Save yourself from insanity: Black Magic software installer

After 3 years of longingly looking at Black Magic’s stand at various AV events our wishes have been granted and we’re now proud owners of an ATEM Production Studio 4k, HyperDeck Studio Minis and DeckLink card 😀

In preparation for the new kit I’ve rebuilt our main streaming machine which runs vMix HD as it needed a bit of freshening up. It now runs Windows 10 LTSB with some added local storage and Google Drive File Stream for longer-term video archives (may as well make use of that unlimited Google Drive!)

Software install

Installing the DeckLink card looked pretty straightforward; find the PCI-E slot with 8x support, pop some software on et voila. But (you know what’s coming next)… nothing is ever as easy as it seems.

Running the software installer bombed out shortly after “trying” to install with this:

“Blackmagic Design Desktop Video Setup Wizard ended prematurely because of an error”

The fix

Having had a look around there’s a few reports of the error on the BlackMagic forums but no solutions listed.

Having noticed the installer was an MSI I thought I’d give it a go via command line instead:

msiexec /i "Desktop Video Installer v10.9.3.msi" /qb

Quelle surprise, it installed perfectly! Not sure what the installer GUI is trying to do that makes the process fail but everything is there using the msiexec method, software and drivers all looking good.

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Tech review: Havering Asks 2016

img_20161130_140105With a few hours to go before the end of the year I thought I’d do a quick review of our last event of the year – our TV production “Havering Asks”.

It’s part of our live TV week, where media students produce their own shows as part of their course programme. We then live stream it on YouTube and via the website http://www.hcronair.com

I’ve been helping with the technical side for 4 years now and each time we try and add something extra. In the past that’s gone from live streaming across college, then online with Planet eStream then using multiple input streams with vMix and a Datavideo capture server.

This year on top of our now business-as-usual vMix setup we wanted to add a live videoconference link so I went away to gather some kit and ideas…

Skype for Business prime time

We already use Skype for Business within college in some of our conferencing rooms and ah-hoc usage on staff PCs so my first thought was if we could use it here as well. I did also consider Google Hangouts on Air after being on a Google conference a few months back but found out it was discontinued in September, which was disappointing as the YouTube replacement didn’t fit our needs.

I gathered a few of our newer loan laptops (Core i5, 8GB RAM etc.) and headed down to set up, realising we’d need to make some adjustments to get this to work…

  1. The output from our mixing desk was via SDI cables so I dug out a USB capture card that we keep for occasions like this, first problem solved with the help of a phono adapter
  2. An audio input from the mixing desk was also required, our sound engineers sorted that out quickly and made sure there was no feedback while mics were active
  3. Our large screen TV was at the front of the set but the mixing desk at the back. Given we don’t have any wireless HDMI extenders the only option was to stitch together a long cable or two to get from the back of set to the front via some neat use of rubber cable mats!

In the end Skype for Business proved to be a good call as it accepted our decidedly non-standard video input without a grumble whereas the consumer version of Skype refused to connect to the capture card. With the cabling out the way we used the now-standard federation from Skype for Business > Skype consumer to invite our guests to the show.

For the purposes of the event a dedicated Office 365 account was created so the branding would look right on-screen. Radio presenter Iain Lee was first up and I’ll admit it was a relief to see the full screen conference up and running when he dialled in 🙂

Havering live TV week Skype video call

Twitter wall

On the day of the main Havering Asks event I was also asked to set up a Twitter wall for viewers to interact with the show via our hashtag #haveringasks

In the past we’ve used Zoomph with great results so I was pleased to find they have a free option for up to 250 posts, which was fine for the needs of this event. The display was placed at the entrance to the show and also via our digital signage screens using Planet eStream.

Havering Asks Zoomph Twitter wall display

Plans for the future

In the end the TV went really well and it was another great experience for the students, who excelled with the quality of this year’s show. The video conferencing went down well too so I’m sure that will return again next time round, maybe we’ll go for multiple remote guests to keep things interesting!

