Inside Intel's Open Pluggable Specification - Interview with James Tan, Intel

5As we continue the march into the age of intelligent systems, digital signage platforms will play a large part in the evolution of the commercial and retail markets. Noticing fragmentation in the digital signage space, Intel released the Open Pluggable Specification (OPS) in 2010, defining a modular, integrated hardware architecture that could link digital signage media players and their corresponding displays to create cost-efficient intelligent signage platforms that use EPIC and smaller sized boards. In this PC/104 and Small Form Factors interview, spec author James Tan describes how the OPS is enabling intelligent and connected digital signage deployment. Edited excerpts follow.

SFF: What were the drivers behind the development of the Intel Open Pluggable Specification (OPS) for digital signage?

TAN: When Intel started to focus on the digital signage industry roughly four years ago, the first thing we noticed was how fragmented the market was, not only in terms of software offerings, but also for the computing system solutions (commonly known as the digital signage media player) available in the marketplace itself. There was no standard solution in place; each digital signage media player provider was pretty much offering their own proprietary solution. While this was acceptable for an independent, standalone media player system that you can easily attach to a display panel, there was a growing demand for integrated solutions, especially from display providers and system integrators as they expanded their product portfolios into total solutions rather than separate display panels and media players. Also, as the digital signage segment matured, there was a need to address the inefficiency around system deployment, usage, maintenance, and infrastructure upgrades.

While there were a few integrated solutions out there at that time – some with an internal motherboard into the display and some with modular solutions that could easily attach and detach from the display – there was no standard hardware architecture in place when it came to the integration between the display panel and media player. Due to this, some key display vendors and signage providers that we engaged with voiced concern about the limited compatibility and interoperability between a display panel and media player, which was halting the strategic growth of the digital signage solution space. Developers (especially display companies) also had to fork out substantial amounts of funding and resources each time they wanted to upgrade their systems, as they had to modify the display architecture and form factor to fit in a new integrated media player as those solutions were most likely outsourced from a third-party vendor that provided their own proprietary solutions. Taking all these factors into account, we decided to take the initiative to lead the industry, and together with some key ecosystem partners such as NEC, Microsoft, and Taiwan Digital Signage Special Interest Group (Taiwan DS SIG), the OPS was launched by Intel in October 2010.

SFF: What is the importance of using small form factor boards in the development of digital signage systems, and why in particular does the specification call for EPIC and smaller-sized boards?

TAN: This relates closely to the practical sense of things. Digital signage media players are mostly attached to the back of the screen or embedded inside the screen (as is the case with the OPS) where space or system real estate could be limited, so small form factor boards are obviously desirable. As to the question of why EPIC-and-smaller boards were selected for the OPS, we knew from the start that we did not want too big of a system for OPS modules since displays are getting slimmer with a variety of sizes to fit retail and signage applications. We did some studies on practical component placement, as well as thermal simulation for mainstream Intel mobile processors, and found that EPIC-sized boards were a good fit. There are only a few key baseline features that you would really need for signage applications, so you can focus on designing a board that is very lean and highly effective to service the signage requirements, and strip out other features that are not needed – so, practically, you do not really need a board bigger than the EPIC size. From a thermal perspective, we had to ensure that the form factor of the OPS module was reasonably adequate for thermal dissipation when plugged into the display panel.

SFF: What are the physical dimensions of an OPS system? Does this make it more viable for particular sizes or types of digital signage?

TAN: The overall dimension of an OPS module, including the mounting frame, is 200 mm x 119 mm x 30 mm (discounting the mounting frame, which is 10 mm on each side, the physical volume of the body of the module is actually at 180 mm x 119 mm x 30 mm (Figures 1 and 2). This is ideal for 32" display sizes and above, however the module is still fairly compact and we have seen it go into screens as small as 24", which is mainly in space-constrained environments such as buses or trains.

