The Nitty-Gritty of Airport Digital Signage

This LG 4K Ultra HD digital signage display at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas greets nearly 32,000 passengers daily.

Every day, Las Vegas’ McCarran International Airport deals with more than 114,000 passengers on their way in and out of Sin City. To cope with this ever-growing traffic, McCarran opened a new third terminal (known as T3) in June 2012.

To ensure that passengers get to the right gates, plus fit in lucrative video ads targeted at these travellers, the airport has deployed more than 900 NEC large-screen displays. These are industrial-grade monitors designed to run 24/7, year-in and year-out. The monitors are driven by Four Winds Interactive’s management software. They play a mix of flight information, weather forecasts, and commercials promoting Las Vegas’ gaming attractions.

“Dynamic signage is instrumental in letting passengers know where they need to be and at what time,” said David Bourgon, manager of airport IT services at McCarran Airport, in an NEC case study. It is also a great way to deliver paid advertising to this captive audience; making money for the airport in the process.

THE PRODUCTION CHAIN

McCarran International Airport is just one of many such facilities around the world using digital signage, and many more are making the transition from fixed signage, computer-fed Arrival/Departure monitors, and static billboards. It’s easy to understand why: Digital signage combines all of these functions into a networked, computer-based visual information system that can be updated as needed; either locally or over the Web.

A typical production/distribution chain for airport digital signage installations begins with an ingest point ― either on- or off-site ― for aggregating real-time flight information, weather reports, integrated TV feeds, multimedia advertising, and whatever other content the airport authority may want displayed, on a server farm (local or cloud-based). The content is then served by the servers to the monitor locations over a wired network; wireless being comparatively less reliable and secure.

Arrival/Departure screens are critical in an airport. (Photo by NEC)

Depending on the airport’s size and layout, the monitors can be assembled on the network as individual addressable units connected to their own computers; as monitor groups connected to their own group computers, or a combination of both. The computers are required to handle the onsite recording and playout of content dedicated to each monitor/monitor group location.

CRITICAL ELEMENTS

The robustness and resiliency of an airport digital signage network is only as good as the equipment it uses. This is why McCarran International uses NEC industrial-grade monitors. However, monitors make up only one part of a digital signage network. Another critical element is the playout tech that provides these displays with content.

A case in point: Conventional computers require fan-based air cooling, can be noisy, and are not designed to work 24/7 in airport terminals where crowds leave dust and hair in the environment.

This is where BrightSign’s solid-state video players come into the picture. These are small, hardened fan-less units that nevertheless provide PC functionality to digital signage monitors. BrightSign’s player units are mounted right beside the monitors, with an Ethernet input for connection to the airport LAN, and an HDMI cable to feed the display.

“The players can be updated over the network, via the cloud, or by physically inserting an SD card into the unit,” said Jeff Hastings, BrightSign’s CEO. “Because digital signage monitors are often mounted in hard-to-reach places, our players are designed to be extremely reliable. Thanks to being solid state, our players have no moving parts. This is why we can dispense with fans, because they don’t generate much heat. It helps that – unlike a PC – our CPUs only perform functions necessary to video playout.”

Digital signage is extensive in ticketing areas. (Photo by NEC)

BrightSign’s players can control some very unique applications. For example, at Paris’ Charles De Gaulle Airport, its controllers manage two bands of vertical monitors wrapped around a support column in the BUY PARIS DUTY FREE shop. Visitors walking buy literally see day and night-time images of Paris seemingly wrapping themselves around the column, with each monitor displaying a portion of the overall image.

Controlling hundreds of digital signage computers/monitors requires devices known as ‘KVM switches’. Short for ‘Keyboard, Video, Mouse’, KVM switches allow a single user to control multiple computers remotely, accessing the function normally controlled by local keyboards, computer input/output (I/O) ports, and computer mice. Again, robustness is key: Airport digital signage KVMs have to be able to handle ongoing 24/7 operations for years, if not decades, at a stretch.

Adder Technology makes KVM switches and digital signage extender products. “Digital signage extension is our real forte,” said Tim Conway, vice president of Adder Technology. “Our extenders make it possible to deliver bright, accurate digital video with full color saturation up to 300 meters away from the origination site, and the same quality levels for digital audio as well.”

SmartAVI also makes KVM switches, plus a complete range of digital signage software and hardware; the latter group including a number of digital signage players for both small and large installations. This company has developed a number of digital signage products for the airport market, such as in the baggage claim area.

“There, you’ll find nearly every traveler and they are waiting for their bags with nothing to do,” said Albert Cohen, owner of SmartAVI. “Effective digital signage can inform them and sell on rental cars, hotels and more. Another extremely helpful place for digital signage in an airport is in the security line. With a digital display, airports can interact with travelers to show them what the rules are and how the screening process will work. This is important for maintaining a more efficient and effective security line.”

Other SmartAVI airport digital signage products include the SignWall Pro 4x4 video wall/digital signage platform and the high capacity FXCore MX-88 (an 8x8 fiber optic KVM system). The FXCore MX-88 provides highly-secure communications between a video matrix and end display devices, at network distances up to 15 miles.

BUYING CONSIDERATIONS

Most government video producers will likely not find themselves working for airports. However, many producers will probably find themselves looking into some form of digital signage solution for their government clients, simply because this information system is so versatile for informing the public and staff members.

So what should government video professionals consider when lining up digital signage bids? Reliability is paramount, replied BrightSign’s Jeff Hastings. “You have to select equipment that can stand up to unattended, around-the-clock usage, minimizing the hours and resources need to maintain it.”

“The cardinal sin of digital signage is seeing a black screen,” said Adder’s Tim Conway. “Avoiding this is not just an issue of reliability; it is also one that pertains to Quality-of-Service. This is why our equipment includes monitoring software. It alerts the operator whenever a specific monitor fails.”

“It is important that airport digital signage is networkable; connectivity is crucial in this setting,” said SmartAVI’s Albert Cohen. “Security is important, so airport officials can keep out anyone who might want to hack into the communications of the airport. Easy maintenance is also something to think about. Keeping a digital signage controller in a centralized location makes a big difference in any maintenance needs that may arise.”

Clearly, there are a number of issues to consider when purchasing a digital signage system; whether for an airport or any other installation. For instance, scalability is a must: A digital signage system needs to be able to increase its monitor count easily, and to add new locations as required.

Some form of remote control is also important, because it may be necessary for such networks’ content to be updated from an off-site location during an emergency. In a 9-11 worst-case situation, for instance, being able to inform passengers of flight shutdowns at a moment’s notice would be a powerful public management tool.

Of these many concerns, the most daunting challenge is security, Cohen said.

“Airports need to keep their digital signage controller in a secure place and use ultra-secure fiber optic cable to route the signals long distances,” he said. “In the era of Homeland Security, airports are a mission-critical environment for secure signal routing, and a protected digital signage system is a part of that as well.”

 

The bottom line: Today’s digital signage system provide airports and other large installations with the ability to inform, entertain, and market to large crowds quickly and efficiently.

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