Synch or Swim
How can a retailer efficiently manage many digital screens or television sets as they broadcast content across a store? That was the challenge facing Gardner-White, an Auburn Hills, Mich.-based furniture retailer with 11 showrooms in the southeastern part of the state.
Last September, the company opened a new 90,000-sq.-ft. showroom that includes 30 TV monitors. Given the number of TVs in operation, “we wanted a way that was cost-effective and not clunky or ugly to display the TVs,” says Gardner-White vice president Rachel Tronstein. Management wanted to easily broadcast pre-recorded content across the sets without individually programming each TV. It also wanted to avoid having to link each set to another device (like a DVD player) or to connect each set with multiple cords and cables.
A wireless system would address many of these challenges, but many can only broadcast to several screens with a signal limit of approximately 150 feet.
A new offering from Peerless-AV, a designer, manufacturer and distributor of audio-visual solutions, met the company’s requirements. In fact, Gardner-White had the first installation of the PeerAir Pico Broadcaster, says Derrik Lam, director of product development with Peerless-AV.
Gardner-White’s marketing department would previously burn content onto discs and send them to the stores to run on showroom TVs. “It was okay, but time-consuming,” Tronstein says. Trying to synchronize programming across the sets was almost impossible, as employees lacked a practical way to start the sets simultaneously.
In addition, each set was connected both to a DVD player and a power source, and the DVD players themselves also were linked to power sources. Moving the sets — say, as the displays changed — could quickly become cumbersome, which limited the showroom’s functionality.
In 2011, Gardner-White made its first move to a wireless solution. Several stores implemented a Wi-Fi system that allowed one transmitter to broadcast to four receivers, each attached to a TV. This alleviated some of the previous solutions’ limitations, but the transmitters were unable to broadcast beyond 130 feet — even less in some stores. Moving TVs remained an unwieldy task, since it also required moving or adjusting the transmitter and receivers.
The Pico Broadcaster takes advantage of over-the-air broadcast technology to wirelessly transmit content directly to TVs using a UHF frequency — acting as a small broadcast station within the store and basically eliminating the need for cabling and separate receiving devices. “It’s a more powerful, scalable solution,” Lam says.
The Pico device broadcasts over “white space channels,” created in 2009 when the Federal Communications Commission mandated that all television stations convert from analog to digital. Because digital channels require less bandwidth than their analog counterparts, the shift created spaces that were devoid of any channel — “white space.” White space channels typically are free of the distribution restrictions and signal interference problems that can hamper Wi-Fi transmissions, Lam says. They tend to offer greater signal range, as well as the ability to broadcast through obstructions like walls.
The Pico Broadcaster is located near the middle of the store, allowing it a fairly unobstructed transmission path to the TVs throughout the store. The Broadcaster requires connections to a power supply and to a network jack or router; at Gardner-White, the device is adjacent to the IT cabinet. The television sets need connections to power sources, as well as antennas that allow them to receive the content.
Once the Broadcaster has captured content, it’s converted to a broadcastable format and sent to multiple TVs. One Broadcaster should be able to transmit content to just about any number of receiving devices within range — some 350 feet.
At Gardner-White, the Pico Broadcaster transmits content to the TVs in the sales area; Tronstein would eventually like to run the same content in the office to make it easier for employees to keep tabs on the programming.
The Broadcaster offers other benefits as well: All TVs in the store can be programmed from one computer, with content developed within the corporate office. Keeping promotions front and center with the salespeople and customers by broadcasting them on an ongoing basis “just focuses the store,” Tronstein says.
The Pico Broadcaster becomes a cost-saver once a retailer is outfitting more than six or so screens, Lam says. At that point, the cost of cabling and the labor needed to run the wiring typically exceeds the cost of the device.
Future enhancements are likely. Tronstein says Gardner-White would like to be able to remotely program all the television sets in all its stores. One way to do this, Lam says, would be to deliver files from the central computer to computers located in each store, which would then stream them to the Pico Broadcaster. From there, the files would be broadcast to the TVs.
Management also would like the ability to run different content in different areas of the store. For instance, TVs near the mattress department could run ads relevant to mattresses and bedding, while those near the accessories area could run programs that promote those items. “We want to customize content based on the products,” Tronstein says. Lam expects the technology needed to run multiple content streams through a single channel to be available later this year.