlaying a layer of arbitrary graphics. On the management software side, most hardware players provide a simple Windows-based client software that controls one player at a time. One exception is digiSignage who demonstrated a web-based management server with quality-of-service guarantee.

In terms of media transportation technology, there were no broadcast TV solutions at the show. All companies we visited used an IP-based technology for delivery of digital signage.

In general, the largest leap in technology this year would have to go to the non-PC hardware players.

MPEG-4

MPEG-4 is an advancement over the MPEG-2. The new standard has the advantage that good quality video can be properly encoded at relatively low bit rate. MPEG-4 is the basis of the DivX codec, one of the most popular video format used on the Internet.

MPEG-4 is widely used on the Internet for its efficiency in transporting over the network. MPEG-4 video is often encoded at 1 to 2 Mbps, or 1/8 to 1/4 MB per second (128 to 256 kbps). A 1 GB memory card easily holds 1 hour of MPEG-4 video. Transmitting a 1-minute MPEG-4 content on the 512 kbps xDSL takes 30 to 60 seconds. This makes frequent content updates feasible.

To be continued…

Digital signage contents are often created in the following formats:

MPEG-1/2

MPEG-1 and MPEG-2 are two of the most common video compression formats in use. They are often used to store and deliver video content on digital signage networks. MPEG-1 is the storage format for VCDs and is rarely used today. MPEG-2 performs better than MPEG-1 at higher bit rates, and is the video format for DVDs.

MPEG-2 media clip are typically encoded at 4 to 8 Mbps, or 0.5 to 1 MB per second of video content. Higher bitrate yields better video quality. A 1 GB memory card holds about 15 to 30 minutes of MPEG-2 video.

Long clips of MPEG-2 is not suitable for delivery over the network today. It takes a typical 512 kbps xDSL connection 8-16 minutes to deliver just one minute of MPEG-2 video.

To be continued…

This is Part II of the Categorization for Digital Signage Endpoint Devices article.

Non-PC / MPEG-2

Most non-PC products support MPEG-1/MPEG-2 decoding from a CompactFlash (CF) memory card. A 1 GB memory card stores approximately 30 minutes of MPEG-2 video. These are the simplest form of a digital signage media player available today.

Non-PC / MPEG-4

More advanced non-PC products support MPEG-4/DivX. These have an advantage over the MPEG-2 players in that MPEG-4 files occupy less storage space. A 1 GB memory card usually supports 60 minutes of MPEG-4 video. These are also low cost, but extensive “sneaker net” delivery cost may occur.

Non-PC / Set-top Box

Sometimes called “IPTV” solutions, these are low cost consumer set-top boxes that are used to deliver cable TV to home. They often support MPEG-2 video streaming via Internet without using a local CF card. The benefit of a set-top box is that it solves the problem of relying on the sneaker net. The downside is that most set-top boxes require a live Internet connection with large bandwidth (4 to 8Mbps per channel) to the media server to stream media files, and creates a large server bandwidth requirement that results in great connectivity costs.

Non-PC / Interactive

Some non-PC solutions also support interactive control (touch screen, bar code scanner, etc.) in addition to video playback. They support a restrictive form of kiosk application yet provide superior reliability to PC-based solutions.

Non-PC / HD (High Definition)

The more advanced non-PC solutions support the playback of HD contents and often in multiple zones. These devices perform very closely to PC-based solutions while continue to provide simplicity and reliability. These devices are also usually network controlled by a management software.