What is a Digital Signage Player?

From a technical perspective, a digital signage player refers to specialized media player software. This software runs on hardware, of course, and usually displays video and audio files on a connected screen. The combination of software and hardware is usually called a digital signage player. It represents one of the most important components within a digital signage solution.

Digital Signage Player
A typical Digital Signage Player

What defines a Digital Signage Player?

There are significant differences from the well-known media players, such as the VLC player, QuickTime player or a web browser.

From Playlist to TV Program

With digital signage solutions, the focus is on presenting a TV program. While we also use playlists, our player software applications does more just playing the content of a playlist from top to bottom. Digital signage playlists include complex scheduling, repeats, action items and more.

When to show which content on which screens? How often? In which locations? In what language? What happens when a user taps on that 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 software, 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 software executes these commands.

We can not only control the flow of the program, but additionally perform administrative tasks. For example:

And much more!

Multiple Zones

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 tickers with tickers 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 usually not be a problem for the software either.

Multiple zones help with designing information clearly in different areas on the screen to visualize.

Network Capability and Remote Maintenance

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. So, a player must also be configurable, be able to reboot or be updated remotely via a network.

Reporting

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.

On the one hand, these reports serve as the basis for the playback statistics that are important for billing purposes. You learn which device played which content at which locations and whether it displayed it correctly.

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.

A content management system receives the data and prepares it for graphical playback statistics or download, for example. It also warns you if certain limits are exceeded or if a device no longer contacts the network.

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. Web widgets represent another interesting format for content.

Webwidgets

We refer to webwidgets 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 software such as Google Calendar or Exchange/Outlook.

The advantage of the webwidget 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 webwidget, 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.

To meet the requirement for security in continuous use, manufacturers build their hardware to be particularly robust. The software 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 software 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.

Summary Differences

Digital signage players face much more complex requirement profiles than just playing a video once in a while.

The top tier in this software category offers functionalities such as reporting, remote maintenance and web widgets.

Incompatibilities, Secrecy, and Trap Doors

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

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From the customer's point of view, 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.

Playlists or presentations created with SMIL will be played by any compatible player! For the customer and also the manufacturers many advantages result from SMIL. The vendor lock-in mentioned above is mitigated by SMIL. Smaller companies specialize as suppliers in a sub-area.

Digital signage solutions with vendor-independent components enable more competition and innovation. In the end, it helps you save costs.

By the way, the language is powerful and able to map virtually any use case for Interactive Digital Signage as well.

More Information

This article looks in more detail at the benefits of SMIL for digital signage. At SmilControl, we are fully committed to this free and open solution, as can be seen in the company name.

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.

The article Digital Signage with Linux describes in more detail the advantages of the free operating system and pitfalls lurking.

PCs are now only used when the requirements demand a lot of power. For example, to simultaneously drive multiple monitors with different content, 16K videos or complex 3D animations in real time.

Feel free to contact me for any questions or comments.

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Gravatar Nikolaos Sagiadinos
Written by Nikolaos Sagiadinos

Specialized on Digital Signage Software Solutions

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