A few weeks ago NEC Display, which is now Sharp NEC Display Solutions, started marketing a new product called NEC MediaPlayer.
I saw the note and I thought, “Oh, OK, I’ll write about this.” But then I didn’t, because I couldn’t make heads or tails of what it was about.
This podcast interview helped me clear the fog, and I suspect it will for others. MediaPlayer is software designed to work with the Raspberry Pi hardware that NEC uses as an alternative to the System on Chip offers from its display competitors.
MediaPlayer has two aspects:
There is a simple signage, LAN or sneakernet platform that allows companies to do things like put production KPIs or other content up on a screen, without investing in a full signage platform, because they don’t need a full signage software platform.
And there’s a foundational CMS set-up that is there for the 15 or so CMS software partners who do digital signage on Raspberry Pi. If an end-user or integration partner uses NEC displays that support the Pi, they can select and install that software image right out of MediaPlayer.
People who have been around digital signage for many years will likely wonder – Did they do Vukunet … again?
No, this is not that the rebirth of the circa 2009 NEC CMS and ad platform.
I spoke with Chris Feldman, the product manager for NEC MediaPlayer.
David: Chris, thank you for joining me. I wanted to talk to you about NEC, because I saw some PR about NEC media players and I read it and then I read it again and I thought I’m not quite getting what this is, so it would be lovely if we could walk through what NEC media players are all about.
Chris Feldman: Cool. Yeah, thanks for the opportunity.
You’re not the first. I think the confusion is that the media player exists in two parts and it’s obviously tied to the system on a chip (or SOC) space in digital signage. A number of years ago, we released our displays that use the Raspberry Pi Compute Module 3a as an open source platform for associates, allowing a lot of users to utilize that and the whole open architecture kind of digital signage.
But one of the things that we found, as we’re getting feedback from the market, was that it’s great that we have this open architecture, but people really need an out of the box experience with it. So they need something where as soon as you open it up and turn it on it’s got to do something other than just give you a desktop operating assessment screen..
David: Cause not everybody’s a nerd and wants to develop that way.
Chris Feldman: Exactly. And, I think initially our thinking was, there’s so many tools out there that people are just going to rush to it and be like, yeah, this is great, which is what they’re still doing. But the fact of the matter is they needed an out of the box experience and so that brings us to the first part, which is the NEC media player. And so what we’ve done is we’ve looked at the media player experience overall And how it can fit within the NEC display, NEC display ecosystem, so to speak,and that’s what we developed.
We worked together and we developed this media player that we had delivered onto the display. it comes pretty loaded so it’s the standard image now on all the Raspberry Pis that we sell and we’ve also upgraded from the Computer Module 3 to the Computer Module 3+, so you’re getting a bit of a bump up in CPU performance, but also the hard drive or the EMT on the internal memory on the device itself, it’s bumping up from 16 gigs to 32 gigs. So you’re getting a little faster CPU speed, and you’re getting twice the amount of memory in there and then the mini player itself is really giving users the ability to really get up and running with signage very quickly.
So we looked at things like playback, so it was important not to have gaps. People want to have, whatever images they have up there or videos or combination thereof, they want them to play slide-to-slide without any kind of black space or dead space in between.
The new player does that and addresses that issue that was on the Pi. And so what we’re able to do is we have that going, you can connect to it locally, so you can walk up to it, there’s a USB drive., I’ll plug it in. You can use the wireless remote that comes with the display to actually load content onto the internal drive of the Raspberry Pi. You can use a wired keyboard as well, but one of the cooler things is you actually have the ability to control it over a network. So if you have a closed network, like a LAN setup where you have all your screens running the media player, you can actually talk to all of them, control them, and so you can set up playlists, you can set up schedules, you can set up everything that you’re doing, with regards to content, over a network. That’s a really powerful tool that we have there. We’ve added some things like streaming services, so you can actually stream content to it. You can have URLs that are accessible because it does also support touch. So say you have a lobby space in your corporate office, and you want to have a way to tie into a content you already have without having to spend more money, just to have this new digital sign that you have, you can just utilize your webpage.
And then the cool part about it is it actually utilizes the display itself, that’s one of the great things about using the internal Raspberry Pi, as opposed to an external Pi. One of the things we have is a real-time clock and a watchdog timer to maintain the high-res of the display.
