Digital signage: engaging the viewer

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Digital signage that delivers content that is both relevant and specific to the viewer has been shown to have much greater impact than generic content. In this report, AV News investigates technologies that enable customers to generate content from both in-house networks and the cloud to create compelling and engaging signage.

There was a time when a digital signage network could be cost justified on aesthetics, timeliness of the message, savings on print and not much more. All these things are still important considerations, but there is a growing appreciation among signage network administrators that there networks can, and should, deliver more.

Social media as dynamic, user generated content imported into Camvine’s CODA solution.

The key is the content shown on the network and the extent that it engages the viewer. Generic content has been shown to limited appeal to viewers after the novelty has worn off, whereas content which is specific to the viewer turns the signs into ‘destinations’.

For the first generation of digital signage installations the cost of creating and maintaining content relevant to very specific user groups was prohibitive. Now, solutions are available which automate the process of content creation, calling on data resources present within customer organisations and from public sources, including user generated content from the cloud.

In-house resources

At the recent Screenmedia Expo, OneLan launched its Data Collection Engine (DCE) framework. DCE is a technology that harvests and manages data resources within an organisation, turning them into visual data that can be displayed across digital signage networks. Data can be collected from spreadsheets, databases, EPOS systems – anything for which OneLan has a Business Connector application.

These Business Connectors are the interface between the business system holding the data and the DCE framework. Connectors include: Microsoft Exchange; Excel; Google Calendar; text files; SQL and XML. Once the Connectors are installed, the customer has no further involvement at this level – the process of collecting the data and converting it into the common format used by the DCE is automatic.

Once the raw data has been imported into the system, the DCE filters, calculates and orders the data from the Business Connectors and feeds it to OneLan’s Standard Templates for presentation on the digital signage network. Standard Templates produce a consistent view of the data collected in a graphical format, including graphs, tables, charts and diagrams. The customer or the reseller can customise style attributes, including colours and fonts.

By collecting and repurposing data from the host organisation, digital signage displays can be set-up to show content with a high degree of relevance – right sown to the individual level. Examples might include: the most successful sales team; the most productive manufacturing workgroup; customer waiting time for a call centre: progress towards a bonus or other incentive. All of these performance indicators can be displayed alongside video and static content in a mix that is compelling for the viewer.

Data integration

Niche market signage specialist MRG cut its teeth on integrating information from a number of sources into graphic displays with work carried out for bookmaker Paddy Power with its BIDS (Bookmakers Information Display System). The company now has a digital signage product called iMERGE which has broad appeal to customers seeking to use data from business and administrative content for signage displays

Ian Hunter, responsible for sales and marketing at MRG, explains that: “Over the last few years, developments in technology have enabled us to build on our niche products, increase their functionality and develop new systems that offer innovative solutions for general application across much wider markets.  We are growing market share in many sectors, such as in education where we link their management information systems (MIS) to our digital signage.  But it is the capability to link to almost any system and automatically display information that is the very real strength of iMERGE.”

Bryan Corbin, MRG technical director, adds: “We are fortunate that both hard and soft technologies now enable us to address the needs of end users in such a way that virtually any data stream works with this system and requires minimal setting up.”

“The power of the automated process provides a compelling argument for the adoption of the iMERGE digital signage system, especially when a major source of information is a data stream that needs to be shared with an audience.  When this is coupled with the editor it enables the rapid creation of pages with text, images, Flash, video, RSS and TV, and provides a very powerful set of tools to create dynamic and impressive displays.”

iMERGE is described as “totally flexible, unlike some systems which employ very prescriptive methodologies when creating pages, placing constraints on the creative process”.  The iMERGE editor can be used to place, size and shape the containers for each of the multiple media placed on a page.  Whether screens are managed centrally over the internet/intranet, or responsibility for their content is ceded to individual departments, iMERGE has a ‘Grouping’ function that assists with the management of this process.  It will even assign users to screens so that content from another department cannot accidentally be placed to the wrong screens.

User generated

Generating content with a high degree of relevance from in-house sources is ideal in the context of a commercial concern or an educational or leisure organisation. But what if there is no ready source of information. Or your customer wants to go a step further and let the users of their digital signage network create their content?

User generated content is not an entirely new concept – there are many instances of pupils running a school network, for example – but the game has changed with the adoption of social media as a source of digital signage content. Camvine’s CODA solution handles all popular media formats including RSS media, Flash, web-pages, calendar formats, images, video, PowerPoint, RSS ticker feeds, PDFs and webcams.

But the company’s recent Screenmedia demonstration focused on social media as a source of engaging, dynamic content, with examples including Twitter, Flickr, Facebook and YouTube. Of course there are certain risks inherent in using a raw feed from any of these sources. While there are algorithmic solutions to removing expletives and other inappropriate content, Camvine’s head of sales and marketing Steve Hales believes that network administrators can be too sensitive in screening out all criticism.

Hales argues that, to be genuinely engaging content, has to be not only dynamic but also varied, real-time and truly interactive. Starting a debate on a debate signage network nit only attracts the viewer, but retains their interest for some an extended period. If the viewer is an active participant in the discussion, through, for example, a Twitter feed, then so much the better.

