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!

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…

Kiosk, You Ask?

We thank the Kiosk company for assisting with information on the subject of kiosks – a great product for many applications. KIOSK has many years of experience in working with customers to deploy small to medium to very large kiosk projects. They have found six factors to consider when choosing and deploying kiosks for your intended purpose. By no means is this list inclusive of everything -This is a summary of those six considerations:

1)  The Hardware Solution –

You want a kiosk that is build to ADA guidelines and UL specs. And you should choose a form and design that fits your environment, brand and size requirements. In addition, the enclosure and structure should be inviting. There is no reason in today’s market that you should sacrifice esthetics or durability. Every option imaginable is available!

2)  The Application –

Think about your experience when you check in at the airport. Your kiosk operation should be that simple! 2-3 buttons, a clear touchscreen, and simple graphic elements. Who will develop the content and application? You may be able to do that in-house, but there are several companies that do nothing but help companies develop applications, tie in with existing systems/databases and help remotely manage the kiosk.

3) Remote Monitoring/Reporting –

Without remote monitoring/reporting – how will you know what people are doing on the kiosk? Will you know if one of your 2500 screens is down? What about the screen saver- can it be updated to play store specials as they become available?

4) Service –

Think about the warranty, and who actually owns the hardware. If a service call is needed, do you need to outsource on-site maintenance where an outside tech will service the kiosk? You may want to keep spare parts on hand for common replacements.

5) The Kiosk Project –

What is the intended purpose of your kiosks? Decide on 2 or 3 priorities at least initially – you can always add on later. What does a good pilot program look like?  Number of stores? What types of stores?  What’s the budget for the pilot?  The MOST important part of the pilot is determining you success criteria.  What is the budget and who will own the kiosks? It may make sense to lease the hardware.

6) Employee Involvement –

Employees can sometimes feel intimidated or threatened by the kiosk. We’ve seen examples where a kiosk is placed in an existing environment without much employee involvement and the program will fail. 

So, in summary, a kiosk is a great tool and resource, useful for in-store surveys, product descriptions and applications, and guidance for customers. The most important moments in the life of the kiosk campaign are those before it is installed. When you think kiosk, think ASK – the questions above will help guide you to the right answers for you.

All In One, vs. Delivery Systems – Where They Fit

We classify digital content delivery systems into four types:

  1. All In One Systems: a media player is connected to a screen, and content is updated via USB or flash drive or other method. The software is local, in other words, not web-based, and the playlist formatting and management software is loaded onto the media player. This type of system is appropriate where content does not need to be changed often; where internet or wired connectivity poses a challenge; or where budgets are limited.
  2. Wireless or Wired Content Delivery Network:  This type of system employs a “controlling” computer where a more advanced IT professional can arrange place-paced content schedules, and then deploy across the internet or within a local network to update players and screens. Advanced systems allow content to be pushed to screens automatically, report back on screen problems, and allow for unlimited variations of content: by geography, time of day, store zone. The cost of these systems can be higher, but the ease of use is often better than option 3.
  3. Cloud-based Content Systems: Here, a content management system is cloud-based, meaning web-based, on a remote server. The cost can fall between options 1 and 3, with greater scheduling options and deployment ease than option #1. Here, however, you must rely upon the software, server and configuration of the management tools to set up your files, crop, time and place them. In most cases, the time to upload quality HD files and then view them on the cloud-based application makes this a cumbersome model. On the plus side, you can give access to multiple users – if you trust them – to create content for particular events or regions.

LobbyPOP has preferred products for all three types of content management scenarios. We can advise you and end-users in the best application for current and future needs. Next post will talk about this consultative process!

Tell Your Story – Part 5

This is a series all about marketing through good digital signage design. The first in this series related the importance of “story” or narrative. The second offered a perfect advertising message that wins sales. The third post covered the “song and dance” To Do list for your content. And the last two posts cover what not to do – Part 4 was What to Avoid in your content messaging. This post is What to Avoid in your content formats.

First, avoid using simply static images in a sequence, trying to mimic video. The technology is already far advanced beyond a PowerPoint show or series of jpg images. You don’t have to spend a lot to get high quality video content with educational impact. LobbyPOP Pros can offer a wide range of affordable video sequences.