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Figure 1: The dimensions of an OPS module are 200 mm x 119 mm x 30 mm (7.87" x 4.69" x 1.18"), including the mounting frame.
(Click graphic to zoom by 1.9x)

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Figure 2
(Click graphic to zoom by 1.9x)

SFF: Does an Intel OPS-compliant system have the ability to handle multiple displays simultaneously? Can it be used for video walls?

TAN: It is important to note that OPS defines the scope of interoperability and integration between a media player to a single display panel, so the specification basically just covers that. As to whether it can handle multiple displays, that is inherent to the media player (OPS module) platform capabilities, and most Intel-based OPS platforms can definitely support additional display interfaces if they are being designed externally, which is not limited by the OPS spec. The same goes for video wall solutions: developers can leverage the OPS architecture and provide additional features and benefits on top of it to position their products better as a whole and create differentiation in the marketplace.

SFF: What are the thermal design considerations that developers using the OPS need to account for?

TAN: For the module developers, the thermal requirement is pretty straightforward. Regardless of the platform, the module designed must be able to operate at up to 45 ºC (113 °F). This means that all the major components in the module such as memory, storage, voltage regulators, and so on, including the processor, are still operational within the thermal spec in an ambient temperature of up to 45 ºC. There is also the condition of sufficient airflow either from the environment or from an active cooling solution provided by the module itself.

As for the display developers, due to different designs and implementations of the display panel in the market we try to be as “flexible and open” as possible with regards to a display’s thermal requirements. Touching on a couple of key examples, the spec merely states that there must be sufficient airflow provided to the module. Subjectively, this can mean that airflow is provided by the fan from the OPS module (if it is an active cooling module) and/or that airflow is provided by the system fan within the display panel itself. Also, there is a defined minimum vent hole area, which can provide better exposure of the module to ambient air, dramatically helping dissipate heat. As long as these baseline requirements serve as a guiding factor, display developers have the freedom to design products as they see fit while still factoring in the thermal considerations of OPS modules.

SFF: Why was the 80-pin JAE plug and receptacle connector chosen as the interface model, and what type of signaling does it support? What capabilities does this enable between media player and display?

TAN: Since this is an open spec, one important aspect is that the connector chosen had to be easily sourced by developers and had to come from a reliable supplier. The other criteria mainly focused on the electrical, thermal, and mechanical aspects of the connector. The 80-pin JAE TX24/TX25 connector series allows a sufficient current rating (1 A per pin with 8 total pins allocated for power), which is important in ensuring that the module is sufficiently powered, as the OPS actually relies on the Power Supply Unit (PSU) from the display side to operate. Signal integrity is also an important factor, and this connector is capable of supporting higher speed signals such as DisplayPort. Thermally, it can support a wide range of operating temperatures, from -40 ºC to +80 ºC. The connector can also sustain at least 500 insertion lifecycles, and is very robust when it comes to shock/vibration environments. All of these factors coupled with the fact that it is cost effective (roughly $1 per connector) made the 80-pin JAE TX24/TX25 connector a suitable choice for OPS.

As for the signaling through the JAE connector, we defined key features that are instrumental in turning a normal professional-grade display into a smart, intelligent, and connected screen. This enables the display panel to work seamlessly with the OPS module so that they function effectively as a single entity. Besides being powered up natively within the display, which eliminates the need for a separate power cable/adapter for the media player, the module also provides multimedia features to the display through the options of TMDS for DVI and HDMI or DisplayPort and audio. The OPS architecture also allows expansion capability through USB 2.0 and USB 3.0 ports, which can be used for integrating devices within displays such as cameras, touchscreens, RFID readers, and the like, or even serve as a USB hub for the display. UART signals are also available for increased communication and control functions between the display and the module.

In addition, there are also a few OPS control signals that can be utilized by developers. These signals can enhance the functionality of displays through capabilities such as detecting the presence of the module and of its power status; system fan control; pluggable signal ON, which can be used to power up/down the module from the display side (as when using a remote control); and also HDMI Consumer Electronics Control (CEC), which is basically a single wired control signal that can be used to detect the status of the display and even configure settings like brightness, contrast, and display audio volume.

