7/1/13

Inexpensive Digital Signage using PowerPoint 2010 – 2.5 years later

     I wanted to post a follow-up to my original post about inexpensive digital signage with PowerPoint. It was originally posted two and a half years ago. While much has changed in that time, the capabilities of this setup have not. I’ve actually expanded upon it and have added some equipment. I now have two zones, driven by two synced computers, on 11 television monitors spread across a 85,000 square foot facility. The only reason I have two computers in place is because there are plans to have different content in each zone ( set of monitors displaying the same content). Currently, I am only displaying the same content across all monitors. You can drive an enormous number of monitors off a single computer if you have the same content on all the screens (single zone) and the right equipment.  My goal with this article is to answer some frequently asked questions and discuss some of the equipment I've field tested during the last couple of years.

     The first point of interested is almost always the display monitors I chose. I have had excellent experience with the Sharp Aquos line of LCD and LED monitors. I prefer to go with the less expensive 120Hz LCD/LED non-smart, non-3D versions such as the 42 Inch, 60 Inch, 70 inch, and 80 inch versions. Secondly, I have had good experience with inexpensive mounts such as this one for large TV's. There are any number of mounts under $50 for 55 inch and smaller TV's. I have tried several and they all work well. I recommend getting the tilt mount as it gives you more ability to adjust if there is glare or are mounting it high.

    The follow-up question usually concerns driving different content on different monitors simultaneously. The most solid answer is as soon as you want two screens to display two different content sets you need a second media player (computer) or an additional layer of software such as Office One’s Powershow to handle the output. I must admit, I have never used the Powershow software in production. I did test it a bit and it worked well enough. My situation was always that my players were located far away from my monitors in a server room and I had had extra hardware laying around that I could use as media players.

     Next people often wonder how difficult it is to split the signal to multiple monitors without loss of quality. If you are using HDMI, it is extremely easy. You just need an HDMI splitter (not a switch) box. They come in inexpensive 4, 8, and 16 port models. They are also called signal distributors. Please make sure you do not buy a “switch” as they make you switch between inputs and do not distribute the signal across multiple monitors. Remember splitter is “one to many” and switch is “many to one”.

     Another popular inquiry concerns getting the signal to the monitors beyond splitting it. Most of my displays are more that fifty feet from my source. I use Category 5e Ethernet to HDMI convertors. They are usually good for about 100 to 200 feet of signal throw. It is important to verify how far the item will push signal because they are not all the same. I’ve had good luck with the AVUE branded HDMI extenders and they are rated for 400 feet. However, if you have to run HDMI, more than 400 feet, it can get expensive. This module is one solution I’ve seen for runs up to 3000 feet. However, another solution for shorter runs, is to use VGA, then up-convert it to HDMI. I’ve personally used this Startech VGA extender to for a run just short of 500 feet. I’ve also used these VGA up-convertors (VGA to HDMI Scalers), which takes a VGA signal and scales it to Full-HD, with success on several occasions. Lastly, if you are doing short runs of multiple audio/visual cables, you should check out RapidRun cables. They allow you to get multiple connections by using a single cable with specialized pigtails that screw in after the cable run.

     Refreshing the presentation is another point many people also ask about. We don’t have live or streaming data. Our presentation updates once a day automatically. Using a shared network drive, designated staff can update files that are linked to PowerPoint and contain daily and/or monthly metrics. These will update upon the daily refresh of the PowerPoint presentation. I use Task Scheduler in Windows 7 to Shutdown, copy important files, and restart the presentation. I've found that running the presentation from local files on the media player works better than running them off the network. Plus, running the show from the network locks up the files one might need to change for the next day. When PowerPoint comes across a locked linked file, it freezes.I avoid that as much as possible. I also have a specialized script that grabs images from news station websites to load daily weather info. The images are also linked in the slideshow so that they also update upon each refresh.

     My previous post references plugins I no longer use. Liveweb, LiveImage, and Update links all drove me crazy because they would lag the presentation at the beginning of the loop.

     Lastly, I also wanted to let you know about a company called MediaSignage. They have a cloud based content creator, host, and player. I've tested it with success and have noted it as a solution if our presentation requires expanding beyond PowerPoint's capabilities. You basically use their robust tool to design your content online, download a player on to your hardware, then point your player software to your created content on their server. This does also run off a local copy of your content. This keeps your network utilization down, your content smooth, and will keep running even if your network is down. They content creator has a decent learning curve. However, if you need a solution that will do more than PowerPoint, check them out.

Did the last post help you out, are you coming back to find out more, or is this your first time here? Leave a comment and let me know. I would also love to hear about your digital signage hacks too.


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