But we can also tie into the human sensor that we have either externally, with our KTRC kit or the one that’s built into our VNP series displays that we offer. So you could have essentially a slideshow running and then when it sees someone walking in front of it, it could switch over to that website or switch over to that HTML file that you’re looking at, if you’re doing it by finding that type of thing. And then if you touch the screen, you can actually interact with it, which is a really powerful tool to offer customers just through a standard media player that’s included with the Raspberry Pi.
The second half, which is where a lot of people get confused is, again, looking at signage and what people wanted to do. These media players are great and what we designed was not designed to be an “end-all be-all” of media players. It’s a great little device that offers a lot of functionality but the reality is once people really start to see the value of digital signage in their place, whether it’s a retail establishment, quick stores, restaurant, corporate office, hospitals, wherever it is, and they start to see that potential, they’ll want to do more things. And so to do that, you really need to have a true CMS running on the device.
So we looked at that and we looked at the negative feedback that we received on imaging the Raspberry Pis on our displays and what we did is, we created this CMS platform within the media player. So when you have the media player running, on the top is a series of tabs that essentially denote what you’re doing. You simply just arrow over to the CMS tab and then on there currently we have about eight or nine partners, and this list is growing, you can then move down and select a partner and you get a description of what that partner does, and then the option to install that software. So you can actually go to a company, or certainly a partner like Screenly or Yodeck, select their software, and if you’re already using it, let’s say you have a Screenly account, you have that up and running on regular media players throughout your facility. Now you want to add these displays with SOC, to expand your digital signage. You can click install, it will install the Screenly software, and then it’ll run as a Screenly player on your network and you can manage it just like every other device you have working.
And so that’s where people are kinda getting lost because it’s like a two-part construction to what we have.
David: So it sounds like in your first part of the description, many to most of the components that you would need, or in commonly found in a digital signage, CMS software platform particularly on the management side, but it’s not marketed or presented as a CMS, and if you have customers who will want to go down a little path of using a commercial CMS, you have options to do that.
So am I right in thinking the first part of what you’re describing is meant for companies that let’s say already have a software development team of some kind, and they’re looking for a signage platform that has foundational software and APi so that they can develop their thing on top of that without using a commercial CMS. Would that be accurate?
Chris Feldman: Mostly. So first of all, it’s designed around a LAN, right? You’re not going to have, say like a quick service restaurant where you’re managing several hundreds or thousands of stores. It’s designed to be a closed loop, so to speak. So if you have a building, you don’t pick a large company out there like Motorola, right? So if you have several campuses together, you can have a local one off here in Schaumburg, you would have these displays on the wall and the administrator can access them and load content to it.
But if you wanted to go to where they are, where they’re downtown, you would need a separate set of media players running. So they’re not really designed to be cloud-based, it’s not really inter-connectable, so to speak and they all have to be on the same network and then they’ll run existing content that you have. So it’s for the user that needs more simple signage, not necessarily looking to invest in the expense of a CMS software, and then it still gets you into that realm, right? It still gets you into digital signage but you don’t have the minutia control that you would over through a CMS.
Let’s take Rise Vision, for example, those guys have a lot of control over what they’re doing and we’re not really trying to do that. What we’re trying to do is get you in the ground floor, so to speak, get you a media player with enough robust functionality that it’s actually useful, but at the same time, we want to be able to encourage you to work with any one of our partners.
David: So let’s say a manufacturer who wants to visualize some KPis from the production floor and just do it in that one facility over the LAN on a few displays. They could do this to find that you are all for that particular visualization that’s coming out of, I don’t know, Power BI or whatever it may be, throw that on there and you’ve got what you need.
And then the second tier of this is when you have partners, like Screenly or Yodeck, who already develop to Raspberry Pi that could be part of a well-defined ecosystem and your customers can look at the different options and go, “okay, these guys are more oriented to what I want to do, and I’ll use that.”
Chris Feldman: Yeah, if they can handle that.
David: When I first read this PR, I was thinking they’re not doing Vukunet again, are they?
Chris Feldman: (Laughter) You’re not the first one to mention that, but no, this is not Vukunet.
David: For those who don’t understand what they we are going on about, about 10-11 years ago, NEC came out with a free CMS platform and a kind of a companion advertising platform called, Vukunet and AdVuku and I think the most accurate thing to say would be that it was a little early in the development of the ecosystem for that to really catch on.