SFF: Are Intel OPS systems able to operate as “intelligent systems” that interact with people and other intelligent devices? If so, what is the technology behind this?

TAN: Absolutely. There are many other key features that Intel is evangelizing in parallel with the OPS that can enrich OPS systems and increase their functionality in this area. As mentioned previously, the OPS enables the digital signage ecosystem to turn a normal display into a smart, intelligent, and connected screen.

From a Return On Investment (ROI) standpoint, advertisers or screen owners can now measure the effectiveness of their screens by observing demographics through sensors or cameras integrated in the OPS system that can anonymously detect gender, age group, and impression time by using the Intel Audience Impression Metric (AIM) Suite anonymous viewer analytics software. The data collected can be sent back to a server or the cloud for further analytics by the advertiser, which can, for example, be used to crosscheck the sales data of a particular product being advertised through the screen. The AIM application also makes the screen intelligent, as it can then be applied to run specific content that is closely related to the viewer’s demographic, enabling smarter and more effective digital signage.

In terms of Total Cost of Ownership (TCO), the OPS architecture encourages display developers to design a so-called vPRO-capable display, which supports the usage model of remote manageability through Intel Active Management Technology (AMT). If you are managing multiple screens it can be very troublesome and costly to manage over time, particularly at locations like airports where the number of displays could be in the hundreds or thousands and you have to send an IT person or technician on-site to repair a signage screen every time an issue is being flagged. The issue could be either a hardware or software conflict or sometimes both, and more often than not faulty signage can be easily troubleshot by doing a software fix or reboot. AMT expects the signage to be connected to the management server all the time (either through wired LAN or Wi-Fi) so that the IT person is able to manage all of the screens remotely, and AMT-enabled OPS systems can be managed out-of-band, which means that even when the Operating System (OS) is corrupt or not running, you can still access the system remotely and perform hardware diagnostics through AMT’s various features and attempt to fix the system. Only if all else fails and it is found to be a hardware issue in which some parts need to be replaced would it require sending a technician on-site. In addition, AMT also allows you to do system ON/OFF scheduling, which makes your signage smarter and saves on the electricity bill.

Also, modular and integrated system architectures like OPS can further boost system-level initiatives, especially in the areas of interactivity. Developers can easily integrate touchscreen, gesture technologies, or even RFID or NFC readers and devices into an OPS system using the interfaces provided, effectively revolutionizing the usage model of the digital signage by making it something that the viewer can engage and interact with rather than just a dumb advertising screen.

SFF: Do OPS developers need to be particular in their processor selection? Are there recommended processors for use with the OPS, and if so, why?

TAN: While this is an open spec, which means that OPS developers have the complete freedom to choose the processor type that suits them, in order to reap the maximum benefits of what an OPS architecture has to offer for the usage models and technologies I just explained, it is highly recommended that an Intel Core i5 processor or above is used to meet processing requirements and leverage technology support like AMT. Features like audience measurement with AIM will also require higher processing capability for viewer analytics, which runs perfectly on i5 and above processors since it is optimized for the Core series and can simultaneously run multimedia signage content such as HD videos, flash, and tickers. As for thermal considerations, OPS platforms are scalable to support different types of processor with an ideal range of up to 40 W.

SFF: How has the Intel OPS spec faired in the industry to date?

TAN: Since its launch, more than twenty ecosystem partners and counting that have designed and launched OPS-based products in the marketplace. This shows that the industry is responding well to the standardization effort, and with OPS settling in to become a de-facto hardware standard for digital signage, we hope more and more solution providers will adopt the architecture and reap its benefits and advantages.

James Tan is a Platform Systems Architect for the Retail Solutions Division (RSD), Intelligent Systems Group (ISG) at Intel, and is the author of the Intel Open Pluggable Specification (OPS).

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