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Remote Digital Media Players Present Profitable Digital Signage Challenges

By Mike Strand, StrandVision Digital Signage

Digital signage, as with any networked deployment, presents a set of challenges for system designers and installers, and this is good news for resellers from a business marketing and development standpoint.

When configuring remote digital media player displays, the objective should be to direct connect or use standard Ethernet Local Area Network (LAN) CAT-5/6 topologies as much as possible and avoid custom networks. This approach maximizes future capabilities and minimizes design, installation and ongoing maintenance / troubleshooting issues.

When working with digital signs, the standard format generally requires that a computer or digital media player appliance be located at each screen to drive the display. These standard deployments are not always possible because they depend on the physical layout of where it is being installed, the security of the device, etc. In this article, I’m going to address some options for deploying digital signage display screens that are separated from the server or from the local computer / digital signage appliance that drives the display.

Current cabling drives decisions

Depending on the budget of the customer, looking at the current cabling is usually the first step. With no financial constraints, it is always best to look at the distances and, if within range, install the best quality cables for audio and video for a direct connection to the player device. Most of the time, budget matters, so the first step is to find the closest available network jack. If one is available, then a network-type of extender is the best option.

Here are some options if the regular deployment is not possible (meaning the computer/appliance is not a standard cable length away). Some of these approaches are more practical and cost effective than others.

  • VGA - A standard 15-pin VGA cable can go 15 feet with a low cost video cable or extended to about 100 ft. with costly, high quality cables. That’s really pushing it, though. Fifty feet is better, with around 30 ft. being the limit for HD. Remember to also pull an audio cable of the same length for this type of digital signage installation.
  • DVI - DVI is rated at about 16 ft. (good for a computer on the other side of the wall behind the screen). You can try longer at your own risk. This one also needs a separate audio cable installed.
  • HDMI -The limit for HDMI is about 75 ft. with high cost / high end cables designed for it. A high definition HDMI signal can go about 25 feet with a lower cost cable. Normally the audio travels on the same digital signal making HDMI a great choice for shorter runs. There are also some special HDMI amplifiers and extenders that can help keep the digital signage content looking good at longer distances.
  • Analog PC-to-TV extenders - These proprietary devices typically transmit from one PC to one screen over a single network cable. Some high-priced models can transmit from one PC to many screens. These degrade as the cable length increases and are acceptable for some installations. Usually it is best to look at the digital extenders since they offer better quality with more flexibility.
  • Digital PC-to-TV extenders - Digital media player display extenders using existing network cabling are both cost effective and work well at any distance. Some (like the one we offer) transmit HD video with audio as well. Remember to keep these on their own network since they use a lot of bandwidth. We find that SDTV (720p) is adequate for most digital signage applications which can save a little bandwidth. But, you should spec to HD levels to ensure network performance and plan for the future.

    Many of our customers are using our digital PC-2-TV.net transmitter and receiver to support several remote digital signage displays from a single digital signage playback computer. It eliminates multiple PCs or digital media player appliances and simplifies the installation. The system we provide also allows an operator in a remote location to control the digital signage player PC with a keyboard, mouse or handheld remote.
  • Cable distribution systems - Another approach is to use existing cable television (CATV) systems that are already installed. You may have installed these systems in the first place. Many organizations, including schools, colleges, medical facilities and nursing homes have this infrastructure already built in. Some are still being actively used and some may have to be revitalized.

    Our reseller partners have had success with CATV networks in all of these types of organizations, as well as schools and hotels where there are already cable drops in every room and in most meeting rooms and public locations, including lobbies and restaurants. In some cases, adding digital signage can be as easy as feeding the digital sign player into the head end and assigning a channel. Public area monitors can be tuned to the digital signage content channel and guests can select the digital sign channel from their rooms. It’s a cost-effective solution when it uses existing infrastructure.

Today, digital signage can be installed almost anywhere. The best electronic signage system design approach is to stick with the vendor’s recommended topology. Short of that, plan to invest time and resources in testing and adjusting the system once you are onsite. You have the expertise and the technical abilities to design, install and support these systems for your customers. They will be grateful and reliant on you for support in the future.

Mike Strand is founder and CEO of StrandVision LLC, an Internet-based subscription digital signage service that is distributed through resellers. Previously, Mike founded StrandWare, a leading bar code software and AIDC company. Prospective resellers may contact Mike at mjstrandweb.