What is a Digital Signage Player

In this article, you will learn in detail what is the difference between a digital signage player and conventional playback programs 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 searching for concrete solutions you can download the free digital signage player developed by us.

A digital signage player describes a specialized media player. It displays video, image, and audio files on a connected screen. These devices are an important component of digital signage solutions.

Digital Signage Player from AiO-Partner
Digital Signage Player with 3 HDMI-Outputs from AiO (Partner company)

The players usually receive their content automatically via the network, a cloud or manually via USB. Now we come to the most elementary point:

How do Digital Signage Players work?

A digital signage player receives information about what to show in the form of playlists or a so-called index. There are three ways to load these:

  1. manually via USB-Stick
  2. pushed over a network from a installable authoring software
  3. polled from a web-based CMS

From Playlist to TV Program

  • When is which content displayed on which screens?
  • How often?
  • 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.

Create digital signage playlists via installable authoring app, with a text editor, or web-based with a content management system.

Receive and execute commands

To enable complex functions and controls, playlists for digital signage players contain special commands. The player executes these commands.

We can perform administrative tasks and control the program at the same time. For example:

  • Zoning
  • From where the media player downloads media content
  • When a reboot occurs
  • Monitor Player
  • Save and send playback logs

And much more!

What Makes a Good Digital Signage Player?

A good digital signage player should be platform-independent, remote maintainable, based on an industrial standard like SMIL, and must be safe for continuous use. Furthermore, it requires some key features like, multiple zones, trigger, interfaces, and reporting.

Multiple Zones

The best digital signage players address multiple screens at the same time. Furthermore, it divides this into different areas. Contrasting with the so-called split screen, zones have the advantage of overlapping.

You surely know these so-called news tickers 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.

Multizonen News Ticker
Multizone with a news ticker Widget

Another option is having a video playlist displayed in the background while current media like weather or news are faded out in another zone triggered by time or interactive events. A good digital signage player can easily add music or speech to pictures or slideshows.

Multiple zones help with designing information clearly in different areas on the screen to visualize. This optimally utilizes the digital advertising space.

Network Capability and Remote Maintenance

Digital signage players are often 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 providers would rather not talk about it, but you can be sure: Things don't always work the way they're supposed to in networks. Sometimes players crash or content doesn't play correctly.

Without remote maintenance features, 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 video 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.

Support Advertising Marketer

These reports serve as the basis for the playback media 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 a 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, the support 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. This enables you to concretely measure the successes or failures of your visual marketing efforts.

Different Formats

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.

The advantage of the widget solutions: Like websites, they are based on HTML5, CSS, and JavaScript. That's why it's much easier for them to find good and affordable developers for these “commonplace” techniques. Your developers do not need expensive training. Neither players nor content management systems require further customization. They create and integrate their applications flexibly and promptly.

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

Players in the digital signage business are usually used 24/7. Therefore, there are higher demands for the player's strength and security. Devices connected to the network represent a valuable target for vandalism and hacker attacks. No company wants its screens to be damaged or used incorrectly. If monitors at the airport played pornographic movies, it would hurt the images of both the manufacturer and the operator a lot. Sharing content on public screens represents a new attack vector. You will find more details in digital signage security.

4 inch Android Player AiO
Quad 4 inch (10.16 cm) All-in-one device

To meet the requirement for security in continuous use, manufacturers build their player devices 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 hardware for outdoor use is pricier than its indoor counterparts. Programming software for these devices is more complex.

Summary Differences

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.

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.

Incompatibilities, Secrecy, and Trap Doors

Unfortunately, most vendors do not care about standards. This means that reinventing the wheel and developing proprietary broadcast languages along with control commands. They do not publish documentation and their software is an isolated solution.

Result: due to the lack of compatibility, the software 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.

This in inappropriate for industrial uses. Industrial and processes rely on standards. Regardless of production or quality assurance: none of this works without standards. And I do not talk about HDMI, power sockets, or Wi-Fi.

Which Standard Format exists for Digital Signage Player?

This standard format is called SMIL. It is similar to HTML, and the standardization is done by 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.

In the article SMIL for Digital Signage, I discuss the benefits of SMIL in more detail.

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. Moreover, SMIL mitigates the vendor lock-in mentioned above. Smaller companies get the opportunity to specialize as a supplier in a sub-area.

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.

Media player devices for Digital Signage

In the past, companies used Windows PCs. 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 .

LTE Player AiO
LTE capable Player from AiO (Partner company)

Personal computers are now only used when the requirement demands high-performance consuming features. For example, to drive multiple displays with different content, 16K videos, or complex 3D animations in real time.

Gravatar Nikolaos Sagiadinos
Author: Niko Sagiadinos
Developer & Co-Founder SmilControl – Digital Signage
Visit me on: LinkedIn or GitHub


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