Doing more with digital signage – 2019 update

Digital signage displays have long been a fixture of galleries, libraries, archives and museums providing both wayfinding and collections information.

We first wrote about digital signage back in 2017, focusing on rolling your own DIY solution with a Raspberry Pi. But the landscape has changed quite a bit since then so we thought it would be a good time to revisit.

Our focus last time was affordability and being able to roll your own digital signage solution. Raspberry Pi devices are still an affordable way to implement digital displays but they’re certainly not the only one – we recently used a cheap android stick for a digital signage display for example. Kindle Fire and other TV stick devices are becoming more affordable and provide some options for digital signage software.

As well as how we deliver and manage our digital signage, it’s important to closely consider what we want to achieve with any sort of displays in our spaces – whether digital or otherwise. Screen interactions have gotten better and better thanks to apps and website interactions but digital signage hasn’t kept up.

What we want from our digital signage is a way to create our own, engaging content in a way that’s secure, interesting and accessible. Affordability is part of this (let’s be honest) but there are other considerations about presenting information and collections in ways that tell a story and engage our users.

Our content, our way

A key requirement is that we want the flexibility to be able to display different types of content, not just images or video (or a slideshow) in a single format. We want our digital signage to be flexible enough to support wayfinding requirements but also let us tell the stories of our collections and our communities.

Dashboards in public spaces can be a good way to promote transparency and provide access to open data directly to users. Visualisations are also a way we can make data more accessible to a wider audience. And these visualisations don’t have to be complex to be effective, as these examples demonstrate.

Then there’s interactivity – using digital displays to engage directly with our users. This can mean asking for feedback and other input from users but also enabling users to manage their own experience via digital interactions (a more CYOA experience).

One of the many striking features of Manchester Library is their interactive archive display.

But you don’t need something large scale in order to make an impact – you can just as effectively use tablet displays if the content is engaging and well-thought out and there are plenty of affordable Android-based tablets available that can be used for this.

Using simple animations (scrolling text, for example) can help draw attention to text-based signage displays and make these more appealing to users.

Raspberry PI used in installation by Rachel Armsrong & Cecile B.Events – part of the Whitechapel Gallery’s Is This Tommorow? Exhibition

You can also combine multiple screens to form a videowall – and this is where the management (power, content) comes into the equation.

These are just some of the different ways we can use digital displays to tell stories and engage users in libraries, museums, archives and galleries.

Managing our own digital signage

So once we’ve decided what content we want to share with users on a digital screen, the next thing to consider is how we can manage that content.

There are a lot of apps and ‘solutions’ out there – it’s a competitive space and portable devices like Raspberry Pi and TV sticks have made in-house digital signage much more viable than ever.

And, thankfully, the offerings are starting beyond a slideshow of local content approach – though there’s definitely a time and place for that too. But what can sound like a boring area can have quite an impact on the experience of public spaces such as libraries and galleries.

So what would your must-have and nice-to-have features list for digital signage look like?

Of course, the requirements will vary a bit depending on the project, but generally we’re looking for a way to:

  • Easy update and manage different types of content
  • Secure access and role management
  • Scheduled content management
  • Offline access

But, again, the flexibility to present different types of content in different ways is a key consideration when choosing our software tools and how we can utilise digital signage to publish and present information in different ways.

Current DIY digital signage landscape

So putting together all the pieces, what approaches can we take to install or upgrade digital signage?

Let’s narrow our focus on 2 main aims of our digital signage:

Easy to manage

For a lot of organisations, the person who manages the content isn’t necessarily going to be the one who procured or set up the signage. So we want something that’s easy to update, that we can customise our content and present it in new and interesting ways.

Making an impact

There’s lots of digital content that we can now share via digital signage. Digital archives are a great source of innovative digital signage as is the increasingly open data we have available. Beyond informational signage and wayfinding, we can use digital display to share our data and collections as well.

The current landscape

There are off the shelf options that provide a content management software for digital signage that can either be installed on consumer hardware like a Raspberry Pi or you can buy digital signage kits that include both the hardware and software.

But being tied to proprietary hardware defeats the purpose of our DIY approach so we’re mostly interested in ones that support existing hardware, particularly the Raspberry Pi.

Since our last article, there have been quite a few changes to the signage apps and distros available for Raspberry Pi and other lightweight devices.

If we want to run a playlist of content (images, slides, video), there are open source Raspberry Pi applications like PiSignage and Screenly OSE for this. The UI for Screenly OSE is much simpler than PiSignage, you add assets (video, images or web pages) and then set a schedule and display time.

PiPresents has also continued to evolve. ‘Gapless’ is the current stable version and it offers seamless transitions between ‘tracks’ and a new editor as well as the previously-discussed advanced functionality of triggers and sequencing functionality. This is one of the few open options available for Raspberry Pi that lets you do more with your content.

If you’re looking to implement a video wall, InfoBeamer hosted does this really well. Though there’s no free version it’s definitely worth a look if you’re interested in combining multiple screens of video content.

There’s also the option to present your digital signage display from a web Content Management System, such as WordPress or Django CMS. Moving from a digital signage solution to a web publishing platform opens up more flexibility for managing different types of content for your displays. On the other hand, it also means you’re tied to a browser display in kiosk mode so there are limitations.

If we’re displaying data on digital signage, there are also various compatible dashboard software applications available for Raspberry Pi. Smashing is one such dashboard option.

You can also use web apps via the Browser in Kiosk mode which makes setup quick and easy, great for getting a shared calendar display for a meeting room, for example.

As well as setting your web browser in Kiosk mode, you can also find dedicated Kiosk apps for using mobile devices for your digital signage – they let you manage the scheduling, prevent sleep mode and protect the signage from unauthorised changes and restrict the other functionality on the tablet.

If you want to run a single app on a tablet and restrict access to the rest of the tablet functionality, you can use a simple kiosk app like Fully Single App Kiosk or a fully-fledged Kiosk solution like SureLock.

Prototyping and developing user-driven displays

While offline access is an important requirement, it’s possible to do some quick and dirty prototyping in the browser using existing tools.

And as always, we take a user-centric, iterative approach which means that we should be aiming to get content in front of users as quickly as possible and prototype our signage and displays. You can A/B test different signage options and use guerilla user testing to find the approach that works best for your users. We’ll share some tools and approaches for this in an upcoming post.

Interactive and user-friendly signage

There are endless approaches you can take to digital signage and touchscreen usage in public spaces such as libraries, museums and galleries. A content-driven approach opens up many more possibilities beyond proprietary signage solutions that are designed for Estate Agents and other commercial venues with vastly different goals.

But focusing on the content means we can develop signage and displays in ways that engage users while also ensuring we have control over the way we present and manage our digital content. New, lightweight solutions are continuing to emerge to help support this but there’s still a way to go.

This is an area we are still exploring, kicking the tires on various digital signage solutions and approaches along the way. We’ll share more documentation as the work continues but if you’re interested in rolling out a new digital signage approach in your organisation, please get in touch.