Starbak HDDE: High-Definition Digital Signage Converges With Streaming

Digital signage has been around for several years, and its predecessor—business television—has roots going back to the early 1990s. The companies that have dominated digital signage have done so on their ability to provide either an enhanced viewer interface that was easy to update or a proprietary set-top box that was capable of storing content that could be called from a previously-defined playlist.

Some companies offered a combination of ease-of-use, robust scheduling, and store-and-forward, but were limited in their ability to acquire live content and transmit it to digital signage end points.

Starbak, a company with roots in the videoconferencing world, is making an attempt to solve the digital signage issues by approaching the problem from an enterprise content delivery network (E-CDN) approach that expands content delivery beyond the desktop and on to digital signage screens.

Today Starbak announced availability of its High Definition Display Engine (HDDE) as a way to move HD streaming content from the source to any client or customer within the a client's intranet.

"Digital signage is one of the fastest growing applications for our customers in the corporate, education and healthcare markets, ensuring that important video messages reach the intended audience, where ever they may be." said Starbak CEO Greg Casale. "By adding high-definition support, Starbak has made this important communications medium even more effective for its customers."

The company focuses on behind-the-firewall clients, based on a variety of assumptions: Companies want to control their entire ecosystem; enterprise digital signage has different needs than retail/consumer digital signage; and clients who already have internal content delivery networks are more likely to add digital signage, rather than digital signage spawning the need for E-CDNs.

Foundation In Videoconferencing
"We started in videoconferencing," said Casale, who joined Starbak in 2004, "which was used primarily for internal corporate meetings, when potential customers requested a way to record their H.323 videoconference streams. Our VCG—essentially a videoconferencing VCR—sold quite well, and is still the core of our ability to have a CEO sit down at his videoconferencing system and send a live message out to desktop or digital signage viewers."

VCG was launched in 2000, shortly after Polycom, the leader in videoconferencing end point sales, had attempted to add streaming to videoconferencing with its StreamStation encoding product. Unlike Starbak's VCG, which grabbed the H.323 stream in digital form, Polycom had required a videoconference to be decoded to analog and then re-encoded again in to a Real stream, lowering the quality and limiting the ability to record multiple videoconferencing participants.

Even beyond those limitations, the bigger issue was managing of the content distribution. StreamStation required multiple encoders in multiple locations, but made no provision for managing multiple streams . Starbak, though, thought it had found its next opportunity.

"After VCG had been on the market for several years," said Casale, "customers began asking for a way to include, in real time, other employees who weren't sitting in a videoconferencing room. We felt our customers not only needed streaming capabilities but also needed a portal through which to manage content."

Starbak set about building a platform that included an enterprise CDN—dubbed Integrated Network Video (INV)—that was used by Dow Chemical in over 200 locations, as well as MetLife and a few other key customers.

"Like Sonic Foundry and Accordent, we were early to the enterprise game," said Casale, "but our installed customer based for VCG provided an opportunity to leverage already-installed equipment alongside our new INV platform."

After a few years, the company consolidated all its offerings in to a platform it called V3, which included video capture, a video portal, and the E-CDN.

Give The People What They Want
Why go in to digital signage, though?

"Again it was customer demand," said Casale. "We heard that alot of people don't work in front of a computer, but needed a way to push content to displays in lobbies, break rooms and other key locations for passive viewing."

Starbak launched the ability to push an H.323 stream (now using H.264 instead of the lesser-quality H.263) from a videoconferencing unit directly to a digital signage display, via a small set-top box that received content for display.

The initial digital signage system was rolled out by several corporate clients, including Lockheed and Westpac Bank, but lacked some of the basic features of other digital signage solutions.

"The first system was standard-definition only," said Casale, "and it wasn't multi-pane and didn't include scrolling text. The pieces were all in place, though, with an intranet-connected set-top box and playlisting, so it met the initial needs and positioned us well to add additional functionality."

Which leads to the HDDE, Starbak's new HD-capable set-top box.

"We are using a new manufacturer for this new device," said Casale, "but it's our proprietary software on the box. It's a smaller set-top box capable of delivering the extra functionality I mentioned before, and it offers a better price-performance ratio."

"With the advent later this year of our portal and playlisting software updates, the new HDDE will also provide some local control for a single display," said Casale. "In other words, rather than only allowing centralized control of a single display in an office area, an administrative assistant would be able to override the central control for that particular display."

Starbak Playlist
Starbak's HDDE GUI, which offers drag-and-drop playlist update capability.

"We think digital signage is a natural extension of E-CDN and portal solutions," said Casale. "We're giving our customers the ability to choose how they want to display on-demand and live content, whether it be training classes, public service announcements, CEO addresses, and other vital corporate communications."

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