How to Determine Hardware Needs for Digital Signage

If you are having a discussion and someone says “Digital signage,” what comes to mind? LCD displays? Digital content? Or just anything on a LCD display in a public space?

There are many ways of looking at digital signage as it has become the ubiquitous term for “stuff” dealing with this new signage medium. There are a number of components to digital signage and they include media players, LCD displays, enclosures systems and integration of all the part, and, yes, last, but certainly not least, display content.

Though all of the components to digital signage are very important, the hardware pieces to the DS puzzle are essential and often overlooked. Hardware for digital signage solutions comes in many shapes and sizes but when properly selected, the pieces working in harmony provide a common denominator; a message that reaches the specific audience intended. The challenge can be how to better market to the target audience, how to keep workers better informed of company matters, or keep commuters abreast of when the next train will arrive at the station. The maze of hardware choices can be overwhelming but the following options will serve as a guide to making informed decisions.


Keeping up with displays

LCD displays always seem to attract the most attention in digital signage projects — and with good reason. Without a quality display broadcasting the message one might as well throw in the towel.

Display technology changes at a dizzying, continuous pace.

In today’s market, one has to consider TFT vs. IPS display substrate, CCFL vs. LED backlighting, high-bright vs. standard brightness and a host of other options. The old adage “size doesn’t matter,” doesn’t apply to the choice of LCD displays for a signage project. Size will be a key concern when getting a message noticed.

For instance, if to the goal is to display a number of rotating marketing messages then one can probably downsize the LCD display (32, 42, or 46 inch) as the message will take the majority, if not the entire screen. On the other hand, if the message is flight information, train schedules, or real time arrival information, a larger (52, 55, or 60 inch) display is required as this type of information tends to be smaller on screen and in greater volume.

Another consideration is the distance at which the viewer will be in relation to the display. A substantial amount of information can be found on the Internet regarding the human ergonomics of signage placement. As transit professionals, this is likely something we have all dealt with in the past.

Once the display size has been chosen, specific display technology will become the concern.

Display backlighting and/or the light source that drives LCD display is at issue. Cold Cathode Fluorescent Lighting (CCFL) is slowly disappearing from the LCD market in favor of LED lighting as a backlight source for displays.

LEDs operate at lower power and are cooler running vs. CCFL as well as provide greater flexibility with regard to how it works in relation to the LCD substrate. LED backlighting also has a longer life span and will stay brighter longer than CCFL backlights. LED backlighting allows for a leaner display package producing displays as thin as 1–2 inches deep. Simply put, LED backlighting is the best choice today.

Another consideration when choosing displays is location of the installation. Most indoor applications require little more than a standard commercial grade LCD display. There are times when the installation may be in an area with high ambient light or out of doors. When faced with this challenge, the use of high-bright displays and quite often an enclosure system is a must. Though these displays are more expensive than standard commercial grade displays, they do an outstanding job of lighting your message appropriately in less than ideal lighting conditions. High-bright displays are three to four times brighter than a standard LCD displays and can be viewed in a direct sun light environment.


Media player selection

The next item to consider for a signage project is the right digital media player. There are myriad options available and this choice is significantly affected by the intended display software being developed. Many of today’s displays allow for a single board computer or SBC to be installed in an option slot within the display. These can be highly advantageous as it is a clean solution and makes for one less item to deal with in the hardware chain specific to where it will be installed.

A second alternative is a small form factor media player. These devices are manufactured by a number of companies that have developed them specifically for digital signage applications. They’re small and lightweight but pack the power of a desktop computer and can be “nested” into the same mount used for your displays.

Another choice may be the use of remotely placed computer equipment and video extenders to the displays. This can be a very clean solution and cost effective depending on the nature of your project and how you plan to use the displays. If you choose to go to an outside company for development of signage content they quite often will recommend and include media players for your project.


Applications make the mounts

Display mounts are often overlooked as a readily available piece of hardware that doesn’t require much thought. This is simply untrue. There are many mounts available on the market but choosing the correct mount to work in conjunction with your specific configuration is critical to having a clean, seamless solution. One must consider the display size, type of mounting (ceiling, wall, post) and orientation, portrait or landscape. Mounts not only provide a manner to hang displays but also can provide additional space to allow mounting of a media player, TV or signal box.

