Digital Signage Made Easy

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Why digital signage?

Every day hundreds of parents and students walk through the hallways of our school. Digital signage allows us to communicate everything from upcoming events to general announcements. 7 years ago when I first started teaching, I saw how inexpensive android sticks were and wondered if they could be used for digital signage. My first iteration was made with a $5 app that would sync a Dropbox folder to a slideshow. It worked pretty well, but it would only update once a day when powered off at night. The good news is that things are much easier now using a combination of Google slides, Google Sign Builder, and the Asus Chromebit.

Problems with most digital signage solutions on the market

Problem 1 - They are expensive - Last time I checked, the one of the lowest cloud based solutions was $20/mo per screen on top of the cost of the devices. Our school has 10 screens running, so a yearly cost of $2400 was hard to justify on top of the hardware costs. Although the options getting cheaper, most of the other solutions are pc-based or require running proprietary hardware.

Problem 2 - They have a steep learning curve - I get it. Having the ability to add effects and separate content layers is pretty useful, but the majority of the time all that is needed is a simple slideshow of images or text. Software that looks like a professional video editing suite can be a bit intimidating. On the other hand, most everyone in the office is comfortable using google slides.

What do you need to get started?

Our school was on a budget so I was able to get our initial 8 screens running for under $3,600 and without any continuing costs.

How to set it up

  1. Create a slideshow with the content for the screens using Google Slides.
  2. Purchasing your chromebit from an authorized google partner like promevo.com will allow you to purchase a management license along with the Chrombit. The will automatically add the licenses to your admin console. Simply sign into the admin google account on that device to claim the available license.
  3. Once you download "Chrome Sign Builder" you can create a schedule for the screen using the slideshow URL. Clicking "advanced options" will allow you to refresh the screen and choose timing options.
  4. Once your schedule is complete, press "Export" and it will open up the device management screen in your admin console.
  5. Create a new org for your screens and then upload the policy to that specific org unit. Once saved, any device that is put into that org unit will automatically boot up with chrome sign builder and the slideshow you made the schedule for.

How we use digital signage

We try to keep it pretty simple. At our school, we have the lower and upper school divisions as well as a gym display. On the weekend the screens switch to a different slideshow for the church. Each of these has separate slideshows as well a separate "storage" slideshow for storing old slides that we may want to reuse and for building slides for the future. They are all in a folder so that some announcements can be shared as needed. While Google Slides provides some useful tools for designing announcements, occasionally they will use Canva.com to create an announcement and import it as an image. 

My hopes for ASUS and Chrome Sign Builder

Unfortunately, Chrome Sign builder hasn't been updated in a while. This makes me think that Google developed it to show the strengths of their platform, but now that there are 3rd party services that have more robust feature sets, Im not sure how much they are going to update it.

For some reason they have not built CEC ability into the Chromebits or Chrome Boxes. I've talked to ASUS support a couple different times, but to no avail. This means that the TV cannot be powered on or off by the Chromebit. In this case, it means that the TV's must be left on all the time or they would need to be manually powered on or off. While LED TV's do not consume much energy, it is frustrating that they could not add this feature into something that is meant to be used for digital signage. Even the chromecast has CEC ability.

A few more ideas

Since Chrome Sign Builder can display any url, I would like to develop a page on our website that integrates other display information like weather or scrolling text announcements at the bottom. Another idea would be to develop a custom chrome app that intelligently displays any content put into various Google Drive folders.

Carlton Riffel