Home > Mac administration > Digital signage using the Apple TV

Digital signage using the Apple TV

Recently at work, I was given an interesting assignment: “Figure out a way to build an inexpensive solution for 30 large displays to display individual content.”

The requirements included the following:

1. Solution needed to be able to display multiple presentations (think PowerPoint and Keynote slides)

2. Solution needed to be able to loop the multiple presentations in a pre-determined order

3. Solution needed to be cheaper than the other solutions under consideration

4. Solution preferably would be automated, with as little human intervention needed as possible

After evaluating a number of options, I came up with an all-Apple solution that cost under $5000. See below the jump for details.

One of the first decisions I made when working on this project was that all presentations would preferably be Quicktime movie files. This would take font management out of the end solutions’s needed requirements, as well as not needing to support the video codecs of any embedded media in the presentation. It would also allow the displayed presentation to be set to loop without needing to do anything special. Both Keynote and PowerPoint 2011 on the Mac can export to a Quicktime movie, while PowerPoint on Windows can export Windows Media files that can be easily converted to Quicktime.

Once that decision was made, the next part was figuring out how to display the movies. After considering and rejecting various scripting approaches and commercial Mac digital signage products, I took a look at using Mac Minis in combination with Apple TVs. This turned out to be the solution that I was looking for:

MacMini_iTunes_AppleTV.001  

1. It was cheap – I could buy 33 Apple TVs at $100 each (30 for the displays and three spares) for $3300. With a projected budget of $5000, that left $1700 for a fully expanded Mac Mini with 8 GBs of memory and SSD drive.

2. All content could be centrally stored on the Mini and displayed via the Apple TVs – I could leverage Apple’s iTunes Home Sharing to have the Mini act as a central iTunes server for content. Each display would have its own iTunes playlist available via Home Sharing, so every display would be able to display unique content.

3. Looping though the presentations is simple to set up – Here’s how to set up the Apple TV to loop through a playlist of videos:

1. Enable the Repeat Music setting in the Apple TV’s Audio/Video Setting section

2. Create a playlist on the Mac that’s running iTunes

3. Add the videos to the playlist

4. Select all the video files in the playlist.

5. Get info on the selected files

6. Change the type in iTunes to Music Videos

7. On the Apple TV, go to Computers > %ComputerName% > Music > Playlists

8. Select the playlist with the videos we want.

There are a couple of hurdles that need to be addressed before this solution can be put into production:

1. Your Apple TVs and central iTunes server need to be on the same subnet – For reasons that are well-explained here, iTunes Home Sharing will only work on one subnet: the one that the central iTunes server is on. The Apple TVs need to be on the same subnet so that they can “see” the iTunes server via Home Sharing and access the display’s content.

2. Content management – This is probably where the described solution is the weakest. 30 displays constantly displaying unique content, where that content is periodically refreshed, means that somebody needs to:

A. Manage the content and playlists

B. Upload new content as needed to the iTunes server

C. Make sure the displays themselves are always displaying the desired content

You may be able to leverage Apple’s Remote iOS app for centralized remote management of the Apple TVs. That said, in my testing I found that using the Remote app caused my test Apple TV’s Repeat Music setting to be turned off. That was bad for this solution because it meant that the playlist would run once, then the Apple TV would return to the Apple TV home screen.

Categories: Mac administration
  1. March 11, 2012 at 12:58 pm

    Rich,

    In this scenario, are the aTVs dependent on the central mini for a continuous data stream, or are they caching the content locally? In other words, if the mini needs a reboot, what will happen to the displays?

    I have a very similar setup at work at a smaller scale one display powered by a 1st gen, 40 gig aTV, looping through playlist of the agency’s TV work. What it does well is that the local storage means that the uptime of the machine that feeds it playlists doesn’t matter. One slight downside is the growl-like track title data that appears at the bottom left at the start of each video… I was once asked if it could be removed, but I’ve never seen a way. Does the 2nd gen also do that?

  2. March 11, 2012 at 1:34 pm

    Steve,

    I’ll address your questions in reverse. Yes, the track info data appears and I haven’t seen a way to stop that information from appearing.