Chris Feldman: Yeah. And, ironically, I was actually involved with that as well. Maybe that’s why I was chosen for this one, there’s a lot that goes into it and you have to play to each other’s strengths and one of the things about, the digital signage world is, it takes a village, right? These systems and these projects can get rather large and cumbersome, it’s no longer just somebody going, “Oh, I want to throw a PowerPoint on the screen or a PDF slide from my menu board.” No, the amount of functionality that people need and some of the more complicated logistics really needs to take multiple partners to successfully launch one of these, even a moderate sized one to the market.
And what we’re trying to do is we’re trying to simplify that, we’re going to bring in as many people as we can together, so that it’s easier for people to basically bring that to market.
David: So if I wanted to use Screenly as my CMS, working with NEC media player, with the software components that you were describing earlier, I assumed that there are similar components that Screenly has written and everything else, so how do you work around them, nto clash with each other?
Does a lot of the NEC media player functionality just shut off?
Chris Feldman: Yeah, literally that’s what happens. So when you select that partner, it becomes that partner’s player or that partner’s end point or however you want to refer to it.
So there’s going to be no confusion. There’s gonna be no clash, ‘cause that was honestly one of the original concerns when we were supposed to find what you’re trying to do here, we didn’t want to create something that was gonna create problems for us later. The idea is we want to work with these partners as well as we can and deliver an experience that we can have that QC control, to the end-user.
David: Are there device management things like what you’re describing with the wash-dock timer and things like that, that a developer like a Screenly or Yodeck or whoever can tap into if they don’t have that themselves, or are there elective components that you can use?
Chris Feldman: Yeah. We work with a company called signageOS and they’re helping us with this whole partner onboarding, and one of the things they do is they tie into that. So if they require things like CEC control, so you can utilize the remote, control it, or it ties into the touch capability, they’re handling that vetting portion. And, in addition to that, we also have, and I like to refer to, is one of the best kept secrets in the AV, which is our never said administrative tool.
I don’t know if you’re familiar with that. So again, it’s one of our best kept secrets. Never said administrator is a tool that’s been around with NEC for, I’ve been with NDC about 12 years now, and it’s been around as long as I can remember, and it is networkable management for all your displays from desktop monitors up through projection, right?
And as long as they’re all connected, via a network, you can do all kinds of really great things. You can monitor them, they can set it up where if somebody were to change an input, for example, it blows my mind every time, every time you have a large screen somewhere, everybody wants to look at it and say, “Hey, can I get the game on there?” And then try to press the buttons and if you didn’t laugh them out, all of a sudden you turned off whatever your digital signage application is and the screen is blank and so if you have a large building, it would be nice if the screen could tell you that because the screen already knows, and that’s what it can do. You can set up a series of tasks that it can do, you can set up a time task where, if you’re a school system and you want to shut off all your projectors at night to save the bulb, do you have the ability to do that? You can say, “okay, five o’clock turn everything off” and it’ll do that and everything connected to it will do it, whether it’s a screen projector, desktop monitor, what have you, and that is, available for download on our website and the standard edition is actually free of charge, and it’s one of the reasons why it’s the best kept secret. So it’s something to use and it’s an incredibly powerful tool that you can utilize either within your own facility or if you are a reseller or an AV integrator.
This is something that you could also leverage as a service with your customers. So you can say, “Hey look, Mr. Customer, I can set this up. I can put all these screens on the network.” Obviously he will charge a fee for that and that’s what it’s there for. And that can be also tied into the available APis and so our Raspberry Pi, which talks to our display could then also connect to never said administrator.
David: What’s the adoption rate for Raspberry Pi? I mean smart displays have been around since the early 2012-2013. The early ones weren’t very good, but they’ve gotten better and I would say the whole idea of SOC displays is fairly mainstream now, there’s a lot of them out there.
NEC, to my knowledge, is the only company that’s gone down a different path with these slot loaded Raspberry Pis. How has that gone? And where are you with it? Is it right across your product line or just on a subset?