I’m hoping that by the time we run our next show we might get some shiny new mixing kit to work with. The current setup has done a great service but would be good to move into the world of 4k, perhaps with some (very nice) Black Magic kit … Santa any chance of some additional presents? 😉

and finally…

Wishing you all a Happy New Year and best wishes for the year ahead.
Recently hit 300k views on here now so thanks for reading and hope to see you all back in 2017!

Video streaming update and a visit to BVE 2016

Print

This week I was able to visit the BVE expo to have a look for the next generation of video mixing and streaming equipment for our media block. There was plenty on show, including an interesting talk on using drones in TV production that drew quite a crowd!

It’s really interesting to see how networking and video technologies are converging and definitely something I’d like to do more work with in the future.

Our equipment is used by students in their classes for as well as projects such as HC Radio and our yearly Havering Asks TV programme. The visit also reminded me to write a little about some of the new kit we used in our recent productions.

vMix updates

After using the free version of vMix for the video stream of HC Radio we decided to purchase the vMix HD edition for video production use. The additional inputs and extra features such as Video list were what we needed to add pre-recorded content into the live show production.

Ref: http://www.vmix.com/purchase/

One thing we found with the video list is that the UI started to lag when we loaded 20+ videos into vMix. A workaround from the support team was to use VLC to generate a playlist and load the content in that way instead. End output was the same but this method seemed a lot more CPU friendly. We’ll need to check this again as new versions of vMix are released.

We’ve also since found out about the free vMix Social plugin which will allow live updates to be posted as on-screen graphics so will be trying that out next time round as well.

vmix-logo-large  Planet-eStream

For those wanting to record the output to Planet eStream use either of these methods, credit to eStream support for the below as they were testing vMix around the same time we did. Great minds and all that 🙂

1) On vMix there is an option for ‘External’ at the bottom, if you go to the settings next to ‘External’ then go to ‘Outputs’ make sure that Recording/External is set as output and all overlays selected. Now when you click ‘External’ and it goes red you can open an instance of the encoding application, on the same machine and there will be a video device called ‘vMix Video’ this will allow you to record the output window on vMix.

2) Stream it through eStream by editing the settings next to ‘Stream’ at the bottom. You can create a custom RTMP server. The settings will be:
Server: rtmp://svrestream/HCBcast
Stream Key: vMix

Now you can go to the encoder machine on another pc and use a network video source. Use the URL rtmp://svrestream/HCBcast/vMix please note capitalisation is important.

vMix GO

vmix-goThis is one of the new (to me anyway!) products I spotted at BVE today. It’s a self-contained, portable production system with all the inputs etc. you need integrated with a suitably powerful PC and vMix Pro included. It provides an interesting alternative to the Blackmagic Design kit I also went to see today, which is hardware-based rather than vMix’s software approach.

Streaming across multiple locations

One of the new requirements for Havering Asks 2015 was to provide an additional video source so we could transition between the live show taking place in our performance area “The Space” as well as our TV studio in the media block. vMix would then be used to mix the inputs and provide the stream to our YouTube channel.

Given that the two buildings are at opposite ends of the college it was a pretty simple decision required that we needed to use the network to get video from one place to the other. The question was how best to do it. We also wanted to use whatever solution we found for future events so it needed to be robust and easy to set up going forward.

From a cost perspective we thought of using a PC \ laptop but after adding an external capture card the solution seemed rather clunky. There’s also a fair bit to go wrong and once you put all the hardware prices together it’s not particularly cost-effective either. We then moved onto dedicated streamers to see what was available and looked at a couple of different products:

I liked the look of the Teradek and the output LCD would made it easy to use with DHCP as we could easily spot what address it had obtained as it gets moved around. Unfortuately it’s HDMI only and was the most expensive of the three options. It also turns out not to be supported with Planet eStream so we continued onto the other options.

The unbranded Chinese device did its basic job of streaming but, as is often the case with these no-name products had some odd firmware issues that meant we couldn’t 100% trust it. The main one was with DHCP, where the stream output link seemed to stick with the previous address it had been assigned, rather than the current lease. This presented a problem for us as setting up a static port each time we wanted to stream would add an extra administrative burden.