A number of reputable and experienced mount manufacturers are in the market providing these solutions.

Another overlooked piece of the digital signage hardware puzzle is cabling. Everything from CAT 5 used to connect the media players and displays to the DVI, or HDMI cables used to connect the displays to the media players, or TV box needs to be considered. Inferior cabling, both in quality and installation, can cause issues that derail your signage project. Excess cabling can also scuttle a project by creating a “rat’s nest” of excess behind a mount solution or impede cooling circulation in an enclosure solution.

In short, both type and length of cables should be considered and specified early in the process. The most expensive cabling is not often required but a reputable cable installation team that employs best industry practices is always warranted. Do not underestimate the importance of this part of the solution.


Prepare for the outdoors

Thus far we have focused on hardware needs for indoor digital signage applications, but in the real world, sometimes the best location for a sign is outside. There are several types of outdoor installations; the first is a completely under cover and protected from direct elements deployment. In a situation like this a display installed on its own without any protection may be adequate. Temperature fluctuations, dust, dirt and potential vandalism are important considerations.

The second outdoor install type is “partially under cover.” These installations generally cannot be left without protection. This type requires some measure of protection for the display whether it be cover or enclosure solution depends on the total exposure.

The last type of outdoor installation is “completely exposed to the elements.” This outdoor application requires an enclosure solution to protect it from all the aforementioned conditions.

An LCD enclosure system of high quality can be very helpful when you have outdoor locations where digital signage is desired. Whether it’s on a platform trackside, a bus shelter or at curbside check-in, a well-placed display with the right message can be an invaluable tool.

Enclosure systems can also assist indoor applications where displays are in sensitive areas that need protection from the public. An enclosure solution does add a measure of cost to a project but when properly utilized the enclosure will ensure the operation, “up-time” and integrity of the overall solution. A good enclosure solution will permit installation of digital messages in places thought previously impossible.

Having the ability to install signs virtually anywhere can differentiate a system wide signage solution in the marketplace, bringing greater revenue, more complete information to patrons, or simply ensure the safety of the traveling public. Outdoor enclosure solutions can be a challenge to implement as the complexity is dictated by the exposure to the public and elements required by the installation. Be sure to deal with an enclosure company that has the experience to recommend the appropriate solution for the specific need.

Engage a firm that specializes in the manufacture and placement of enclosures and not necessarily display mounts or content solutions. The selected firm must also have the appropriate enclosure thermal management experience necessary to assist in the proper specification of a heating/cooling configuration. Remember, any enclosure solution selected has to do the job day in and day out for years to come. Experience, warranty, service capability and reputation in the marketplace are the keys to proper selection of your enclosure system provider.

Putting a digital signage project together prior to installation is no small task. Pre- or post equipment selection carefully considers hiring a professional installation organization with experience in digital signage installation. What may seem relatively easy for an in-house install crew can spiral out of control when these individuals may not have experience configuring displays or installing enclosures solutions properly. There are a number of companies that specialize in digital signage installations and cover everything from construction and cabling to physical installation and configuration of displays, media players and mounting solutions. Choosing the right install crew can save time and money as well as having an invaluable resource for all things digital signage that was not covered in the specification process.

A digital signage project may seem overwhelming but fear not, as with most industries there are a number of professional consultants to help navigate the digital signage waters such as the Digital Signage Federation (DSF) for professional assistance regarding who to contact. There are additional tools like industry webinars and trade groups related to the digital signage industry.

Fortunately the digital signage industry has embraced the market and developed an outstanding framework of trade shows, professional organizations and information resources in a relatively short period of time. This industry takes pride in providing superior products and services with a standard of conduct and training from industry experts. When developing a digital signage project you will be well served to research the various products and services you need along with the professionals who provide them. Regardless of the solution chosen, your project will certainly be a success utilizing the resources outlined in this article while planning it.

Karl Jackson, director of business development, ITSEnclosures will be presenting the Industry Roundtable Discussion entitled, “Transportation Digital Signage and Hardware Needs,” at Digital Signage Expo 2014 at the Sands Expo & Convention Center in Las Vegas, Feb. 12.