Digital Signage is Easy with THIS IS A SIGN

THIS IS A SIGN is a new app from the developer of PuppetMaster.TV and #SIDELOADTAG. As the name implies, it turns your TV into a digital sign, making it easy to do digital signage for free with a simple interface. There is a small in-app purchase to make it more suitable for permanent installations. We took a dive into the world of digital signage to let you know what this is like.

What is Digital Signage

Digital signage, as the name implies, consists of signs that display information digitally. It’s a growing industry that’s expected to be worth $20 billion by 2020, so it’s something work looking at. Why is digital signage such a big deal?

  • Easy to change – Instead of having someone manually update each sign, they can be updated through a digital interface or remotely from a central location to all signs
  • Richer content – Instead of stating one thing, they can have moving backgrounds or highlight certain menu items. Additionally they can display the weather, a news ticker, or a video in a corner of the screen
  • Interactivity – Most signs don’t do this now, but what if a sign could update its content based on who you are? If it knows or presumes your customer profile, it can deliver certain deals or content for you. This may be a bit scary, but interactivity can help in different ways too. Some sort of simple AI could exist that could answer customer questions or provide a map of the area with directions. It could work with your phone to push useful information.

With all of these advantages, along with the continually dropping cost of building one, it makes a lot of sense that companies will want to pursue these things for a better user experience. Digital signage can be very simple, just a Raspberry Pi running a website, or as complex as custom servers and software tools to make it possible. In the middle we have Android TV, a fairly robust software platform that can now create signs directly through the simple app THIS IS A SIGN.

App Hands-On

When you load up the app for the first time, you’ll find a sparse interface. You can create a new sign or go into portrait mode (don’t do that). While portrait mode may be nice to have on a phone, it doesn’t make sense on a TV. Sure, some signs may be tall and skinny, but you won’t be aided by this toggle. It will flip the UI internally but maintain its original orientation. Android TV doesn’t support portrait screens.

The app lets you create a sign by adding small widgets to the screen in top-bottom order. Each widget is added vertically, making it easy to determine what the final sign will look like. If you want to add items horizontally, you can do so by appending a column. This will create a pseudo-table to add widgets from left to right.

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What widgets are supported? Plain text, clocks, a countdown to some time, an image, foreground video, and columns. Each option provides various settings. Selecting text provides various sizes and colors, justification, and display settings. Text can be a marquee, like a ticker, and blink. You can enter any text you want. The clock displays the time with similar customization. The countdown is entered in terms of hours, minutes, and seconds, not picking a specific date.

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The background can be any number of things. You can have a solid color, an image that is from a bit.ly link, or a YouTube video that loops continually. You have a number of possibilities for what will be behind all of your widgets.

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After making whatever changes you want, you can return to the main menu where you will see your sign in its full glory. You will also get a countdown in the bottom right. For the free version, you can only display this sign for an hour. However, with the simple charge of $1, you can display the sign without worry. For companies that want digital signage, this seems like a small price to pay for the ease of development.

Parting Thoughts

My university¬†just opened up a new extension to its engineering building. It’s visually and technologically a step up from the original. The hallways are brighter, the classrooms are larger, and there are TVs on every floor. The bagel and coffee shop on the first floor has digital signs. When I took a quick look at what was under the hood, I noticed that they were powered by Amazon Fire TVs.

This is the challenge that Android TV is currently facing in the digital signage space. Aside from the Life Stick in Japan, there are no small Android TVs that can be connected directly into the display such as the Fire TV stick or the Chromecast. While Android TV does a great job accommodating the premium side with the NVIDIA Shield, there is a lack of low-powered devices that are easy to set up. I feel like that may inhibit the platform from being widely adopted as the platform of choice.

But if it does happen, digital signage will get a pretty big boost with simple tools such as this. I found it easy to build something like above, with the admission I’m not the best designer. But a lot of people aren’t, and they’d appreciate something like this that’s better than nothing and doesn’t require an expensive backend (just moderately expensive front-end devices).

I think there are numerous ways to improve upon this app, although I wouldn’t want to demand a bunch of features that wouldn’t be used. Items right now start out top to bottom, although it may be useful to have sign settings to control the vertical alignment. Maybe items can be aligned to the bottom instead, like a lower third.

Other things I’ve seen on digital signs include weather icons and a news ticker. I wouldn’t expect the developer to build either of these, and perhaps they don’t have to. It can be opened up to support third-party integrations. Since Android is an open developer ecosystem, a weather app can integrate by providing the current temperature and a descriptive icon. A news app can provide a feed which is then read by the app and placed in a marquee. It would be similar to what apps like DashClock do, providing the frame for content to be supplied. It is also similar to Android Wear’s Complications API, Then, if the company really needed some custom implementation, they could write a simple plugin instead of rewriting the entire framework.

If you want to try this out for yourself or have a business in need of a sign, check out the app for free on Google Play. What do you think the future of digital signage will be? What features would you expect in modern signs? Let us know in the comments below.

Nick Felker

Nick Felker

Nick Felker is a student Electrical & Computer Engineering student at Rowan University (C/O 2017) and the student IEEE webmaster. When he's not studying, he is a software developer for the web and Android (Felker Tech). He has several open source projects on GitHub (http://github.com/fleker) Devices: Moto G-2013 Moto G-2015, Moto 360, Google ADT-1, Nexus 7-2013 (x2), Lenovo Laptop, Custom Desktop. Although he was an intern at Google, the content of this blog is entirely independent and his own thoughts.

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