Now we come to the NVS-25, which does a great job of offering lots of flexibility at a great price:

  • SDI, HDMI and composite video inputs
  • RCA and XLR audio inputs
  • multiple streaming protocols
  • USB port for recording of video stream

The multiple inputs are particularly good as it means we can use our current hardware over SDI \ CVBS and then in future have the flexibility to move to HDMI should we want to.

I had a look around BVE for similar devices and was rather pleased to see one of the suppliers rate it as the best devices for feature set in its price range, always a relief to hear we chose wisely!

Experiences with the NVS-25

We learnt a few things from setting up and using the Datavideo device so here’s a few lessons learned to save anyone else the trouble:

Networking

The IP scanner utility is very handy and helps get up and running quickly.
I hear that an NVS-30 is on the cards and if Datavideo can get a screen on the new product it’ll be even better!

Storage

The front USB port should only be used with USB sticks or, at a push SSD drives on an adapter. It won’t run USB hard drives that don’t have their own external power and the side effect is that the encoder will freeze up until you do a hard power off and disconnect the offending drive. The media should also be formatted as FAT32.

Firmware

Update the firmware to the latest version as there are bugs in previous versions relating to how streams are presented. We had problems getting an RTSP stream into vMix due to incorrect header information in the stream. Apparently from what I was told at BVE an update has since been released to resolve this. As a workaround we changed over to RTMP instead, which worked OK.

IMAG1029
Datavideo NVS-25 in action connected up to our mixing desk

Whilst on the Datavideo stand their tablet-oriented autocue caught my eye. Again rather reasonably priced it syncs the script with multiple devices and allows central control from another station wirelessly. Perhaps one for the 2016 productions 🙂

IMAG1198

Intel Compute Stick – digital signage… on a stick

compute-stick-shadowNot sure I’ll get any awards for originality of this headline but in this case the product name really does do what it says on the tin.

I first head of the Compute Stick at the BETT show back when it was a vapourware product so was interested to try one out when they got out to the wider market. Even more so with the fairly low price point that’s currently sitting under the ÂŁ100 mark courtesy of Amazon.

The reviews don’t lie, but fear not

When I initially read the reviews of the product the signs didn’t sound good, in fact the headline from Gizmodo is pretty damning. Fortunately the last line about really liking kiosk LCD signage is my use-case down to a tee… so we carry on 🙂

For reference and to save taking loads of identical photos here’s the reviews I’m referencing:

http://gizmodo.com/intel-compute-stick-review-don-t-buy-it-1699377058
http://www.techradar.com/reviews/pc-mac/intel-compute-stick-1292183/review

Why buy a Compute Stick?

Until now we’ve either been using recycled PCs that we’ve removed from active service and by combining bits of them together (plus some ÂŁ20 graphics cards) created something powerful enough to run HD signage effectively.

That’s worked OK until we’ve got to some more recent installs where there’s nowhere to hide an ungainly desktop PC. For those we’ve been getting nettop-esque players that come in around the ÂŁ300 mark. The Compute Stick comes in around 1/3 the price in comparison and is even easier to mount due to its diminutive size. 

Getting started

Although the Compute Stick comes with a bundled copy of Windows 8.1 with Bing we decided to wipe and reload our own Enterprise license to allow us to join the device to our domain. Some forum posts suggested varying levels of success but in all cases so far a full wipe and reload (from USB media) has been successful.

Unfortunately I can’t say the same about a Windows 10 upgrade though, which got a bit messy on the sole machine we tried before being formatted back to Windows 8.1. The 32GB eMMC storage device isn’t the quickest in the world so large upgrades like this take some time to complete, which makes it a bit galling when they fail right at the end! It seems Intel may start shipping the Compute Stick with Windows 10 as standard soon though.

Tip: before you start I’d advise jumping to the BIOS and enable “Performance” mode.

The Stick hasn’t got a great deal of power behind it anyway so throttling it down further won’t do any favours.

Connectivity

As touched on in the reviews above you only get one USB port to play with so a hub is essential for configuring the Compute Stick. Once you’re done it’s trivial to remote control it via VNC or similar remote access products, which is fine for this particular use case.

