Digital Signage Thoughts

Digital Signage is what you see everywhere now a days. The concept looks rather simple, it is a large format TV displaying some kind of content, usually promotions. The implementation though, it is not as easy.

I have been working in a digital signage project for a few years now. I have put a lot of time, but probably not as much as it needs on the project.

This will be the first in a series of articles, but I wanted to start with some thoughts on it before I go more in deep. This will help anyone also considering digital signage.

  • Cost of Hardware: This is an easy thing to consider. The problem is that we should not put too much emphasis on it. For example, the cost would be TV cost + player (usually a computer or Android based device)
  • Cost of Installation: Another part that needs to be accounted well. Mounting TVs in drywall is a challenge to do it right. If you are not confident enough to do pull ups from the mounting bracket then it is not mounted right. When possible consider professional installation. After installing several I was taking about 1 hour or more per TV (routing power, network cables as well, and finally using the right hardware)
  • Cost of maintaining the project: This is the big part that gets overlooked. And it will vary according to your environment. Don’t go with the cheapest solution, if it will require more time to implement and have running. The reason, is that human resource time needs to be considered as well. I am constantly managing people because they do not know how to maintain the TV for the digital signage. It sounds easy, but the truth is that people will not do basic steps like turning on the TV. This goes with Cost of Hardware point.
  • Distribution of content: this is how you will distribute the content, either using a digital signage distribution system or something homebrew (like HTML)

Now that you have this basic points let me expand a little as a reference.

When considering the hardware you have digital signage base TVs and regular consumer TVs. After a bit of search, we used LG consumer models. They were priced right and have pretty good quality. They were also half the cost of the digital signage model, so this allowed us to use 55″ instead of 42″. Then we used Android base sticks (these are really old now), and Lenovo Tiny M73 computers. The initial test worked great, so we deployed 50 of these.

And that is where the problems starting surfacing

We did not account for people not knowing how to use TVs. People forget to turn them on, did not understand what an input is, and cannot configure the TV.

Our next problem was misinformation. At the beginning we were going to use a smart stick that was powered by the TVs USB port, but we had to change it because the Android device was slow. The users still though just turning the TV turned the PC as well. The problem there was that information got simplified when it was presented the first time (almost a year before full deployment) and the new information was not retained.

We also did not like Windows 7 (Windows 8, and later 8.1) were better for large display, and installation increased deployment time.

(I will expand on the deployment in another article)

What is the underlying problem?

Accountability. If you are using your own equipment, you make sure Wi-Fi is connected and the laptop is on. When it is the company’s, the user simply “does not want to be bothered with it”.

Sounds easy to fix. Simple enough….We covered the issue on meetings, all management agreed, but still something happened when deploying communication downstream. A few weeks later the same problem happened.

What is the solution?

Doing the proper research before the project, and putting all numbers together. We saved a lot of money in hardware, but we spent more on maintaining and making sure it is running. Now the project is running smoother, but not as much as it should.

Quick Recommendations

Use digital signage equipment. Not because it is rated to run 24/7, but because it can be remotely controlled. For example Samsung/LG/NEC/[take your pick] will have a RS232 port, or some connectivity for a controller card. This will allow you to set the TV to turn on automatically, and turn off automatically. It can disable all input ports but what is selected, and will remove end user errors. The cost per installation will double, but the ongoing maintenance will be reduced.

Also, set the right expectations. We went crazy with what we wanted this project to do. 80% of what we were planning was not implemented, and we could have done a simpler job

What is next?

On the next article I will describe what we did, and how we did it, with the challenges we discovered. After that, what I think we should have done with what I learn. Hopefully you can avoid the learning curve.

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