The sign developed to meet our company signage need.

The sign developed to meet our company signage need.

I work for a small business. Money doesn’t grow on trees. We work hard to make the best use of every dollar.

With that said, one need that all businesses are confronting is how to have as optimal an experience as possible, from the business side to your clients and your vendors as well.

Apple TV more than meets that need. Let me tell you how.

Some months ago, after a move to a new office location, we were getting our company systems set up and ready to function.   One of those was a display sign in the entryway.  We had been using an online service, a very good one,  but in looking at the cost associated with that, as well as the additional system that had to be running for it to work, we felt pretty sure it was possible to save some money.

Apple TV For Dummies

 

But what to do?

Apple TV: Digital Signs for Cheap

I had not purchased an Apple TV at that point, but I was interested in how they might be used in a business setting.  They are small, have an ethernet port as well as wifi built in, and they display using HDMI.

So I grabbed the first Apple TV I could lay my hands on (at the local Apple store), and started testing.  I figured if it was a total wash out I would buy it from the company and bring it home.

I set the device up using a normal computer monitor with a DVI to HDMI cable.  It was super simple to setup.  Make sure all the cables were set up, plug it in, and follow the onscreen prompts.

I knew within 5 minutes it would be something I would be buying for my home.  It was that easy to use.

 

The Hunt

Amazon ImageAt this point the hunt for a backend software to create the digital signage was on.  I also needed a system to output the actual image to the sign.

After several forays through online services that came with a healthy price tag (because digital signage is a very popular item–think of it as yet another means of displacing print items, in this instance posters, menus or billboards even), I settled on something I was more familiar with.

WordPress.  Yep.  I built our company signage off a WordPress them and a 3 yrs low end hosting service (because the truth is this “blog site” only has one visitor…our sign, so a beefy server isn’t a need).

I used a WordPress Theme built by Neal Jones called WordPress Digital Signage, which cost me a whopping zero dollars.

I purchased 3 years of hosting service for less than $150 (I know, I know, there was probably a cheaper price somewhere).  So far, even with the cost of the Apple TV ($99) I was about $2200 ahead because the service we had been using (and which had been up for renewal) was over $800/yr.

I still needed a way to get what was an online blog site (our sign site) displayed to the Apple TV and our HDTV.  When we had built out our office space, we had intentionally run CAT 5E to the spot where the HDTV was placed, along with power.  So, now I could hide the Apple TV behind the HDTV.

Don’t worry if you don’t have an HDTV with an ethernet cable handy, because the Apple TV comes with built in wifi. I just didn’t chose to use it since we had a wired network available.

Solving the Server Need

Apple TV is slick, and when you put it in the middle of a bunch of Mac computers, it gets super easy to output a web page to the Apple TV.  But I didn’t want to be stuck with only being able to use the native AirPlay functionality that is a part of the Mac OS X platform.

To extend that, I used a software called AirParrot.  And with AirParrot you don’t need to be using a Mac to output an application or a desktop to the AppleTV.  It is an equal opportunity program (well, Windows and Mac; sorry Linux heads).

The goal was to be able to use a “sign user” on a Mac which you would not need to log in to but would be solely used as a user account for the display.  No, it is not a Mac dedicated only to the display.  With Mac OS X you can have multiple users logged in and using the system at the same time. That is what I have done for the display.

Apple Mac Mini MD387LL/A Desktop (NEWEST VERSION)

 

The sign, then, is a single web page on a WordPress blog devoted to digital signage use for our company.  I chose to use Google Chrome running in Presentation Mode, which outputs all the screen on the remote HDTV to the sign.

Cost: Less than $250 for 3 years of service (I don’t count the Mac which is a Mac Mini being used by a colleague as their desktop computer).

Time to set up:  4 hours max, but I know my way around WordPress and Mac OS, but the Apple TV part was trivial at best.

Some of you might be tempted to snicker at the idea of devoting digital signage by using a Mac, but how many of you have seen the giant Times Square signs that display the Windows Blue Screen of Death?  Or remember the 2008 Olympics in Beijing when the opening ceremonies were treated to another Windows BSOD. The point?  Digital displays use all manner of desktop computing to address the need.  I just chose Apple.