One thing to get out the way before you consider one of these devices though… Wi-Fi is awful. No other way of saying it, range is poor, signal drops were common and the Wi-Fi chip seems to somehow slow down the device as well. Seems we’re not alone in experiencing the issue so it looks like a hardware or driver fault https://communities.intel.com/thread/72826?start=15&tstart=0

In a way the Wi-Fi issues don’t matter as we run all our signage players wired anyway. A suitable USB Ethernet dongle was soon purchased; we went for this Startech adapter, which works a treat and has been solid in our testing thus far. It’s also the same size as the Compute Stick and makes a neat combo when held together with a suitably sized cable tie.

http://www.startech.com/uk/Networking-IO/usb-network-adapters/USB-2-to-Gigabit-Ethernet-NIC-Network-Adapter~USB21000S2

Conclusion

All in all it’s safe to say the Compute Stick is far from perfect; it’s Intel’s first go at a new platform and I’m sure the next revision will smooth out a lot of the rough edges we’ve seen in this model. With new Cherry Trail powered devices just around the corner there’s no doubt the platform will get a bit of a performance boost too.

Ref: http://www.stickpcstore.com/blog/intel-atom-cherry-trail-x5-z8500-124092015/

There’s already some interesting hardware appearing but not shipping just yet so keep your eyes peeled. If the MagicStick lives up to its claims it should be a rather impressive device…

https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/magicstick-most-powerful-pc-stick-8gb-ram
http://www.theverge.com/2015/9/2/9244031/asus-vivostick-windows-10-announced

In the meantime if you need a cheap Windows-based signage solution keep an eye out for offers as retailers clear out this generation of Intel sticks.

The making of HC Radio

hcradioFollowing on from previous success we’ve had live streaming our Havering Asks event our media block wanted to try going one step further by running a student radio station, permanently live with both audio and video streams.

From a technical and e-learning perspective it sounded a great way to get students interacting with the technology available and also provided another way to get value from our Planet eStream solution, which already provides our video content repository, TV recording server and digital signage across the college.

As always though nothing is ever completely straightforward, especially as we kept trying to push the bar a little further by adding more features without breaking the bank!

Video stream

The video side was in theory the easy part as it’s something we’ve done before and only needs the Planet eStream encoder and a capture device with composite input. Simple? Of course not!

One idea was to have two cameras: one showing the students in their broadcast studio as you might see on Kiss FM or Capital and then another one directly above a mixing deck for certain radio show features.

The next fun part of the requirement was that the cameras would need to be in a physically separate location to the PC used for streaming due to space restrictions, which also makes things a bit more… interesting….

IP camera

The camera to be used for the studio ideally needed to be mounting in the ceiling to get the right kind of angle to get everyone in shot. Now although we could run composite cables through the building that really didn’t seem a sensible option as there was a very conveniently placed Ethernet port nearby, an IP camera made perfect sense.

I had a look around at the BETT show and various suppliers but found many devices were way too overpowered for our needs (read expensive!) or there were cheap and cheerful cameras at the polar opposite end of the market on Amazon, eBay etc. which didn’t seem to have a great track record for reliability.

We wanted something in between to provide HD quality video, which was when I remembered that Ubiquiti Networks also sell IP cameras alongside their Unifi wireless range (which we’ve had good experiences with recently).

$_35 (1)https://www.ubnt.com/enterprise/
https://www.ubnt.com/unifi-video/unifi-video-camera-dome/

Eventually I found their Unifi Video Camera Dome product, which looked solid, was made for ceiling mounting and came in just under £100 – sold!

RTSP stream

After receiving the camera I ran through the configuration steps then had a look around for how to get an RTSP stream I could enter as an input for Planet eStream. However I soon found out that this isn’t possible straight from the camera, but can be done via the free NVR recording software that comes bundled with the device.

Ref: https://www.ubnt.com/unifi-video/unifi-nvr/

The RTSP stream option needs to be enabled per-camera, which then provides a unique link that works perfectly in the eStream encoder. For simplicity I installed the NVR software on the streaming machine so the RTSP stream comes from the 127.0.0.1 loopback address. The host machine runs on an i5 CPU and hasn’t showed any performance issues running both pieces of software at the same time.