The cloud

Camvine is one of two ‘cloud’ based solutions described in this piece, with the other being Signagelive (see below). Camvine’s CODA (Content Distribution Architecture) is focused on the display of live, user generated content (commonly described as ‘Web 2.0 content’) on public screens in business, education, retail and entertainment sectors, without having to download software or install new hardware.

CODA comprises two components: CODApod hardware connects the displays to the internet through standard Ethernet or Wi-Fi networks. The CODApod player supports static and dynamic content including animations and full-motion video. The CODA web service allows the customer to control screens in any location using any web browser; and so there is no need to install any software to use CODA.

The web service enables customers to organise content and to create a playback schedule for each screen. Content can be stored on the CODA servers or sourced from anywhere on the web (including the customer organisation’s intranet), and delivered by a drag-and-drop interface to any display on the CODA network.

Content can be static, such as photos from a photo sharing website, or generated on the fly, such as database-driven web pages or live pictures from webcams. Currently supported formats include: HTML, PPT, PDF, JPEG, PNG, GIF, BMP & TIFF, MOV, MPEG-4, H.264, Windows Media videos (.WMV) and Flash. CODA also provides connectivity to generic iCal-format calendars, RSS newsfeeds and photo casts.

Content management functionality includes scheduling, reporting, and smart playlists. A built-in template system is provided. Playlists can be created that mix different kinds of content into a slideshow, and schedules allow calendar-based control of the system. Camvine says that content “can easily be added and managed by nontechnical users” although our view is that a reasonable level of competence in dealing with web content is a must.

Reseller opportunities

Hales explains that CODA is designed to build on the competence that exists within customer organisations, and while this falls short of a requirement for access to HTML skills, CODA would present a novice user with a challenge.

For a reseller or systems integrators, CODA represents an opportunity to add significant value. The CODA web service provides a feature set that enables the reseller to configure the solution for the customer quickly. With all information in CODA maintained a ‘live’ state, CGI scripts, news feeds or database engines provide constantly changing content on the customer’s screens.

In addition, the CODA API gives software developers the opportunity to further customise the solution for the customer. The CODA solution can be monitored from anywhere by the reseller or anyone with the appropriate permissions. CODA’s reporting provides the customer or solution provider with an understanding of what content has been displayed and for how long, and enables the creation of summary or detailed reports.

CODA player software is available to distributors as a software-only package to be loaded on Linux devices. Distributors have the option to rebrand CODA, using features including reseller dashboards, remote diagnosis and a comprehensive online knowledge basis. Camvine offers its channel partners marketing collateral including videos, presentations and literature.

Camvine can provide a full installation service, as well as training, customisation, integration and other consultancy support. The hardware is said to impose a relatively low maintenance overhead. No important information is stored in the hardware. In the event of damage or theft, the CODApod can be replaced with no significant loss of service.

Media RSS

Signagelive is the best known of the cloud-based signage solutions and, through a range of partnerships and alliances, has achieved a high degree of flexibility and maturity. At the recent Screenmedia event, a new software / hardware bundle (including latest Philips display and Advantech PC player technology) was announced that is said to simplify and fast-track deployments and saves up to half the cost of typical solutions.

The bundle combines Signagelive’s web-based software with a 42-inch Philips commercial LCD with a small form-factor Advantech PC that fits into a universal slot in the rear of Philips’ Smart Insert displays.

Signagelive’s software was used to drive Screenmedia Expo’s show communications network  this year. Sponsored by display solution specialist Melford, ten 50-inch screens located around the hall will featured live Twitter and FourSquare social media feeds, alongside the show agenda and general information.

Jason Cremins, CEO of Signagelive developer Remote Media Group, believes that use of un-moderated social media as a digital media feed can be a high-risk option for network administrators. But, with appropriate precautions, Cremins believes that the adoption of content from the cloud is a high significant development in digital signage: “People now realise that you don’t have to publish content for a digital signage network – you can subscribe to readily available sources of content.”

Yahoo’s Media RSS is the enabling technology here. By adding some extra XML tags to a media file enables the user to incorporate the content into a Signagelive playlist.

Optimising content

As an example, Signagelive partner Blue Fox (www.bluefox.fr) conducts research into optimising content for digital signage. They argue that your customers have less than 3 seconds to provide a compelling reason why the viewer should linger on a message. Blue Fox provides a wide variety of content feeds, videos and animated graphics in 2D and 3D on an ad hoc or subscription basis.

Supplementing ‘safe’, high quality of sources of content like Blue Fox with content generated in-house or through public sources including social media represents the state-of-the-art at present. Cremins advises the use of an algorithmic filtering service for public feeds. Tidytweet.com. for example, offers automatic or manual approval of Twitter tweets, custom ‘bad word’ filtering, whitelist or blacklist Twitter users and auto-rejection of spam.

Cremins believes that the short time delay imposed on delivering content to the screen by the filtering process is a sensible precaution, but it does take away the real-time quality from viewer participation. Nonetheless, there are clear signs that the hype surrounding the cloud is now giving way to adoption.

Cloud technology is easily accessible to businesses of all sizes and the benefits it offers include increased efficiencies, competitiveness and reduced IT costs are an “obvious sweet spot” – particularly for SMEs. Network administrators can reap the benefits of an internet-based IT infrastructure that allows them to extend their reach in the market and play for business that was once beyond them.

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