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The revolution will be narrowcasted

If you keep up with the world of gadgets you will doubtless be aware that the latest generation of mobile telephones can play your entire library of media content at the same time as synching your e-mail inbox, maintaining your 4g connection, blocking nuisance callers and reminding you when you need to get up to go to work. Oh, and playing Angry Birds too. Let’s not forget that.

It does all of this operating on a low power battery which you only have to charge once a day and it will work for the whole day providing you don’t clamp it to the side of your head. So has this translated into the world of digital signage? Not yet, but hold onto your hat, because the revolution will be televised, or.. at least narrowcasted onto an Instoremedia Digital Signage network near you….

The barrier to using phone chip architecture in a Media Player has been processing power. A Media Player in a large network has traditionally had a lot of processing to do. Many traditional content formats use processor, which increases the richer the content is or the more screens your player outputs to. On top of this your Media Player may be reporting various parameters relating to its state, the state of hardware it is outputting to, or it may be acting as a local cache.

All of this requires computing power. This has traditionally divided Media Players into two camps – those with lower computing power and those with higher power, often PC based with dual or quad core processors. And, predictably, the high capacity units are generally expensive whereas the low capacity units do not have the features appropriate for large scale network installation.

So why are things changing?

ARM was founded in 1990 by Apple, Acorn and VLSI (now part of Phillips). They had a simple vision, to design the smallest, most powerful processor possible to drive the smallest, most efficient yet powerful computers possible without ever manufacturing themselves.

Shortly after ARM was founded, a PDA was a relatively unusual luxury which you probably operated with a stylus – rather “you” didn’t operate it – your boss did, or maybe even your boss’s boss…. Like all luxuries, however, everybody wanted one and this kicked off the arms race that produced today’s array of smartphones.

If you have the latest smartphone, you have a supercomputer which possibly has a multicore processor, all based on ARM architecture. These processors are developing so fast that very soon they may even run traditional CPU heavy formats such as Flash or HTML v. 5.

Onto the here and now, however.

The processor is only half of the picture. I mentioned that your smartphone can play amazing content – full HD in a variety of formats, and those apps and games all feature computer generated graphics, so hand in hand with amazingly efficient central processors has gone development of equally efficient, small form graphics processing units (GPUs).

When you add the two together you have components which are fit for purpose as the first generation of ARM Digital Signage Media Players. These, potentially, use power the way your phone does – i.e. sparingly, yet thanks to their GPU they can deliver the visual hit you get on your smart phone translated to a screen, and thanks to their CPU you can run all the background processes and scheduling commands needed in an advanced, enterprise Media Player. All you need to add is a bit of additional storage.

These units are incredibly friendly. They consume, by some estimations, approximately 1/20th the power required for a PC. They don’t feature fans or moving hard drives. They’re small. Your smartphone fits snugly into your palm after all, and the latest generation of Television sets have powerful ARM processors inbuilt, not that you’d be able to tell by looking at one. The key to unlocking this potential is known as hardware acceleration. As I explained above, these units actually have two processors, one for the graphics (the GPU) and one for everything else (the CPU). Although ARM CPUs have come a long way, they still can’t match the most advanced units you would find in a laptop computer or PC.

A Media Player typically has to process a lot of graphical rendering. Hardware acceleration solves this by saying that this shall be done by the GPU, everything else shall be done by the CPU. The GPU is a hardware accelerator. Instoremedia supports hardware acceleration, and this has enabled us to design two systems which run on ARM based Media Players.

Currently we have a system which operates on the ubiquitous Android operating system, and another system called Aperture which runs on the Raspberry Pi and has been co-developed with Silvercurve. These systems are capable of complex scheduling transactions including metadata based scheduling, are not Windows based and are fully compatible with the existing Windows PC based Instoremedia system. There is no reason why you cannot mix and match your system, with a range of Windows PC and Android or Aperture ARM based players depending on what you want to do with them.

The Aperture players also have an OPS option and come with inbuilt storage and an Uninterrupted Power Supply. There will soon be very few Digital Signage requirements which cannot be met by an ARM based media player, and the good news is that the speed of development does not look set to slow. The only possible limitation is the life of your battery, and that’s because development is being driven by the mobile phone and tablet computer markets, where battery life remains king.

– John Muir

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