Cheap digital signage solutions

Xibo Signage

Digital signage, and by that I mean the TV screens on walls that show advertising, can be found everywhere nowadays, in bars, shops, cafes, airports, students’ unions, universities… I could go on.

There are many arguments as to the effectiveness of digital signage, and without getting into that argument I would suggest that they’re only as good as the content on them and their location, and should form part of a comprehensive and well though campaign.

Either way, if you want a cheap way of running your own, or are looking to alternatives to your current solution then read on.

A disclaimer

Apologies if this seems like a bit of a ‘techie’ post but it’s not really and no specialist knowledge is required although it helps if you know your way around a PC.

Also apologies for my variations on what I call digital signage. I will refer to it as signage, TVs, plasma screen, screen, displays, and many other names I’m sure but they are all the same thing !

Choosing your own digital signage

There are several ways that I’ve seen TV screens used to display advertising and various communications

  1. Laptop – yes, a simple laptop running Powerpoint connected to a single TV. This is fine for a one-off, but definitely not the way to do it.
  2. Media Player – For single displays these are a good solution and a step-up on a laptop. For £20 you can buy a small media player and stick a USB in in containing your graphics. The downside of this is that you have to manually update the USB stick with updated images.
  3. Networked – This system connects your displays to a server and a CMS where you can update and schedule content remotely and is definitely the best option.

I’ve used all of those at various times in my career. We previously had a company supply a networked solution for us but after they pulled out of the sector we were left with just the TVs on the walls not doing anything and for an interim period we used media players to allow us to at least display some content. I can’t tell you how annoying it was constantly having the update the content or for the USB sticks to go ‘missing’ so I went on the hunt for a networked solution.

A budget solution

Whilst there are plenty of companies out there who will install and operate your digital signage solution, it will come at a cost. For me I had a building with plenty of screens but without a sustainable way of getting signage on them, and a limited budget.

On the recommendation of a colleague at Kent Union (thanks Joff) I was pointed towards Xibo.

Xibo is a complete digital signage solution comprised of a web based content management system (CMS) and choice of Windows or Android signage players.

Xibo is open source and community driven and for me that usually means free with a lot of enthusiastic development behind it. Obviously the main selling point is the word ‘free’. There will be some costs such as hardware but this will belong to you.

How does it work.

Each screen is connected to it’s own networked PC which runs the Xibo display software. These PCs are then connected to the online Xibo CMS which can be remotely accessed so you can update your screens from any browser.

How does Xibo work?

The Xibo CMS allows you to control multiple ‘displays’ and for each display you can have unique layouts showing graphics, videos, website, twitter feeds, weather reports, and a whole lot more. If you’re creative you could make a layout which has a news ticker on the bottom of the screen, plus local weather on one side and your advert on the other, so it’s not just scrolling images.

These can all be scheduled on the CMS so content is not fixed and it’s great to use for time specific content such as events promo or advertising so that you know when content will go up and when it will come down.

It’s also worth noting that as your screens are networked you can mass control screens in multiple locations, venues, or campuses, all from a single account.

Having set this all up I thought it could be helpful to others to have a guide on how I did this.

Sign-up for Xibo

Xibo offers a downloadable CMS which you can install on your own server, but I opted for the Xibo in the Cloud based version which only costs £1.20 per month per display. For such a low cost I thought it was well worth it. This was very easy to sign-up to and you can get a free 2 week full trial so you can play around without committing.

Once signed up you will get a key (not a real one I add) that will allow the CMS to communicate with the PCs running your screens.

Choosing a PC for your screen

Acer VeritonI got around needing multiple PCs (and multiples of £1.20) by connecting all the TVs to an HDMI splitter so that I only needed a single networked PC which was connected to them all. This further reduces costs with the only downside being that all the screens will show the same content as each other, but that’s not a real issue.

For just £45 I bought a secondhand Acer Veriton N260G micro PC on eBay. The benefits of this are that it’s cheap, small, uses minimal power, is quiet, had an HDMI connection and also has built in wireless.

I went for this model as it runs Windows 7 which is very stable, it’s super cheap, and has enough processing power to run graphics and small videos. If you want to show streaming video on your screen (such as embedding the Sky News live stream from YouTube) then you will need a much better PC and could be looking at £400, and that’s a cost I wanted to avoid.

Setting up the PC

Xibo has easy to install display software that you will need to install on your PC but before you do that there’s a few things I would suggest you do.

1. Update the PC

An obvious one but if you get your PC from eBay like I did then it’s probably not going to be up to date. If there is a manufacturer reset option (like my Acer did) then it may be wise to do that and get a completely clean windows install too. Obviously follow your standard precautions of installing anti-virus etc.

2. Disable balloon pop-ups

Cat with a balloonTo disable balloon tips in the notification area, follow these steps:

  1. Click Start, click Run, type regedit, and then press ENTER.
  2. Locate the following subkey:
    HKEY_CURRENT_USER\Software\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\Explorer\Advanced
  3. Right-click the right side pane, create a new DWORD value, and then name it EnableBalloonTips.
  4. Double-click EnableBalloonTips, and then give it a value of 0.
  5. Close Registry Editor.
  6. Log off Windows, and then log back on.
3. Schedule Windows 7 to restart everyday

This will keep your system running smoothly and ensure the software isn’t running 24/7 and I set it do this at 3am everyday.

  1. Launch Task Scheduler.
  2. Click Action and select Create Basic task.
  3. Type AutoRestart (or others you want) in the Name box and click Next.
  4. Select Daily and click Next
  5. Type the time you want to restart the computer and click Next.
  6. Select Start a program and click Next.
  7. Click Brower and navigate to %SystemRoot%\System32 and select Shutdown.exeand click Open. Type –F –R in the Add arguments (optional) box and click Next.
  8. Click Finish.
4. Install the Xibo signage player

This is very simple so just follow the prompts. It’s ask you for the key that was provided when you signed up for the Cloud CMS and then once running it will auto start whenever Windows starts and will automatically go full screen. At this point your PC monitor will be acting like your big screen TV will.

The automatic full screen is the reason for installing the player last as it will take over your screen. You can shut it down via task manager but it’s a determined program and will soon restart itself. This is actually a very good thing but frustrating if you haven’t made all the changes I’ve mentioned above.

5. Set up Xibo Cloud CMS

You just need to go into the Xibo CMS from your browser and follow the documentation to setup your ‘layouts’, add users etc. It’s worth doing straight after you’ve set your micro PC up and whilst it’s displaying on a PC monitor so that you’re not showing all your testing to the world on the big screens.

6. Connect the PC to your TV

Once you’re sure it’s all working fine and that you have a wireless or wired connection at your screen then you can move and secure the PC behind the screen or above in a suspended ceiling. You will need a spare power socket but as you’re putting it near your TV your bound to have a spare socket. If you’re using wireless then great…. if not then you will need a network port and ensure that’s configured to work with your system.

That’s it!

If you’ve done all that then you ‘should’ have a fully working system!

Well done!

It would be great to know if this has helped you out and if you’ve started using Xibo so tell me in the comments below and please share. Please don’t be afraid to ask any questions either below on via @adem on Twitter.

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