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Building a great media player, the Hacker Way

We work with all manner of venues with screens across the hospitality sector – but at its core, Screach is a technology company. CEO and Co-Founder Paul Rawlings has been building and deploying great tech wizardry for a number of years, and ScreachTV is no different. When Screach as a company was focusing on creating phone-to-screen interactive games and campaigns (working with the likes of Cadbury, Swiftcover.com and Channel 4), the idea for ScreachTV came about as solution to a conundrum – how do we get the interactive content on to the screens in the first place? We need a device that connects to a television and handles our Screach content. When the answer came, we knew it was something worth pursuing, and what started as an idea early last year is now a fully-fledged income-generating entertainment system with over 150 venue customers in the UK, and growing fast. Here’s what it can do on a venue’s screens. And here’s some insight into the process of designing and building ScreachTV…

Hardware and Software

The ScreachTV software was written in-house by our team of talented developers based in the UK and Romania. The start-up mentality runs strong at Screach, and we practice Facebook’s The Hacker Way – the accelerated-growth method of failing fast, and failing often. This allowed us the freedom to try lots of different paths, quickly, to get to the right one. We looked at all kinds of existing hardware, from £5000 digital signage machines, to the DIY-lover’s Raspberry Pi. In the end we chose a device which balanced performance with price and one we could tailor to our needs.

The ScreachTV application sits on an Android TV box, an Apple TV-esque player which receives content from the cloud and displays it on television screens. The Android device was perfect for our needs – a device which was low-cost, versatile, and (most importantly) developer friendly. For the Android device to do what we wanted, we adapted the existing OS for our own purpose, and had the device firmware completely re-vamped too. We’ve seen some discussion about the perks and pitfalls of using these Android boxes as digital signage players and our recommendation, from our own experience, is to not settle for the software and firmware which comes with it.  Make your product elegant and robust, by not only building a bespoke application on top, but by utilizing the dev-friendly features of the OS, making your player work the way you want it to.

Keeping costs low

As the box is low-cost, it means there was less resource and focus spent on worrying about a big shiny piece of hardware like most traditional digital signage solutions. Instead we could focus on the backend admin system, the player performance, and the ScreachTV content. It meant we were able to roll our product out quickly, and we were able to lower the barrier to market, by not having to pass expensive set up costs on to our venue customers. That instantly set ScreachTV apart from most other digital signage companies in the hospitality industry.

Constant improvement

ScreachTV is undergoing continual tweaks and modifications, and with the system we have built, every device can be upgraded to the latest version remotely – once we have approved a new version of the application, we can roll it out across the network at the touch of a button. Not only that, we have buried a lot of clever features into the software, such as the ability to view and control a device from anywhere in the world in real-time, live data on plays of content, and logs which allow us to monitor the performance of a device. We pass a lot of these features on to our customers, to make sure they get the most out of our service.

Testing across the whole team

We have large test groups – every Screach employee has a device at home which is running adverts, live content and games 24 hours per day. At any one time, there are 13 boxes hooked up to 13 monitors in the Screach office to test content and software against – this has the added benefit that every person in the office, from sales to design, can understand the system and feed back ideas on the product. Even when some of our developers work remotely, we work as a unified team on testing and improving ScreachTV.

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 If you build software and deploy it on existing hardware, we’d love to hear what problems you’ve encountered and what solutions you’ve come up with on your journey to market.

 

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