In this article, you will learn in detail what is the difference between a digital signage player and conventional playback programms like the VLC player, QuickTime player or MPlayer. Furthermore, I will introduce you to a standard called SMIL, which gives you a lot of freedom.
If you already know all this and are specifically looking for a download, you can find our guide and downloads here.
What is a Digital Signage Player?
A digital signage player describes a specialized media player software and hardware. It displays video, image, and audio files on a connected screen. These devices are an important component of a digital signage solution.
The players usually receive their content automatically via the network, a cloud or manually via USB. Now we come to the most elementary point:
What is the difference between digital signage players and other media players?
Digital signage players focus on the playlist and automated operation. Digital signage playlists include commands for complex scheduling, synchronizations, repeats, triggers and more. This enables centralized control and remote maintenance.
From Playlist to TV Program
When is which content displayed on which screens?
At which locations?
In Which Language?
What happens when a user touches an area?
Should the playlist play its content sequentially or in random order?
You specify all this and more when designing your TV program.
Playlists for digital signage are nestable. This simplifies the organization of complex presentations. For example, in larger networks with hundreds or thousands of devices in different locations.
To enable complex functions and controls, playlists for digital signage players contain special commands. The player executes these commands.
We can not only control the flow of the program, but additionally perform administrative tasks. For example:
From where the media player downloads media content
When a reboot occurs
Save and send playback logs
And much more!
Digital signage players address one or more screens simultaneously. In addition, it splits this into different areas. In contrast to the so-called split screen, zones have the advantage of overlapping.
You surely know these so-called news ticker which run at the bottom or top of the screen. The content usually comes from a feed. This is a common use of multiple zones. In a split screen, the area with the ticker would be exclusive. Thus, the main content has to share the space. With videos and images, this sometimes leads to unsightly compression. A zone, on the other hand, allows a solution where the ticker runs over the content to be displayed.
Another would be: the screen displays a video playlist in the background. Independently of this, current information such as weather or news is faded in time-controlled in another zone. Adding music or speech to pictures or slideshows should typically not be a problem for a digital signage player, either.
Digital signage players are usually network-enabled.
High-quality players and content management systems have a variety of remote maintenance and reporting features. These functionalities possess enormous importance in larger digital signage networks. With installations of thousands of devices in different locations, you administer content centrally and decentrally via the Internet.
Most digital signage providers like to avoid the issue; but you can be sure: In networks, sometimes things don't work as they should! Players crash or content doesn't play correctly.
Without remote maintenance functions, a technical team travels to the device every time and checks or adjusts it on site. That costs time and money. Every avoidable field visit saves money. A digital signage player must therefore be configurable as far as possible remotely via a network, restarted, and brought up to date.
Another important functionality, not only to avoid field operations, is the so-called reporting. This involves the device logging various events. For example: When exactly what content was played. These logs are sent regularly as reports to the digital signage CMS.
A Digital Signage CMS receives the data and prepares it for graphical playback statistics or download. It also warns you if certain limits are exceeded or if a device no longer contacts the network.
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These reports serve as the basis for the playback statistics that are essential for billing purposes. You learn which device played which content at which locations, and whether it displayed it correctly.
Device Monitoring and Diagnostics
In addition, the so-called “heartbeat” of the respective player can be monitored via the network. Does the device regularly report to the platform? What is currently running on the screens? Is there a permanent connection to the Internet, or does it break off frequently? Does the device download the content correctly? What does the memory utilization look like? Will the hardware generate too much heat? Etc.
If events, such as unplayable content, are logged, you can more quickly determine the reasons for the behavior. Maybe the graphics service provider accidentally loads 8K resolution videos on a player that only plays HD. So, an event log combined with a CMS also helps with troubleshooting.
Measuring success through Key Performance Indicators
Playback logs enable additional KPIs for digital signage. This enables you to concretely measure successes or failures of your visual marketing efforts.
Digital signage players display web pages in addition to videos and images via an integrated web browser.