Chris Feldman: So we have a very wide breadth of screens that we actually utilize it on, screen sizes, everything from our 40 inch, whether it’s a VRP series all the way up to our 98 inch screens. And that also includes our ultra narrow displays so the video wall displays as well. And so we have all these different screen lines that you can utilize within your network and tie into the software that you’re using, like one very clear example, it’s called Full Beamer. It’s a great tool and they have this really awesome application that you can do video walls with Raspberry Pis by literally taking a photo with your phone. So you take the software, you load it onto a screen to take a picture of what the screens look like and each screen will have a QR code on there. You’d load that onto the website and it’ll automatically scale the content, regardless of rotation onto the wall, which is an incredibly powerful tool that they can do with our screens.
David: Why Raspberry Pi versus just putting in an ARM processor and doing what most of the other guys are doing?
Chris Feldman: Twofold. First, we’ve had a modular philosophy around everything that we do for computing for a long time. We’ve had OPS forever and then before that we had the SPC slot, and that’s worked out really well for us. We’ve had a lot of really great successes.and we’ve got a lot of really great feedback on it.
So when we moved into SOC, what we didn’t want to do is we didn’t want to move away from that. We wanted to give customers that option and in addition, we also didn’t want to necessarily build in the cost of the SOC into a screen that they’re buying if they are not using it. So if they want to use a PC, they’re not using SOC, why pay for it, or if they’re using something external, why pay for it? So that’s the first part.
And the second part is really the, just the whole developer community around the Raspberry Pi, cause it’s one thing to be having open architecture, because if you look at our competitors, everyone, they’re all open, there’s APis that are out there. Right now with the Raspberry Pi, you have kids sending these things to the moon, right?
You have all kinds of really amazing things that people are building with Pi. I saw one application, I think it was a year ago, maybe two years ago, where somebody took a Raspberry Pi and connected the accelerometer that you have for your cell phone to it and then when you rotated the display, the content would rotate with the display. It was a really amazing thing that they were doing, with that smaller SOC.
So that’s what we’re really trying to leverage with the Raspberry Pi inner displays, is that not just the level of creativity that affords the user, but just the global community built around it. People are really doing amazing things with it because you get stuck in something and you can on the web, post on a message board and somebody may have already run into that problem, and so that’s what we wanted to do, what we wanted to leverage.
David: The interest in Raspberry Pi when it first came out and it probably still is that it’s a $35 to $45 micro PC, and therefore I can save some money there.
Often don’t seem to understand that there are other things that you have to buy with it to get it all to work and it doesn’t end up being 45 bucks. It costs more than that and it is a micro PC positioned, it’s something for makers and hobbyists and so on. Although there are millions out there and as you say, there’s a huge development community, why would you go down that path instead of the Intel smart display modules or compute modules?
Chris Feldman: The smart display modules, we actually are implementing as well. So the next generation displays will have the SDMs, available as a flat, And then the computer module will actually install underneath it, so if you look at the way that the screen is actually built, you have two halves, right?
You have SDMs and you have SDML, right? SDML takes the whole thing and the rest takes just a third of it. The unused portion is what the Raspberry Pi will connect to, so we’re not going to connect to the SDM slot. And when we’re specific about that, we’re not connecting to that portion of the display. It’s connected to its own proprietary connector on the other side, but you have that ability, so you could do things like run the Raspberry Pi and, potentially, another accessory that you have in that slot, that’s running off of it.
David: So you could use the Pi for media play out, but you could use an Intel i5 for computer vision, like your NEC application or something like that?
Chris Feldman: Right and, again, the idea behind adopting the Pi was really built around the community that exists with the Raspberry Pi. It’s one thing just to create a small SOC type PC, a little chip you drop in with some memory in the CPU, it’s another thing to drop something in there that has some momentum behind it already, people already developing behind it. And as we were later to the market than everyone else, we wanted to leverage that, we wanted to have something that already had a development base behind it when we hit the market.
I think when we launched, I think there were probably a dozen companies that we had on our website that already had CMS software that was running on Raspberry Pi, and we linked them right at the bottom so people get up and running very quickly.
David: You’ve mentioned there’s about eight or nine on there now with your dropdown?
Chris Feldman: So the eight or nine are actually the partners part of the overall CMS platform that’s on the Raspberry Pi. So if you look in the Pi itself, those are the eight or nine I talked about, those are the ones that are actually on the Pi. But if you go to our website, we actually have a media plan link on our website, it’s actually connected.
