Those Special Codec Moments…

The following is not gibberish: A portmanteau is a blend of two or more morphemes. The word codec is a portmanteau of “compressor- decompressor” or, more commonly, “coder-decoder”.   Wikipedia explains: A codec encodes a data stream or signal for transmission, storage or encryption, or decodes it for playback or editing.

If you have been involved in dynamic sign content, you know those moments when the screen gives you a blank stare, and you fear that your beautiful video has fatal flaws? Well, isn’t it almost always the case that this is simply due to a missing “codec?” Then you go on the hunt to fix this embarrassing situation before the client sees the project. It’s pretty funny to hear audio and see nothing on the screen, and run to check the cables. Admit it, we all do that. A good hunch, but not relevant.

Codec for VideoLet’s talk about codecs, because making the move from digital print to dynamic signage requires that you know how to avoid those precious codec moments.  Although it has many other definitions, the term “codec” has become synonymous with digital video playback and encoding.

If you are in the business of graphics, digital print, advertising, or the sign industry, you are very familiar with lossy file formats, such as jpgs. The compression achieves a manageable file size, but there is data loss in the process. Images can look pretty pixelated after some edits and “saves.”  Well, the same holds true for codecs.Some popular codecs are “lossy” – losing some quality to achieve compression –  and some are “lossless — typically used for archiving data in a compressed form and keeping every byte of information present in the original stream.

What does this mean to you? Well, if you are rendering content for high-quality display (the good stuff all of your clients want), then like our media engineers at LobbyPOP, you want to use a lossless codec. All of those edits, text changes, music tweaks, video insertions, and saves, saves, saves, will create a pretty unpretty mess if you use a lossy codec in the process.

Of course, your final files will have to be decoded with the proper codec. We are familiar with one big name, popular content management system that doesn’t have the codec to decode MP4 files! The notion of AVI being a codec is incorrect as AVI is a container type, which many codecs might use (although not to ISO standard). There are also other well-known containers such as QuickTime, RealMedia, Matroska, DivX Media Format and containers defined as ISO standards, such as MPEG transport stream, MPEG program stream, MP4 and ISO base media file format.

Determining Codecs (thanks to Cisco for this information below)

Many tools are available to analyze a video file to determine what codec was used during encoding. One is AVIcodec, which you can download from http://avicodec.duby.info. The program recognizes most video file formats and delivers additional details in an easily viewable interface. Figure 3 shows a sample of the download output.

Figure 3. AVIcodecAnother program that is simpler is GSpot, which you can download from http://www.free-codecs.com/download/GSpot.htm. Figure 4 shows the output of the same file when viewed with GSpot.

Figure 4. GSpot 

Well, this blog was a bit more technical, but remember, we gave you risqué news in the last post!

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We’ve Come a Long Way, Baby, From Sneaker Net!

It seems like just yesterday we were discovering the world of dynamic signage, and loading up our content by manual transmission, ie, flash drives and DVDs, aka, using the “sneakernet.”

Sneaker Net

With a DVD or VHS network you have what is called a “SneakerNet” – can be prone to human errors. Just look back to 2009, when a “sneaker net” system was used in a WalMart department not served by WalMart TV. The porn videos that played in that Arkansas WalMart certainly received a lot of media coverage (pun intended). In case you  don’t recall the millions of tweets, two employees swapped out DVDs in a device controlling 6 TVs in the furniture department. They got caught and the term SneakerNet took on a whole new meaning…

Here’s the point: Because the system is not connected, you have no guarantee the promotion you intended is being played. Making the content in the first place is costly (burning DVDs) and you can really only afford to do this once per month. If you run weekly specials, it’s impossible to advertise those on your screens because you’re running the same loop every week for a month. With a networked system, you’ll be able to change this on the fly easily and have completely synchronized media campaigns, both in-store and in-home. So, you understand how far we’ve come, yes? But, if you are comfortable for a little while longer in sneakers, you can simplify your own process, so read on!

Turtle Content DeliveryA large number of signage deployments today are still actually done by sending around VHS tapes and DVDs by turtle mail. Sometimes this is because when talking with the IT department, someone always says “no”. So the digital sign professionals and the ad agencies serving the client think, “No problem, we’ll just use DVDs!”

If you are starting out, and the sneakernet delivery system is the simple model you or your customer wants to deploy, there are a few tips that will make the picture quality, and your costs, better all around. But remember, that’s not the way to become a well-heeled digital sign pro. Just picture ad agencies, who have high expectations of the direct-out-of-home industry to deliver campaigns as contracted. They are becoming increasingly vigilant in ensuring that they are getting value. They will want proof that the campaigns are running.

Okay, here are your important rules for sneakernet:  First of all, never, ever use a consumer model DVD or BluRay player!  These are rated for about 2000 hours maximum, and certainly not for continuous play! Invest in a commercial player – which is often what your kiosks will feature at one price point – and you won’t be replacing the unit every few months.

Next, consider the video quality. If you are driving a plasma screen with a DVD player over composite video, the picture is going to look pretty ordinary. Now, swap that composite video cable for an HDMI cable, to your commercial screen, and with your commercial DVD player, your image is “up-rezed” and voila! Vastly improved picture quality, not to mention audio is always synchronized!

Now, how about the cost to burn and ship? Here’s a baby step from sneakers to something a bit less informal. Connect with your client’s (or your) IT department and gain access to an FTP site. Upload the files (yes, this takes a little time, but so does uploading and distributing through connected digital sign systems!). Make sure there’s a  DVD or BluRay burner at the other end, and let the IT guy or gal burn the contents to it. Now, load and play! You’ve saved time and cost burning these DVDs for these smaller digital sign projects. You’ve also saved days in transit!

Another step: Some “stand alone” digital sign systems will simply play whatever is on a gig-stick and loaded to its media player. This eliminates the BluRay or DVD player. And then there’s always Apple-TV, but that is another blog for another day.

It is apparent, if you give this some thought, that a simple media player, internet-connected system will ultimately save time and energy, and sneakernets, while still an option, will give way to the need for more frequent updates, reports of play, ROO and ROI calculations, and the chance to finally through away those old tennis shoes.

Just letting you down easy…