Digital Signage Complexities Addressed

An overview of the parts that make up a digital signage system

Digital signage has been an important topic across the IT, commercial audio-visual, and signage industries for several years now. The benefits of replacing a static sign with a dynamic digital display are clear. However, while it’s impossible to avoid digital signage as we go about our daily lives, I still find myself surprised by the number of people who want digital signage, but don’t understand what goes into a signage system. The attitude of the casual observer could be, “Oh, it’s a flat panel and some video files! We can do that!”

Figure 1: Complete digital signage installation in a restaurant setting. (Photo Courtesy of Premier Mounts and Embed Digital.)

Yet the reality is that digital signage comprises more components than many realize. Digital signage is a web of technologies, involving several different pieces, and potentially several different manufacturers. It’s not nearly as simple as it may seem at first glance, but the good news is we can organize all this complexity into a few categories of components to aid understanding.

Don’t Overlook Content
First up is the obvious category, displays. No! Really! Now, my friends in the display manufacturing world really hate this, but we will start with a component that most people don’t think of as one, and that if not done right, will cripple any chance the system has of success. That component is content. I group this in with all the physical hardware because it has a cost, must be planned for, and selected just as carefully as any piece of electronics. Content is the vehicle that delivers your message and enables you to achieve your objectives. Without it you don’t have much of a system, so ensure you plan for it, its cost, and its need to be continually refreshed. Whether done in house, or outsourced, this is one component that must not be overlooked!

The Single Most Important Product
The Content Management System or CMS, is the heart of any digital signage system. It’s the component that enables you to distribute and manage your content and set up all the scheduling and dayparting you will use. This makes this the single most important product (not getting past that content thing yet!) that you will select. Now, a lot will come down to your strategy… what are your objectives, for what will the signage be used? Different software packages (and there are hundreds!) all offer generally the same group of features, but typically have features that let them focus on a specific vertical. For example, a CMS focused on interactive content, or one focused on integration with external data sources. There are also different business models involved here; some software is on premise, meaning you purchase it and host it yourself, others are Software as a Service (SaaS) and hosted in the cloud for a monthly subscription fee. Neither is inherently superior, and a lot of this will depend on your IT policies, and finances.

Once you know software, then you can select a media player. Today, as we rapidly reach the end of 2017, you have a surprising number of choices, not just traditional PCs. Android, ChromeOS, custom SoC, display embedded… this deserves a whole discussion unto itself. Keep in mind that your software vendor will often have guidelines and recommendations for this, since this device is where the software lives. Personally, I’m getting to where I prefer non-Windows devices, they tend to be lower cost and easier to manage, but don’t take that as absolute… there are always great options in all types.

The Backbone
If the CMS software is the heart, then the network is the backbone. This is the connection that lets each media player communicate back to the central server, wherever it is. This is often the part of digital signage that will require the most technical skill, especially if the Internet is involved to connect multiple sites. You need to be comfortable connecting devices to the network, configuring them, managing ports and bandwidth, and dealing with firewalls. If that sounds complicated… yes, it can be!  Implementing this may take a “guess and check” mentality, as communication rarely works perfectly the very first time you power on. Sorry, plug and play is an illusion used as marketing, not reality!

Displays: Understanding Three Things
Selecting the type of display involves understanding three things; environment, hours of use, and audience position. Understanding the environment in which the display will live helps us choose how bright it needs to be, and if we need protection against dust or moisture. Knowing the hours it will be turned on helps us to select the duty cycle required. Finally, knowing the audience position will help us in selecting how large the display (and the image shown on it) will need to be. LCD flat panels are the most common, and will be the go to for general purpose displays, but projectors are being used quite a bit as well (especially the models that don’t use traditional lamps!). Direct view LED displays are much more affordable then they have been, so those are now a much more common choice. Each one has its own pros and cons.

We’re not quite done, so bear with me a bit longer. We also have mounting for the display and media player. Before you laugh at me, this is a more complex choice than you think. You need to understand the structure of what you are mounting onto, where the display will go, and if you are dealing with an unusual environment. Sometimes, we need protective enclosures, or a kiosk for an interactive display. All of this makes the mounting solution key, and not something to be selected as an afterthought. Also, always buy from a top tier mount provider… saving money here can cost time and increase the risk of mount failure.

Now that we have covered these components, you should understand the general parts of a digital signage system. If this topic intrigues you, and you want to learn more, I will present “Understanding the Parts of a Digital Signage Network,” at Digital Signage Expo 2018 on Wednesday, March 28 at 9 a.m. at the Las Vegas Convention Center. For more information on this or any educational program offered at DSE 2018 or to learn more about digital signage go to .

Jonathan Brawn is a principal of Brawn Consulting, an audio-visual consulting, educational development, and marketing firm, based in Vista, California with national exposure and connections to the major manufacturers and integrators in the AV and IT industries. Prior to this, Brawn was Director of Technical Services for Visual Appliances, an Aliso Viejo CA based firm that holds the patent on ZeroBurn™ plasma display technology.



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