Any one of our large format displays that have a Raspberry Pi slot, there’s literally a link that you can click and say, “Hey, check out a new video player.” You click that link. It’ll take you to our media player site. Go into all of the detail that I’m going on with you today and then, at the very bottom, there’ll be a list of all the existing partners today that are on that Pi and then there’s another button you can click, which will show you everybody that we know of that’s working on the Pi. It’s more than eight, right? So we probably have, and I have to draw a blank here, but probably about 15 partners total.
David: Okay. Is there any particular market or attribute about the kind of end users who are gravitating towards this technology solution versus, I don’t know, I see a lot of smart displays being used for QSR because it streamlines the install and things like that, or is there a representative kind of user who would go down your path?
Chris Feldman: That’s really the great thing about the associate market as it is right now. A lot of CMS companies are rendering using HTML5, or through a standard browser or streaming something from a source. You can move away from like a standard type PC, to something like an associate and save a fair bit of money. The cost on screens will come down considerably, to buy even a small form factor PC, like an Intel that can oftentimes costs more than display, right? So now if you have this SOC that can then run that other content, that’s an assumption being handled by a head-end, and it’s acting as an endpoint.
You can do a lot of really amazing things with it. And I don’t think it’s, yes, I can appeal to a specific vertical. You’re really going to appeal to those that are looking to get into the signage market. But I’ve always been a little shocked by it, because there’s an economy of scale that we’re dealing with because, there’s a screen, there’s software, there’s PCs, there’s tablets, there’s all these parts that kind of go into it. And then you have to multiply it by the number of locations that you want to have it in there, it’s not just one screen from the menu board. The average menu board size is three. So if you take three times the number of stores and very quickly that number gets very large. So we can do something like this and be able to deliver that competing solution to the customer that lowers the cost of ownership and those that may have been wavering or, not necessarily, very motivated to adopt this, now it becomes much more inviting for them to do it.
David: I have a feeling that you can’t tell me who, but I’ll ask anyways, and you can just say generically if necessary, do you have some good reference cases on large-scale deployments of viewer displays with the Pi inside?
Chris Feldman: So we just released the media player and the Compute Module 3+ on our displays, we are just starting to deliver those now. So there is one case that will be listed soon so we can build a reference on our website and then those will start to develop as that grows out.
David: Is that retail?
Chris Feldman: It was in the QSR space.
David: And like hundreds, thousands, millions?
Chris Feldman: When it’s released, we’ll be able to tell you. (Laughter)
David: All I know is that it’s just a burden of anybody who is trying to market in this industry that the bigger the client, the harder it is to get permission to say anything about the job.
What will we see going forward with the media player? I know you mentioned OPS for the displays, but, how do you see this evolving over the next year?
Chris Feldman: Like I tried to mention earlier. So when I first started with NEC, if you looked at the kind of PCs that were being purchased, you’re looking at a very low type PC, moving up to a higher end type of tower PC with a video card, it was a standard bell curve, right? So the Core 2 Duo was the workhorse, the vast majority of screens that you saw out there were running something similar to an open Core 2 Duo, they were everywhere from airports to all other verticals, but as signage has continued to evolve, software design has gotten better, that standard bell curve is in verdict. So that middle of the road PC is not really seeing that much traction, the higher end PCs that are going to give you much more power and much more dynamic content because they’re getting so much smaller, like the new, i5 STM that we have coming out, that performance significantly better than the previous generation i7. So you’re getting all this power in this one device, that you can do. real-time 3d renders for wayfinding. So instead of just having a flat space looking map for your lobby, wayfinding, you could have an interactive 3d model that literally shows the walkthrough to go to where your location is at, those types of things.
And then on the lower end of things, you can get your information out, your menu board information out, your HD, PLEX shows or video content with audio, all that running on an SOC and the market is changing in the way where like the low end and the high end are becoming the dominant competing solutions.
So that’s what we’re gonna see. I think we’re going to see a lot more screens with built-in computing kind of leading the charge, but then I think also extension. So being able to get video at higher levels so are you talking 4k-8K, from a tower PC with a high-end video card, talking a lot of RAM, doing really dynamic stuff out to display as well so that’s where signage seems to be going.
David: All right. That was great. Thank you Chris, for spending some time with me.
Chris Feldman: Thank you very much.
Dave Haynes is the founder and editor of Sixteen:Nine, an online publication that has followed the digital signage industry for some 14 years. Dave does strategic advisory consulting work for many end-users and vendors, and also writes for many of them. He’s based near Halifax, Nova Scotia, on Canada’s east coast.