    In this scenario, the Apple TVs are dependent on a continuous stream from the Mini. They’re buffering data as it comes in, but my assumption for this project is that this cached video data doesn’t store more than a few seconds worth of data. Once the buffer runs out, the Apple TVs stop playing and return to the home screen. In that case, if the Mini is rebooted, that means that all the Apple TVs would stop and go back to their home screen. The Apple TVs would need to be reconnected to their playlist and the playing of the videos restarted.

  3. March 11, 2012 at 1:46 pm

    Thanks, Rich. That’s going to be a drag when the day comes that the mini needs routine maintenance (or unscheduled event) and you’ll have 30 displays to restart. I know there are multiple commercial appliances for this type of signage need- undoubtably at a higher price point. Did any of them make it to a trial status for your project?

  4. March 11, 2012 at 2:17 pm

    Steve,

    Yes, we’re evaluating multiple solutions and we may wind up going with a more expensive commercial appliance solution. The Mini-Apple TV project is currently at the “proof of concept” stage to see how inexpensively a solution could be built while meeting the given requirements, but the people/time costs of managing the system are definitely the most expensive parts of it.

  5. March 11, 2012 at 5:33 pm

    That’s one benefit of the 1st Gen aTV: With 40 gig (or more) of onboard storage, it can have independence from other devices that the current black ones don’t. Of course, you’re then talking about out of production hardware, but so far I’ve had ours cycling 24/7 for about a year, with no issues. Therefore I’m sure your aTV plan will provide a robust solution.
    I’ll stay tuned to see if this goes into production, or you go to something under the dedicated kiosk appliance umbrella. I have had feedback that we’d prefer to not have the track data appear on screen, but nobody has tried to categorize that as a problem we must solve, though I won’t be stunned if that day comes. (Or if I exceed the lifespan of my first gen, and need to replace that function.)

  6. Max Heller
    March 12, 2012 at 5:20 pm

    Can you multicast videos via airplay out to multiple TVs like you can with audio? That way you never need to restart each one manually, just start the multicast and they will start playing.

    • March 12, 2012 at 5:42 pm

      Good question, I haven’t tested that. I’m not sure that capability fix the problem in my case though because each display needs to have unique content. AirPlay would allow the same video content to be displayed via multiple Apple TVs.

  7. shihtzustaff
    March 14, 2012 at 5:29 pm

    I have a question you may be able to answer. You state that you are going to use home sharing to show your content. How are you handling the fact that the ATV drops the home sharing connection often. Since the last ATV update, I have not been able to get it to stay connected for more than 5 minutes at a time. We are currently watching all content via the Cloud. Have you had this issue?

    • March 14, 2012 at 6:43 pm

      I haven’t seen that issue. One of my tests was to leave a playlist up and running to see if those sorts of problems appeared. It stayed running and correctly looping for about 24 hours straight before I stopped it (needed to unplug it from power for a demo in another conference room.)

      • March 14, 2012 at 9:20 pm

        Really? I have had constant connectivity problems along with many other people with both ATV 1 and 2. It has been so much worse since the update was installed last week. What is your secret? You mentioned something about a subnet? Could the cause of the problem be the subnet problem? Would it connect at all if it was not on the same subnet? Thank you so much for your thoughts!

      • March 14, 2012 at 9:39 pm

        I’m not sure I have a secret. My workplace has a well-maintained and managed network.

        All the devices connecting via iTunes Home Sharing need to be on the same network segment (aka subnet) as the machine sharing content via Home Sharing. If a device isn’t on the same subnet, it won’t be able to “see” the Home Sharing or access the content.

  8. cristiano.romani@libero.it
    May 12, 2012 at 8:33 pm

    Ho there, I try to setup 8 atv home sharing and only 5 works, it look like also home sharing is lock to 5 units like the other apple product/software, how did you set up 30?

    • Dave V
      October 28, 2012 at 2:29 pm

      This has been plaguing my mind as well. After extensive thought, research, and testing, I’ve discovered that it’s possible to drive more than 5 aTVs from one computer or central hub. This scenario does require multiple iTunes account’s. In our case, we have set up a few “dummy” accounts that are used only for our digital signage. Once you have done this, use the Administrator account on your computer to create multiple “Login Accounts.” Once you log in to a user account, start up iTunes and upload your desired signage (using the steps mentioned above to create a music video and home share options; log in with one of your dummy accounts). Once this is complete simply “switch users” without logging out of the user id, or closing iTunes, and log in to a second user id. iTunes will continue to run in the background of your previous Account. Viola!

