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Embedded Windows

Embedded Systems and Digital Signage: A Natural Fit

With the growing popularity of digital signage, signs are now evolving into intelligent, networked embedded systems that can take advantage of function-rich modular operating systems.

BY LARRY ALLEN, BSQUARE

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When it comes to digital signage, the present looks nothing like the past. Traditionally, these devices, in the form of billboards, kiosks and monitors, were simple electronic screens with pre-recorded information designed to encourage customers to buy their products. To create those digital signs, developers and system builders used standard operating systems, which did a good enough job to meet requirements.

Today, digital signs have evolved into interactive, multimedia devices that provide customers with information, coupons, directions and more. These devices are much more intelligent than the previous generation, enabling users to view documents and perform many other tasks that used to be confined to the desktop.

Digital signs, which include displays in shopping markets, airports, buses, escalators, roadways and other areas, are gaining popularity quickly. According to recent estimates from Intel Corp., the world will have 22 million digital signs by 2015.

There are many good reasons for this rapid growth. Digital signs can bring businesses closer to their customers more quickly and enable them to target sales at the retail point of purchase. They allow customers to interact through images, sound and other visuals, using capabilities like touch, gesture and mobile interactivity in media that are familiar to customers, such as text and video. And they can operate virtually anywhere—in elevators, roads and stores (Figure 1). All of this creates a cost-effective, flexible way to respond dynamically to unique customer demands and traits.

Figure 1
A relatively simple form of digital signage is that found in most airports where flight information can be constantly updated from a central database.

Another driver in the growth of digital signage is increased processor speed. Today’s multicore processors bring supercomputer-type power at a very low price, opening markets to other applications and wider use. Multicore processors expand the realm of the possible and provide more real-time capabilities—perfect for digital signage applications.

Witness these examples: A family driving on the highway sees a digital sign for a restaurant. The car’s GPS system communicates with the digital sign, providing the family with directions, a menu and the ability to place an order that will be ready when they arrive. A commuter sees a series of digital signs in his train car that change as the train moves, highlighting activities and venues that are coming up in the next few miles. A woman filling her gas tank can interact with the pump, using her handheld device to pay for the gas. A teenager uses a touchscreen to choose a beverage from a smart vending machine. The choice is transmitted through the vendor’s network to capture customer usage data, used to drive product management and brand development. As a woman pushes a “smart” shopping cart through a store, she receives targeted coupons and incentives on her smartphone based on her past buying behavior and shopping list.

Driving Digital Signage Success with Embedded

When it comes to digital signage, retailers and service providers have specific requirements and needs that can make development challenging—things like fast time-to-market, low cost and full interactivity. And they want it all in the form factor they require, with the features they want, in a way that allows customers to act and react to their messages in a timely fashion.

These requirements make the traditional method of development using standard operating systems slow, unwieldy and inefficient, not to mention cost-prohibitive. Instead, developers and system builders are turning to embedded systems for digital signage applications. Embedded product solutions from Microsoft and other vendors provide developers with a complete suite of tools that simplify and fine-tune the development process. The Windows Embedded product line also ties in seamlessly with servers and other peripherals. For example, Microsoft’s Windows 7, Windows Embedded Standard 7 and Windows Embedded POSReady 7 all have features built into them that make digital signage and kiosk development more intuitive.

By basing digital signage development on an embedded operating system, developers and system builders avoid having to start from ground zero. That’s because these embedded operating systems provide a complete suite of tools that allow the developer to focus more on what they want to show, and not how to provide the capability. Because these embedded system products have functionality built in—features that digital signage customers want like multi-language packs; all audio and video drivers for MP4, video technologies and 3D images; capabilities for various connectivity options like Bluetooth and RF; and much more, developers can simply choose the functions they need to embed into the device they are building.