Ref: http://dl.ubnt.com/guides/unifivideo/UniFi_Video_UG.pdf

ubnt rtsp

Mixing software

Now we had two cameras in place we still had a requirement to solve in terms of how to switch between them. If possible some form of branding \ overlay was also mentioned.

Spending any form of significant sum on software was out of the question so I hit Google hoping for something good and wasn’t disappointed, enter vMix:

http://www.vmixhd.com/

The basic premise of the software allows you to live produce video by switching and overlaying various inputs to create your output stream. I really like the interface – everything just seems to be “there” and it also contains all the transitions, overlays and controls you’re likely to need…

…oh and did I mention the free version? 🙂

vMix-Screenshot

Two capture inputs plus two more from title sequences and overlays was a perfect fit for our needs. Yes there is a resolution limit but to get the project off the ground it was a compromise we’re willing to make. In the future I hope we can at least get to the Basic HD or HD package.

At the time I sent a quick question over to the ever-helpful eStream support team to find out how best to connect vMix to the eStream encoder; in a strange twist of fate it turned out they were testing it at the same time! All you need to do is click the External button in vMix, which then creates a virtual capture device that eStream can see and stream.

We’re using the eStream encoder rather than broadcasting via YouTube at present as it’s simpler for us to push the video internally to our signage screens on Planet eSign. However I may need to change this in the future depending on traffic, if our video stream starts getting a lot of hits it may be easier to let YouTube take the load.

hcradio screen
one of our screen layouts showing dual camera inputs via vMix

Audio stream

I was also asked to provide an audio-only stream so we could offer the channel up as an Internet Radio station. All the necessary licensing was already taken care of so it was time to find another technical solution that would do the job.

The students already do all the creative work using Virtual DJ software in the radio studio then we split the output into multiple signals that are used to play the station inside the media building as well as providing a 3.5mm jack for the streaming machine.

Icecast immediately looked to be the front-runner to encode the audio stream although it needs something else to act as a front-end. After a bit of searching I settled on an unfortunately named but rather good (and open-source) program called Butt.

http://butt.sourceforge.net/

I configured Icecast with its own dedicated external domain name and after trying a few different format settings went for an MP3 stream at 192Kbps.

Getting the stream to embed nicely took a few tries too, mainly down to how picky browsers are about what code and tags are used. Eventually settled on the format below which plays on most devices using an HTML5 player:

<audio name="media" autoplay="" controls="">
 <source type="audio/mpeg" src="http://yourstream.domain.tld:8000/mountpoint"></source>
 </audio>

This embed code generator may also provide useful
http://jasonlau.biz/embedcodegenerator/

The end result

We now have a website up and running that hosts both video and audio streams, along with the usual smattering of social networks for audience participation.

TuneIn_Logo_2000pxAnother upshot of setting up the audio-only stream was that it’s recently become the source for our upload to TuneIn radio http://tunein.com/radio/HCRadio-s245212/

Students broadcast their shows throughout the week and we’ve now partnered with some other stations and even celebs to raise the profile of the station.

Now we’ve done radio the next challenge lies ahead; HCTV will be coming soon as part of a TV week that will include Havering Asks and a couple of new shows, watch this space!

Digital Signage – our journey (part 2)

TV_f025-20120301095707-00005

With the hardware side of things pretty much sorted out the next step was to sort out a suitable design to put on them. Initially it’s far too easy to simply put various lumps of content in boxes and leave it at that, OK it works but equally isn’t the most visually appealing. Fortunately we have talented creative people in our media block who had better ideas 🙂

Flash transparencies

The winning method was to try adding a transparent mask over the top of a background video and vary the shape \ design of the transparency dependent on the content to be shown. First step was to see if Planet eSign could handle this so we tried a test screen with a PNG file, which worked perfectly. Moving on from this we then went a step further and added an animated SWF file using eSign’s built-in Flash content option… although it displayed the transparent function disappeared.

