Hands On: Capital Networks’ Audience for Android

September 17, 2012 by Dave Haynes

When I first started dealing with Bil Trainor, the President of Capital Networks, it was 1999 and his Toronto-area company’s cable TV community network servers were being put into office towers to drive digital sign networks in elevators. There were few solutions on the market and even fewer that could split screens and integrate live data.

The units were as big as luggage, cost about $23,000, including software. As the Ops VP, I signed the invoices and issued a quiet little Ouch! each time.

Some 13 years later, Trainor sent me over an Audience for Android unit pre-loaded with software that does pretty much the same thing for about $100, and the all-in bundle – software, hardare and 24/7 support – is $699 for three years.

Trainor, in a note, calls the unit the result of an 18-month journey and expects it will set “a new competitive standard for the large deployment digital signage market.”

I saw a unit down at DSE earlier this year and was surprised to learn it had much more capability than I would have expected. I figured a cheap little set-top box could play out full-screen videos like a champ, but not do a lot more. This thing handles all the screen segmentation stuff that is Capital Networks’ bread and butter on the broadcast side of its business.

The unit I got came preloaded with a media show, so I know some of what I was seeing running off a TV at home was canned. But the demo sent along was predominantly a multi-segment display with real files switching out and a real ticker. On PCs, it’s easy to tell when a low-cost PC is being used because the ticker stutters along. On this thing, the ticker runs smoothly.

The footprint is nice and diminutive, maybe 7 by 7 by 1 inches. It runs cool and doesn’t make a peep. It uses an external power adapter similar to what you get with older smartphones and has an HDMI connection. When I plugged it in, it ran through a boot cycle of maybe 20 seconds and then fully fired up. I have had it running for two days without a hiccup – not exactly rigorous testing but then this a blog, not a testing lab.

The units are compatible with Capital’s Audience software platform, which has been around for well more than a decade. It can do as many as
seven independent zones (not that I think that’s a good idea). It does full-screen H264 video playback at up to 720p resolution (so no 1080P, but in most digital sign situations, big freakin’ deal). It handles real-time scheduling, automated data feed ingestion, as-run logs for content verification, and command and control for emergency notices. And has a series of graphic transitions including snap, dissolve, push, crawl, zoom, and wipe.

It doesn’t have a serial connection and I don’t know how you would monitor and remedy problems in the field, but at $100 or so for a unit, the answer to field servicing is probably some bubble-wrap and an overnight courier. Swapping out a dead unit would be easy even for the techno-phobic. Unplug power jack, network and HDMI cable, and plug those into new one. Done.

All in, pretty impressive and a strong counter to the suggestion that using set-top boxes for digital signage will save money but introduce a pile of compromises.

It was funny to get this demo unit last week, as I also spent a day that week with another company reviewing its low-cost offer. I was struck by how much they were making available and the depth of development and support, and how opposed it was to the well-worn (and usually accurate) conclusion that you get what you pay for. There are indeed low-cost dumb devices out there that don’t and can’t do very much. And there are other small companies offering Android-based solutions, but they tend to be near or total unknowns.

Coming from a very well-established company and a software team that’s been focused on this space for years and years, this should get some attention.

Re shaky video: Yes, I should have used a tripod. Yes, I should cut down on the coffee. Pffft.

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