The embedded system puts you in control of what information is displayed. Due to the high level of customization and control, end users are often completely unaware of the operating system the device is built on, they only interact with the custom application or interface designed by the developer. One example is error message suppression. Normally, error messages are displayed on a screen when something unusual occurs. But in applications like digital signs, which are visible to the customer, the system builder may choose to suppress those error messages.

Embedded Enabling Features

Embedded technology also allows developers and system builders to give customers what they demand—intuitive graphical user interfaces, a smaller number of buttons (only what’s required to operate the application and nothing more), multi-touch screens, instant-on connectivity, simplicity of use and solid security. Embedded technology enables visual interactions that are intuitive for customers and far superior to older, more labor-intensive methods like data entry.  For example, the newest style of check-in kiosks incorporate complex actions behind the scenes, but the experience delivered to the customer is a very simple, direct navigation with limited choices. The easy-to-use format encourages users to interact with the systems more frequently (Figure 2).

Figure 2
Digital signage such as that used in kiosks is becoming increasingly interactive with the passing user and as a result carries increasing amounts of information.

Developers and system builders can take advantage of a full set of embedded enabling features that bolster security through the use of encryption for data protection, as well as advanced features for power management. The Hibernate Once Resume Many (HORM) function saves an initial snapshot of the operating system. When restarted, the operating system resumes at the same snapshot every time. For example, a kiosk would start at the “Check in here” screen every time, even if the previous customer had not completed the entire check-in process. This ensures a consistent starting point and user experience, as well as a quicker boot.

A partner technology to HORM is the enhanced write filter, which ensures that the system integrity is maintained through any level of processing, preventing any contamination of the operating system. This is crucial, because for a kiosk, you must maintain a pristine image, but still allow interaction. Through the use of the enhanced write filter, no interactions are stored on the device. The device may transfer or pull data from a server or peripheral, but still no data is saved on the kiosk. This ensures that a system boots up in its native state every time, erasing any changes that were made during its last use.

Faster Time-to-Market and Reduced Development Costs

Using embedded technology as a development base for digital signage can reduce costs, both for the developer and for the customer. For system builders and developers, using embedded technology means using only the components required. For example, it’s possible to create a digital sign using a standard Windows 7 image, but the image would cost roughly twice as much as the embedded image would cost. What’s more, a standard image takes more memory and hard drive capacity to run, and has components that can drag down system performance. A web browser, for example, probably isn’t necessary, and neither is a calculator or many other peripheral features. And because there are fewer components involved, maintenance and support costs tend to be lower. Customers benefit by paying less than they would have for a comparable solution built on a non-embedded platform. The result is the ability to deliver content with functionality that decreases total cost of ownership.

With an embedded approach, developers and system builders can significantly reduce development time on many fronts—hardware, software, system integration and quality assurance and testing. There’s a broad knowledge base in the embedded development community as well as a wealth of third-party resources and products that in turn reduce time-to-market for developers and ultimately, their customers. That’s critical for developers in satisfying their customers, and important to customers for competitive and cost reasons.

By using embedded systems to develop digital signage applications, the possibilities are almost limitless: interactive systems in hotel rooms that allow patrons to play games, buy items and order from a delivery menu; digital displays that allow customers to scan their smartphones to get more information about a product; coffee shops that offer coupons via smartphone to customers passing on the street; a traffic billboard that senses volume from an external source and in turn updates the drive times.

The potential for the embedded marketplace in general is growing quickly as well. In addition to digital signage, there is great potential in markets such as medical, entertainment, security, energy management, retail, banking, hospitality and manufacturing. According to IDC, the market for embedded systems will double in size over the next several years, becoming a $2 trillion market by 2015.  

The growth of the embedded marketplace, combined with a staggering rise in digital signage, provides a real opportunity for developers who know how to leverage the technology. With the right tools, the right focus and opportunity, developers can create the next-generation intelligent, connected devices for the digital signage market.  

Bsquare
Bellevue, WA.
(425) 519-5999.
[www.bsquare.com]