A quick search led me to the fact that SWFs don’t display transparently as a default function, to get it to work as expected you need to:

  1. configure the stage background to be transparent when creating the source file in Flash
  2. use the Flash object via HTML embed embed code to enable transparency
    <param name=”wmode” value=”transparent”>

The second attempt using the HTML object (set to 1360×768) over the top of the video worked perfectly. This is also where you’ll see if your hardware is up to the job as our old DG35 integrated graphics couldn’t handle the video and transparency without stuttering – no such problems with the nVidia card installed 🙂

We now have a variety of SWFs for various screen layouts e.g.

  • animated bar at the bottom (for news ticker)
  • side bar, white with lower opacity (for announcement text)
  • 1/2 screen version of the white side bar (for posters)

transparency

To store them I created an additional directory on the eStream server aka http://yourestreamserver/esign/swfs. I’ve noticed that digital signage content pages are created on the server so relative paths work fine within the embed code. A copy of the code we use can be found on SkyDrive (note to point to a different file name than transparency.swf you need to change 3 occurrences of it within the code, use find and replace to make sure you get them all!)

You’ll then need to make sure your SWF is layered on top of a video playing in the background, chances are both will need to be full-screen as well. To set the correct order right-click on a layer then hit bring to front \ send to back as appropriate.

Tip: If you do have both layers full-screen and need to change the background video later a neat trick is to use the Toggle Fill Screen button to temporarily reduce the size of the transparency, this will let you then hit the edit button for the window behind without disturbing the layer order. When done just click the Toggle button again to return to the previous full-screen state, sorted 🙂

Fonts

Part of the branding for the screen templates also required using specific fonts to match our other marketing materials. Many were sourced from Google Fonts and initially the process looked quite simple; eSign already has a /fonts directory you can drop custom typefaces into and it’ll automatically pick them up. Trouble is that only works for the news ticker and similar items; at present the HTML editor is a law unto itself.

With that in mind I had to find a way to get the fonts to display via some custom HTML. Fortunately I realised that the main embed code is already done by eSign automatically for use in the custom ticker fonts mentioned above.

All you need to do is preview a signage screen then right-click in the browser and click View Source. At that point search for @font-face and you’ll see the embed code for all your custom fonts. Make a note of the font-family name for each one you want to use in the editor.

font code

In your signage screen template create a new panel for where you want your custom fonts to appear then switch to HTML view and paste in the code below (my example uses the FredokaOne-Regular and Kreon-Regular fonts). Substitute font names, colours and sizes as required. Grab the code from the .txt file I’ve uploaded to SkyDrive as copying \ pasting from web pages doesn’t always play nicely!

Note: don’t be worried if the wrong font appears in the editor preview window, it doesn’t show up properly until you run a screen preview via eSign as you need that initial embed code to be present (which won’t happen when in HTML editor mode)

<!DOCTYPE html>
<html>
 <head>
 <style>
 h1panel {
 font-family: 'FredokaOne-Regular', cursive;
 font-size:72px;
 color: #004C93;
 }
 p {
 font-family: 'Kreon-Regular', serif;
 font-size: 54px;
 color: #004C93;
 }
 </style>
 </head>
 <body style="overflow: hidden;">
 <h1panel>Title</h1panel>
 <p>Your body text goes here</p>
 </body>
</html>

Note: the second font description is what the system will fall back to if for some reason your embed doesn’t work
Ref: http://www.w3schools.com/cssref/pr_font_font-family.asp

To find what the generic family should be look at the Google Font embed samples, e.g. Fredoka One sample

Note: some fonts we used caused webpage errors as for some reason they refused to embed properly. After reading about various font standards (TTF, EOT and so on), embed bits and various code samples the simplest answer was to find another font that looked similar and worked! If you’re desperate for one particular font you might have to go through similar amounts of Google whacking to get a result or use a service like FontSquirrel to convert a non-working font into one that embeds neatly.

The end product

You’d be forgiven for wondering if all this is worth it for the end result, check out the screenshot below and imagine a full length video running with the ticker along the bottom and you should get a good idea of why it’s worth putting in the effort to build it. 

