GUEST POST: Mark Janke, Deviceworx
There’s a reason so many digital signs out there have fingerprints all over them – consumers expect that pretty much any screen they see and use will be interactive, just like their phones and tablets.
But only a fraction of the digital signs now operating in the field are set up for interaction. A big reason is that many don’t need to be, but it’s also because there have previously been a lot of cost and technical barriers.
That’s changing, and in this post I’ll provide some ideas on the opportunities, techniques and challenges of turning on what I call Interactive Digital Signage, or IDS.
There used to be several barriers to going ahead with IDS – the touchscreen hardware was too expensive and there were too many choices when it came to technologies available that supported interactive content.
Today, touchscreen costing has been reduced and there are other, very cool and interesting ways that users can interact with content, including gesture control. Think Xbox Kinect, but instead of gesturing to control a game, you can use gestures to select screen controls to do things like search for product info within a retail store.
Interactive content technology selection used to limit available IDS platform choices. For example, selecting Microsoft Silverlight meant only Microsoft-centric IDS platforms (typically running Windows) could be used.
Today, interactive content developers have all but standardized on HTML5, in part because it is supported by Apple, Google and Microsoft. Developers are also motivated by the emergence of awesome developer tools from the likes of Intel, Adobe, Microsoft and Google, that run on Apple, Windows or even Linux operating systems.
Apple co-founder Steve Jobs said it best when he foresaw the future in April 2010 and stated “New open standards created in the mobile era, such as HTML5, will win on mobile devices (and PCs too).”
If you are interested in more info on HTML5, check out the fantastic overview provided by Intel in a video on its site.
Improved IDS platform costing, and the maturing and standardization of interactive content, goes a long way to easing the path for developers and integrators getting into IDS, but challenges still remain.
For example: how can content, and IDS platforms themselves, be managed on systems that are geographically dispersed in remote locations? And how can content statistics be collated in a central location for system-wide stats analysis?
To address all of these challenges, IDS platforms (that are running the interactive content) must be connected to a centralized server (or virtual server on newer “cloud” technology). There are a variety of techniques supporting this connection, each with benefits and pitfalls.
It can be a huge advantage if install locations for IDS platforms already have an Internet connection. Sometimes IDS platforms can simply plug into a free router port or connect via Wi-Fi. You want to plug into Ethernet and avoid using existing Wi-Fi connections if at all possible, as Wi-Fi connections are commonly lost at some time after installation. That can happen because of something as simple as the movement of shelving or furniture, or because someone at the location decided that a Wi-Fi name or password change was necessary. The extra cost for installing an Ethernet cable pales in comparison to the cost of a service call to fix a Wi-Fi coverage or connection issue.
Even if an Ethernet cable is plainly available, ensure that a quick audit or test of required connections is made, to ensure that they will support IDS platform communications with a server on the Internet. Some install locations may be set up with connectivity that is limited to a POS or a payment system server over a Virtual Private Network, or VPN. Such Internet connections will not be usable for connection of IDS platforms to their centralized management server.
You also want to ensure that any firewalls do not prevent access to the server by testing open communication ports through those firewalls. Using a centralized server that supports IDS platform-driven communications (e.g. server polling) and commonly open ports, such as web browsing ports 80 and 443, will go a long way to ensuring that virtually no firewall impediments exist.
If no existing Internet connection is available (that can be used), then a dedicated connection will have to be installed. This is nowhere near the hurdle that it used to be given the improvements in cell data coverage and reduced cost of Machine to Machine (M2M) cellular data modems and data only accounts. Dynamic cell data IP addresses can be used and monthly data account fees may be well under $20 per location per month.
MANAGING THE NETWORK
Once IDS platforms are connected to a centralized management sever, management of those platforms and the HTML5 content that they are running can become quite easy and powerful. Managers simply login to the server’s user interface or “dashboard” using an Internet browser. At a platform level, managers can determine when devices go down. HTML5 content versions can be tracked and revised in real-time. These are the fundamental benefits of remote management. Ensure that the platform is running and that it is running the correct content.
Additional benefits are possible when HTML5 content is extended. For example, HTML5 content can be developed to support storing event statistics that are then reported within the centralized management server. Event statistics could describe when users are taking specific action, such as selecting a web page, or they could describe user selections including poll results.
Imagine giving these content developers the ability to define a data field using only a label and then populate that field within data records. Later, they could simply read the data records that their content created within the centralized management server that has been collected from all IDS platforms in the system.
With the right IDS platform and centralized management server technology, IDS content management is simple. HTML5 content developers will face a gradual and very short learning curve – maybe as short as a few minutes! HTML5 content developers can concentrate on what they know best, the creation of powerful, consumer-driven content that will drive their clients customer satisfaction and purchasing.