  9. Mark Verhyden
    July 29, 2012 at 2:15 am

    Hi Rich,

    I’m setting up a similar, but much smaller, arrangement. Probably 5-6 TV’s. Streaming the same to multiple aTV’s looks good. Out of curiosity have you done any testing with separate streams. Meaning setting up different accounts on the computer with different iTunes accounts and linking each aTV to a different account. I know that would be very difficult having 30 different accounts would be impractical. But grouping them might have value. I’ve tried that with two and it seems to work very well.

    Regards

    Mark

  10. November 18, 2012 at 7:01 pm

    I didn’t read through all the comments but it’s worth noting that you DO NOT need to rename the media type to music. You can leave as movie or show and still use a play list.

    Apple should rename the REPEAT MUSIC functionality to REPEAT PLAYLIST.

    I did verify that using REMOTE does in fact turn off the repeat function, which I would call a bug but I’m sure Apple in all their wisdom has a reason! (ha!)

  11. November 18, 2012 at 7:03 pm

    Also worth nothing running the first generation ATV was a disaster in our facility…they struggle to stay on the network and linked to the iTunes and you can ONLY link 5 per itunes…thus you will never mulitple macminis or run some virtual systems…and good luck with those staying connected! Plus the content must be 850×550 pixels (approx.) far inferior to 1080p.

  12. Bob
    November 22, 2012 at 1:26 am

    Interesting topic that I have been considering for about a year now. For purposes of streaming media I have used playlists in an iTunes library on a Mac Mini w/home sharing enables, connect to the headless mini and load our .M4V movie files and set the genre of the movie files to “news” so that a smart playlist can be created. This does work but haven’t tested for long-term connectivity. What I would RATHER do is set up our own custom channel(s) from a local media server on lour LAN (Plex?) similar to Netflix and other content providers so that our ATVs can stream the content appropriate for the division where the display devices (LED TVs) are located. I know this is easily accomplished using a ROKU player but not sure if a similar solution has been created for ATVs. Great product and would love to extend its functionality beyond a consumer device.

  13. November 27, 2012 at 4:27 pm

    This seems to work very well. Did anyone find a fix to the title showing up in video playlist?

    Here is what I did…(event though I would rather it not be there at all) In Itunes I changed the name of the video under “Get Info” to our website. Then in the artwork section I put in a .PNG with a transparent background of our logo.

    So when every new video start our logo and website come up briefly. That makes it slightly less annoying. I would love an option just to disable it.

  14. Carlie
    January 31, 2013 at 5:42 pm

    Very useful discussion. Thanks.

  15. March 3, 2013 at 9:23 pm

    First off, i applaud your use of apple equipment to relieve the technical complications such a project would have. i am doing the exact same thing, albeit at 8 sites throughout an emergency management building in Nevada. We control the system through a MacMini server (which also helps control our 60 iPad (3-4 gen) system for emergency operations.)

    I like the quicktime application and some of the added information. Definitely going to use these ideas as I move forward. We are installing the flat screens now, the TVs are on order, and I am starting to make test content. I’ll be using your ideas to move this project forward. Thanks so much!

  16. Daniel S
    May 9, 2013 at 5:12 am

    Nice idea. We’ve been using jailbroken 1st-gen Apple TVs to drive digital signage in the building I work in for the past several years. I have scripts that copy images to them, and they’re all set to run a screensaver using those images. Easy, cheap, and it looks great on the 1080p displays we use. The only downside is that they won’t last forever, and 1st-gen Apple TVs aren’t available any more.

    Maybe I could do something similar with the latest model.

  17. Antoine
    September 14, 2013 at 9:36 pm

    Unfortunatly, Apple TV display the title of each video. Is there a way to make it disappear ?

  18. lacy
    November 1, 2013 at 3:03 pm

    I am currently implementing something very similar to this, it will have 10 apple tv’s. is this still a limitation regarding having 10 machines using the playlist from 1 itunes account (i’m only doing a prototype with 3 or 4 machines),

    thanks

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