Anecdotal evidence suggests visitors like the design too, I’ve seen numerous occasions where people have stopped to watch the video which didn’t happen with the previous static content. I think it’s a great way to showcase the wide range of activities that go on inside the college and gets people to notice whatever messages go on the screen alongside, a win-win situation 🙂

screen sample   screen sample2

 

Digital Signage – our journey (part 1)

TV_f025-20120301095707-00005

Earlier on in the year I attended a meeting for our Havering Asks event where one of the requirements was to display streaming video on all our large display screens across the college, along with visitor information etc. Immediately I started thinking that we were going to need a new system as our existing kit wasn’t set up in a way to do this without a lot of manual work.

Fortunately the Planet eStream product that we were purchasing anyway for video resources and off-air recording had recently added digital signage to their feature set so it looked ideal for what we needed.

Once the server VM was up and running it was time to see how far we could go with customisation.

Player hardware

The eStream solution uses a Windows client application and a web browser to display signage content so the choice of hardware is down to you, the reason for Windows over Linux was down to graphics performance, which I can understand having had “fun” trying to get some chipsets performing properly on various Linux distros over the years.

So you might think this is the easy bit, you just need to throw in a PC and a screen and away you go, right? In an ideal world yes, you can buy small form factor mini PCs, brand new screens and hook them up with HDMI leads for full HD loveliness… at a cost.

Over the years we’ve gained a variety of screens from different manufacturers and model ranges and obviously they weren’t going to be thrown away. At the same time budgets are getting tighter so buying 15+ new dedicated PCs for digital signage wasn’t going to happen either. On a similar note cabling had already been run in ceilings etc for the existing screens using VGA leads and replacing everything wasn’t viable in the time frames we were working with. As a result we had to be a bit more innovative and make use of existing assets.

For the signage players we used older desktop PCs that were being replaced as part of our standard desktop refresh cycle. However on testing our the signage we noticed that graphics performance was poor, due to the onboard Intel graphics – native HD video decoding wasn’t part of the feature set until the G45 chipset and it showed).

The solution for this was to find the cheapest passively cooled graphics card we could find and try one out, this Geforce 610 did the trick nicely for ÂŁ20 a piece and also included a low profile bracket in the box, perfect! There’s also similar AMD cards but I’ve never been a fan of their (often poorly coded) drivers in the past so stuck with the nVidia route in this case.

Bonus tip: nVidia driver unattended installation

When trying to get the nVidia driver to install along with the associated control panel app it consistently bombed out of the imaging process or broke the flow of sysprep autologon. As a workaround I set it to run on the first (manual) logon after sysprep using this syntax to launch the installer (it seems the installer has changed over the years and some switches you find online don’t actually work).

I also found that using the /s (silent) parameter always wants to reboot so went for passive instead that let me suppress this behaviour. The command line below will give you an unattended graphical installation with no reboot, which fits with how I wanted to run the installer in my scripts.

C:\NVIDIA\DisplayDriver\327.23\Win8_WinVista_Win7\International\setup.exe /n /passive

I also added some additional commands to my usual ZCM 11 Powershell scripting to configure static IP address settings and set up autologon. The only manual intervention was to set a few UI elements such as taskbar auto-hide that seem to be problematic to achieve via scripts \ regedit

Finally I configured the eSign client with a friendly name, server address and fixed resolution (rather than the default that goes for the highest resolution the attached screen can support).

The pain of ports and resolutions

resolutionHaving completed an audit of our existing screens in terms of model numbers, screen size etc I set about trying to find a common resolution we could use for our signage templates.

Initially it looked simple as they all seemed to be at least HD ready (720p) so I set the templates to 1280×720. Unfortunately this didn’t work too well as quite a few screens wouldn’t take the signal.

What I soon realised was that most TVs support the HD resolutions over HDMI or component but then give a completely different set for the VGA port! Many of the TVs seemed to be 1366×768 native panels so after trawling through manuals I managed to find the magic number that works on pretty much everything we have, 1360×768 @ 60Hz (aka WXGA)

Alternatively just buy new TVs that are full 1080p-ready and enjoy 1920×1080 over HDMI if you want the easy life 😉

With some of the basics out the way the next step was to experiment with screen layouts and design something on-brand for the college, more on that in part 2…