Simplifying digital signage systems with multicore processors

November 12, 2014 OpenSystems Media

Digital menu boards are at the heart of a fast food restaurant. Without the right content, right price, and associated images, the customer would have no idea what is available, how much to pay, or, more importantly, what the food looks like. This is especially important because customers can be highly influenced through visually appealing images. What’s driving these boards? Increasingly, multicore APUs and SoCs provide the compute resources needed for multiple, high-resolution displays.

If you’ve recently ventured into a newly built or modernized fast food restaurant, chances are the menu boards inside and at the drive-through have gone digital. The benefits of going digital are many, not least of which is the ability to create specials in real-time such as promoting cold drinks on a hot summer day, or selling off excess inventory of a specific item. They also allow extensive business efficiency with the ability to connect with point-of-sale (POS) systems for on-demand promotions, and significantly improve the customer experience through a visually pleasing, eye-catching menu board. Think of a fizzy soft drink with water droplets running down its side, or a rotating box of steaming French fries – are you hungry yet? In addition, the content on these menu boards can be scheduled automatically to provide a menu specific to breakfast, lunch, or dinner.

In a freestanding quick service restaurant (QSR) one will typically find four to six menu boards above the counter space. However, not all restaurants within a chain have the same menu board display space, location, and configuration. A similar restaurant in a space-constrained location – a mall food court, airport, or shopping arcade – might only have room for two or three menu boards overhead, but could have a sidewall that’s suitable for additional display panels to provide more information. The kitchen areas in these restaurants are typically very warm, greasy, and potentially dusty, which can damage electronics by fan clogging and overheating. The media players that run the multi-display digital menu boards are business critical and cannot fail, because it’s difficult for customers to order if the menu boards lose power or are accidentally unplugged. These systems must be flexible to account for the physical constraints imposed on them such as space, menu board size and layout, as well as the challenging environment they operate in. To simplify the design for these digital menu boards, it’s important to leverage both hardware and software that enable scalable and flexible support for multi-display solutions, while reducing the complexity of programming.

In a scenario where the restaurant has four to six digital menu boards overhead, the relatively easy option is to connect each menu board to a dedicated media player which is then linked to a server in the back office or the cloud, depending on the size of the deployment, the management and service options and the number of restaurants. A solution such as this can be costly, especially if duplicated on multiple sites. Therefore, a more cost-efficient option is to use a media player that offers multiple independent display outputs with three or four outputs, resulting in just one or two media players being used. The cost savings are realized on several fronts: half the number of media players being used which results in a significant reduction in license fees for the operating system and specific software content applications, as these are typically charged per media player unit, and drastically lower maintenance costs due to fewer media players to service. In addition, installation of fewer media players in turn reduces deployment cost and time. In any installation, small or large (multi-site), the savings are significant. An example of a cost-efficient, fanless solution that meets the high performance and multi-display requirements, is the Actineon S8QLP. This streamlined, well-designed media player is low profile, fanless and supports up to four displays (Figure 1).


Figure 1: The Actineon S8QLP, a four output media player for digital menu boards.
(Click graphic to zoom)

For space-constrained locations where only two menu boards are possible, a cost efficient, fanless two output media player is the most appropriate solution. An example of this could be the sidewall of a restaurant at a mall food court or strip mall. The media player can be positioned behind the menu boards or within close proximity. One example of a robust, fanless two display media player is the iBASE SI-22 that measures 7.5″(W) x 5.1″(D) x 0.77″(H), a relatively small size player and well suited for such deployments (Figure 2).


Figure 2: The iBASE SI-22, a two output media player for digital menu boards.
(Click graphic to zoom)

Maximizing the efficient use of space and ensuring an aesthetically pleasing visual enables a good customer experience. The menu boards’ placement in the overhead case is almost always in a “#x1″ landscape mode (4×1, 5×1, or 6×1). In the case where space is limited and a sidewall is used, the display or menu board orientation can be either landscape or portrait (1×2 landscape, 2×1 portrait), which can potentially be used for running daily promotions, events, and more. Installations where several multi-display configurations are required in the same location can increase the complexity of deployment. For an impactful visual, the single media player should allow flexible positioning of the content across multiple screens and must have the ability to group screens as one surface to the signage player software. However, most signage software suites cannot adequately address multiple independent displays from one hardware system. AMD’s Eyefinity technology provides a key functionality that simplifies the software implementation and development of the on-screen content. Having the right software and independent software vendor (ISV) that can manage the various layouts and orientations for small or large deployments is essential (Figure 3).


Figure 3: Example orientations of digital menu boards.
(Click graphic to zoom)

Another key aspect is the security of operation. Even the most reliable systems can fail from unforeseen circumstances. In the scenarios outlined – high performance, four to six displays and low power, and two displays – ensuring the systems are operational 24/7 in many cases, is critical. For this reason, system installers should plan to build in redundancy to avoid downtime or loss of visuals due to a system failing. A single media player as backup that supports four menu boards is still more cost efficient than having four individual media players supporting four menu boards. The backup media player should be installed such that it links to the primary player and can be set to take over in case of failures. The software must be aware of the secondary system and have the ability to flawlessly switch to this system in the event of the primary failing. Restaurants cannot afford blank displays, especially during peak hours.

Flexibility of layout design and ensuring one can scale the solution for multi-store installations can significantly reduce cost and time of deployment. Customers do not have to use the same high-cost solution for every installation as space, location, and the environment can vary. Consider the options available for a low-cost, low-power fanless solution such as the multicore AMD Embedded G-Series SoC-based media players for two output systems and the multicore AMD Embedded R-Series SoC-based media players for four output high-performance requirements. For multi-display configurations requiring various orientations and/or the ability to show multiple screens as one large single surface, consider a solution with AMD Eyefinity technology that offers the flexibility of display layout design and reduces software complexity.

Fast food restaurants are rapidly moving to digital menu boards and customers are embracing the need to replace boards powered by older, clunky personal computers (PCs). The hardware, software, and display panels in today’s digital menu board solutions are more cost efficient and customized, providing form, fit, and function to suit the desired space. Next time you walk into a fast food restaurant, look beyond the menu and I bet you’ll see that it’s gone digital.

Ajay Misra is a senior manager of product marketing in AMD‘s Embedded Solutions Division focused on the digital signage market segment.

Ajay Misra, AMD Embedded Solutions
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