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:
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.