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More Choices: Looking at the New Faces of Digital Display Technology

In this Part I of a series that examines the newest technology available for digital signage, as well as the improvements made to existing technologies, we will explore some of the general, cutting edge advances made in this segment of our industry.

By Johnny Duncan

Digital signage, narrow-casting, electronic billboards - whatever you call it, it’s enjoying rapid deployment across the retail sector. The benefits of electronic displays over static signage are now pretty established - ease of distribution, flexibility and visual impact. However, a further debate concerns the optimum display placement.

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  • Wide screen plasmas and LCDs proliferate across the power aisles of supermarkets, but arguably the truest embodiment of POP advertising lies in the smaller edge of shelf displays ­ the messaging that reaches the customer as they reach for a product. Here, we have a perfect opportunity for the revolutionary technology called Power over Ethernet or PoE, which is already becoming part of business networking topology.

    You got the power
    Power Over Ethernet is a technology that integrates data, voice and power over a standard ethernet infrastructure. The concept has been around for some time but was only recently formally approved as an international standard - IEEE standard 802.3af. Now established as an economical, safe power distribution method, we’re beginning to realize its practical applications across industry. Devices such as IP telephones, wireless LAN access points, clocks and surveillance cameras can receive power as well as data over existing CAT5 cabling.

    The versatility of this new technology is only limited by the imagination of system designers. So imagine this ­ rolling out an installation of shelf edge digital signage players is no picnic, how much simpler would it be if you could get 15.4 watts of power (at 48 volts) over the same twisted pair cable that already delivers your store communications. This, of course, must be undertaken by a qualified electrician whereas laying out additional Cat 5 cabling can be handled by the IT Department.

    Blue Chip Technology, a leading UK innovator and manufacturer of single board computers, data acquisition modules and industrial computer systems, quickly identified PoE as the perfect add-on feature to its prototype media player known as gondolaPLAY, developed in conjunction with Screenplay Communication Ltd.

    Based on Blue Chip’s own 1GHz ETX embedded computer, the core board combines a strong multimedia performance with low power management, making the system a viable candidate for Power over Ethernet. The unit includes a 7” LCD, 10/100 ethernet, USB, audio and 20Gbit hard drive, all in a compact aluminium chassis ­ W160mm x H40mm x D225mm.

    Using this type of embedded PoE enabled player, you only have one set of wires to bring to a display - simplifying installation and saving space. It’s also a safer set up with no mains voltages anywhere. The display can be easily moved, to wherever you can lay a LAN cable ­ with minimal disruption to the goods display area.

    As well as the data transfer to and from the appliance, you can use SNMP network management infrastructure to monitor and control the displays ­ auditing your digital signage real estate. A SNMP manageable centralised power source enhances the protection against power overloads, outages, surges and spikes. When PoE is implemented, along with uninterruptible power supplies (UPSs) or battery backups, it allows enterprises to distribute power even when the AC electrical power is down.

    Connecting the pieces
    Minicom Advanced Systems, founded in 1987, is a leading manufacturer of innovative KVM (keyboard, video and mouse) switches. Dave Haar,Vice President of Sales, states that “digital signage is a puzzle with many pieces. We provide just one of the pieces or components of this puzzle.”

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    What is KVM?
    Most IT organizations use a keyboard/video/mouse (KVM) switch in order to minimize the number of input devices and monitors necessary to control multiple servers. The KVM switch allows you to share one locally connected keyboard, mouse, and monitor between as many servers as the switch will support.

    With a KVM switch, it is possible to choose which server to manage, fix or maintain from a single station at any given time. This makes server management easier for the operator while reducing clutter and hardware costs for the data center.

    Because the KVM switch enables an operator to sit in one place while monitoring tens of computers, that operator can be much more productive. While the KVM switch may require a fraction of a second to change from one computer to the next, this is less time than it takes the operator to stand up, much less walk 5 or 10 feet to another computer as would be required without the KVM switch.

    Today, KVM technology has reached even further, with remote access KVM, creating further efficiency in server maintenance and management.

    As opposed to remote access software, direct control of the KVM, whether remote or local, allows access to the server on the BIOS level, access that is crucial for most server problems. If the server is experiencing a problem, it is likely that any remote access software installed on it will not function properly either.

    In addition, a software solution requires that the server’s Operating System (OS) is fully booted and running, while there are many cases where either the OS has crashed or a network administrator wants to monitor, control and even interrupt the boot process as it unfolds.

    With KVM switches, the boot process can be managed in the exact same manner as it would be if the network administrator was sitting right in front of the managed device. Because a KVM switch is a network independent, pure hardware solution, an analog KVM system does not require a LAN of any kind. And, after making necessary changes to the device’s configuration, the network administrator can restart and monitor the entire process as the device reboots, without losing the server connection.

    Show me the money
    As in every business decision, ROI considerations form an important part of a remote KVM access strategy. Maximizing ROI through remote KVM frequently requires a flexible, little-bit-of-everything approach. A full digital solution forces all your operators to work “remotely”, even if they are only twenty feet away from the server. This clogs bandwidth and slows down operation. Since in most cases not all of your administrators will work remotely, the most economical solution dictates the use of a mix of analog and digital access. Using dual analog-digital KVM switches or extensions that add digital access to your existing analog KVM switches allows remote access while ensuring that your local access is not lost.

    “There are many options available for digital signage deployment,” states Haar. “The sign professional needs to first determine what messages their customer wants, but could not have delivered in the past, and then develop a plan. Anything can be accomplished, but you first have to gather all of the information, and then work the plan.”

    With all of the many new technologies available, the smart sign professional can turn a customer’s needs into profits by learning about all of the resources available.

    In Part II, we will explore some of the companies using new technology to create digital signage packages, from installation, to design, to support, for all of their customers.

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