Second, avoid Flash! This is not a platform-agnostic file type. If you are displaying on a commercial screen and later want to deploy through web and smart phones, you will find some serious roadblocks. You also limit the number of partners who can assist you in customizing and changing the content. In addition, flash images lack the emotional depth of video, and are easy to spot when comparing campaigns. Today’s technology has allowed marketers unprecedented flexibility, targetability and accountability in reaching and impacting their audiences. Digital networks are a perfect storm of advanced technology platforms.

Third, Don’t skip the music! Studies prove that consumers are more sensitive to and appreciative of a dynamic message that is delivered with an appropriate music bed.

Fourth, invest in knowledge of your target audience demographics. Unless you know what buying motivators exist for potential clients, and what colors, style, and “right brain vs. left brain” approach works for that industry, your message can backfire.

LobbyPOP Pros offer LobbyPOP content which encompasses the “hot buttons”  and critical messaging desired by nearly every industry, all developed through a research study commissioned by Sign Biz Inc. that cost over $100,000. LobbyPOP content is the only digital signage media in North America to be built on this exclusive research.

Next Post: Story of a CPA and a Digital Sign   

Sign Companies as Branding Machines

Branding machines, such as ad agencies, media companies, marketing firms, sign companies, and brand managers, must be great at keeping up with the trends, spotting trends, utilizing the latest technologies and knowledge, to help build those consumer brands….  So we,visual communicators, must brand ourselves as “In the Know” for the coming decade… as part of the “Brand Building Ecosystem.”

The Jargon:

Above the Line advertising for inclusion in any media.
Below the Line packaging, promotions, sponsorship, point of sale signage, mail order, etc.

Current reality: From the Big Three lighting companies and their research to produce new light sources that find their way to shopping malls, parks and building structures where large screen video has become an identity beacon in creating digital public space, to the shift in advertising spend from “above the line” traditional media, to “below the line” retail environments, these are now trends firmly in place, recognized by more industries than ever before.

Even the boutique publication, Southern California Business Chronicle, says, “Don’t spend another marketing dime” until you know the changing face of advertising.

During the past decade, according to an article in this month’s Signs of the Times magazine, the sign industry has adopted three EDS technologies:

  1. LEDs illuminate outdoor video screens and electronic message centers
  2. LCD and
  3. Plasma Screens advertise indoor, retail messages.

Wade Swormstedt of Signs of the Times, after last year’s trend discussion at a Sign Biz convention, wrote that our industry needs to get on board and understand Content. This is a term for the coming decade- -what can we deliver to our clients- -with a focus on the “less than 80” location client.

More next post about our industry’s role and the market for dynamic digital signage…

What is Retail Marketing? Part 2

Retail Marketing is, at its most fundamental, the push of sensory stimuli in the retail environment to engage a decision to buy. The sensory stimuli are events that reach through noise and clutter to engage the consumer. Knowing this, is it any surprise that sign design professionals have become far more expert in this craft than even brand marketers themselves? Reach Part 1 of this series to understand the reasons why.

Part 2 describes the reasons why Retail Marketing has overarching importance in an advertising mix.  

First,  at issue is not just the power of the retailer; it’s also the dynamic of the consumer. We now have two-wage earners in the family, creating a fundamental lack of time and therefore a focus on convenience and simplicity. We also have an increasingly educated consumer who is constantly challenging the notion of the price-value relationship. And finally, the options to “tune out” traditional (above-the-line) advertising are robust. Here are some examples of this technology impact:

  • Personal video recorders and commercial-free satellite radio
  • Print readership is at an all-time low
  • Commercial-free television is common with new recording tools
  • The average consumer is bombarded with 3000+ ads per day

Is it any wonder that the last three feet of marketing is hot retail marketing real estate? The brand marketer must completely re-think and re-engineer the brand plan development process, which historically has treated the retail trade as second-class citizens. Retail marketing environments must now carry the message formerly residing in traditional media. It must create better ad recall, and use the science of signs to engage.

More to come! In our next post, we reposition the sign professional and place them in the mix where they rightfully belong – as Retail Marketers extraordinaire!