3 Digital Signage Standards: Which is Best?

October 22, 2018 Brandon Lewis

Digital signage is a commercial technology that moves at a consumer pace. In just the past few years, we have seen digital signage systems incorporate new functionality ranging from touchscreens and virtual assistants to video analytics and 8K displays.

As a result, developing fully custom signage platforms has become increasingly untenable for manufacturers on tight time-to-market schedules. Instead, many have transitioned to standardized, modular hardware that allows them to leverage next-generation capabilities without intensive design cycles.

Today, Intel® technology is deployed in 70 percent of digital signage, thanks in large part to popular hardware such as the Intel® Next Unit of Computing (Intel® NUC), and the Open Pluggable Specification (OPS), Mini OPS, and OPS+ standards. These platforms provide a highly scalable basis for digital signage systems, as well as a migration path to ever thinner and more energy-efficient platforms such as the Intel® Smart Display Module (Intel® SDM).

Intel® Next Unit of Computing (Intel® NUC) Covers the Basics

Although not designed explicitly for digital signage applications, the Intel NUC platform provides a fast, easy, and configurable mini PC for OEMs looking to create entry-level digital signage systems. And with the desire for media players to be as unobtrusive as possible, commercially deployable NUC digital signage kits deliver the performance of 8th generation Intel® Core processors in fanless packages as small as 4" x 4".

Intel Core processors currently shipping in NUC offer integrated graphics technologies up to Iris® Plus Graphics 655, which provides up to 4K resolution at 60 Hz and support for multiple independent displays. Select 8th generation Core processors also incorporate Intel® vPro technology, offering multi-core, multi-threaded performance for use cases such as video analytics, as well as Intel® Active Management Technology (Intel® AMT) for remote platform management and security (Figure 1).

Figure 1. The Intel® NUC Kit NUC8i7BEH is based on an 8th generation Intel® Core i7 processor and supports three independent displays. (Source: Intel® Corporation)

But the biggest advantage of the NUC platform is its expandability and modularity, evident in the diverse range of graphics outputs, wired and wireless connectivity, and other I/O. These can be reconfigured by internal design teams to help accelerate the deployment of NUC devices with a wide variety of VESA-mountable displays, while also facilitating seamless upgrades to more advanced NUC technologies in the future.

Furthermore, digital-signage designers in search of completely turnkey NUC solutions or standalone NUC boards can find dozens of options from the broad third-party NUC ecosystem.

Open Pluggable Specification (OPS): Made for Signage

OPS was first introduced in 2010 as a way to standardize the system architecture of integrated displays and media players. The original OPS specification defined a computing module contained in a 180 mm x 119 mm x 30 mm plug-in enclosure. The pluggable enclosure uses an 80-pin JAE TX24A/TX25A connector to interface video, audio, power, control, and other signals with a host display (Figure 2).

Figure 2. The Intel® Open Pluggable Specification (Intel OPS) defines a 180 mm x 119 mm x 30 mm plug-in architecture that standardized the design of displays and media players. (Source: Intel® Corp.)

Since its inception, OPS has evolved to meet growing demands for smaller-footprint designs and greater performance. The Mini OPS specification, for example, leverages similar pinout and thermal design requirements but removes the enclosure to reduce its dimensions to 103 mm x 119 mm x 30 mm (Figure 3). Mini OPS also use a newer connector that supports 4K resolutions, making the standard well suited for use with thinner, energy-efficient displays.

Figure 3. The Mini Open Pluggable Specification (Mini OPS) reduces the size of the original OPS specification by nearly half. (Source: Sharp Electronics)

The OPS+ specification, on the other hand, is focused on cutting-edge features such as support for one 8K resolution display or up to three 4K displays simultaneously. OPS+ achieves this by maintaining the original OPS connector to maintain backward compatibility, but also adding a second high-speed connector that supports USB 3.0, USB 2.0, PCIe, and the aforementioned display interfaces (Figure 4). This higher-speed connector allows the use of higher-performance processors, such as the Intel® Xeon® processor E3 with an integrated FPGA.

Figure 4. Axiomtek’s OPS700-520 is compliant with the Open Pluggable Specification+ (OPS+) and supports 8th generation Intel® Core processors. (Source: Axiomtek)

Thanks to an identical form factor, backward-compatible connector, and vastly higher compute performance, OPS+ provides a migration path to even more advanced device management, security, and retail/video analytics capabilities.

Intel® Smart Display Module (Intel® SDM) Shrinks for Thin Displays

With the future of digital signage pointing toward increasingly slimmer, lighter, and more highly integrated systems, new standardized solutions are starting to take hold. Here, Intel® SDM offers two form factors of swappable cards that are only 20 mm thick, and intended to be dropped directly into a display design.

The SDM Small (SDM-S) and SDM Large (SDM-L) specifications measure in at 60 mm x 100 mm x 20 mm and 175 mm x 100 mm x 20 mm, respectively, with support for multiple generations of Intel processors spanning the Intel Atom® to Intel Core product families. A high-speed PCIe card edge connector allows the modules to support this diversity of compute solutions, and also drive 8K resolution displays and video capture capabilities (Video 1).

Video 1. The Intel® Smart Display Module (SDM) supports a range of processor options and performance levels for various digital signage use cases. (Source: Intel® Corp.)

Currently, more than 20 display vendors are developing displays compatible with Intel SDM solutions, while more than 70 manufacturers are designing boards. One such board is the SDM300S from Axiomtek, an Intel SDM-S module that supports a quad-core Pentium® processor N4200 plus dual-core Celeron® processor N3350, and up to 8 GB of LPDDR4 memory (Figure 5).

Figure 5. The SDM300S from Axiomtek is an Intel® Smart Display Module Small (Intel® SDM-S) board with a quad-core processor. (Source: Axiomtek)

Smaller Signage, Powerful and Simple

The digital-signage industry is highly competitive, meaning that OEMs must constantly bring new capabilities to market to capture new business. This can put serious strain on engineering teams, particularly as thinner, higher-resolution displays with more functionality become available.

From entry level to high performance and legacy to innovative, hardware standards such as those described here allow digital-signage manufacturers to meet design requirements quickly and affordably. For businesses and end users, they ensure a steady flow of timely, captivating multimedia technologies that lead to engagement, interactivity, and transactions.

About the Author

Brandon Lewis

Brandon is responsible for Embedded Computing Design’s IoT Design, Automotive Embedded Systems, Security by Design, and Industrial Embedded Systems brands, where he drives content strategy, positioning, and community engagement. He is also Embedded Computing Design’s IoT Insider columnist, and enjoys covering topics that range from development kits and tools to cyber security and technology business models. Brandon received a BA in English Literature from Arizona State University, where he graduated cum laude.

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