This enables efficient 3D animations and video feeds, for example. HTML Widgets represent another interesting format for content.
Digital Signage Widgets
We refer to digital signage widgets as web applications in so-called containers that run locally on the device. In a sense, these are programs within their playlist.
For example, weather displays, RSS feeds or interfaces to social media. But it can also be used to implement more complex applications such as call-up systems for patients, booking plans for conferences and meeting rooms. Moreover, these can be linked to Google Calendar or Exchange/Outlook.
Example: During the Corona pandemic, two of our customers could implement and offer a customer counter for supermarkets in less than three weeks in early 2020. As a widget, it worked independently of the platform.
Safety in Continuous Use
Digital signage players are usually in continuous use. Therefore, there are increased demands on the robustness and security of the software and hardware. Outdoor devices connected via the network represent valuable targets for vandalism and hacker attacks. No company wants its screens to be damaged or misused. The damage to the image if monitors at the airport were playing pornographic movies would be enormous for both the manufacturer and the operator. Sharing content on public screens represents a new attack vector.
You will find more details in digital signage security.
To meet the requirement for security in continuous use, manufacturers build their hardware to be particularly robust. The device needs additional functions to resist hacker attacks or to prevent them from starting.
Interactive info terminals require additional security functions. A crash of the player may not cause random passersby to access the operating system's user interface.
Of course, these measures are reflected in the cost. Digital signage player hardware for outdoor use are more expensive than their indoor counterparts. Programming software for these devices is more complex.
Digital signage players face much more complex requirement profiles than just playing a video once in a while.
The premium class offers functionalities such as reporting, remote maintenance and widgets.
Are there any Standards for Digital Signage Players?
Yes! A standard format for digital signage is called SMIL. It is similar to HTML, and the standardization is done at the same consortium (w3c). The documentation of the license-free SMIL is publicly available. SMIL players work vendor independent with any compatible authoring software or digital signage CMS.
Unfortunately, too many vendors do their own thing. This means that manufacturers often reinvent the wheel for their digital signage solutions and develop their own broadcast language along with control commands. They do not publish documentation and do not work together.
Result: due to the lack of compatibility, the digital signage components from different vendors do not work together. A content management system or authoring program from manufacturer X does not run with company Y's player.
Disadvantages for Customers
From the customer's perspective, this is a suboptimal solution. It leads to unnecessary dependencies, so-called vendor lock-ins. Migration and switching costs are so high that many customers stay with one provider despite being dissatisfied.
This would be comparable to an audio amplifier that only works with CD players from the same manufacturer.
If you're looking for a digital signage solution, you'll find that many vendors will euphemistically sell you these dependencies as “one-stop shopping”. Luckily, a non-disclosure agreement and enough money, you might get access to an interface with a premium vendor.
For some years now, however, there have been efforts to change that.
SMIL as a solution
With the open license-free multimedia language SMIL, an officially adopted standard now exists. The language is powerful and able to map any use case even for interactive digital signage.
Playlists or presentations created with SMIL will play on any compatible player! For the customer and manufacturer, SMIL offers numerous of advantages. On top of that, SMIL mitigates the vendor lock-in mentioned above. Smaller companies get the opportunity to specialize as a supplier in a sub-area.
Digital signage solutions with vendor-independent components enable more competition and innovation.
In the end, you save costs.
Download my free SMIL player
I have developed a free platform independent SMIL player called garlic-player. The garlic-player runs on Linux, macOS, Windows, and Android.
Hardware for Digital Signage Players
In the past, companies mostly rely on Windows PCs. Unfortunately, these solutions have some disadvantages. PCs are too large, consume a lot of power, are expensive and are more vulnerable to malfunctions. Nowadays, the trend is more and more towards small, cheaper devices with ARM CPU without fans and moving parts. Most manufacturers use Android as their operating system. However, there are also companies that rely on Linux.
PCs are now only used when the requirements demand a lot of power. For example, to simultaneously drive multiple advertising monitors with different content, 16K videos or complex 3D animations in real time.