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Configuring and Managing Chrome Sign Builder

Google Chrome Sign Builder is a digital signage utility that allows you to schedule and display content across managed Chrome devices making it easy to display web content content such as menus, images, YouTube videos and Google Slide presentations - in fact anything that can be represented by a URL.

Chrome Sign Builder  (CSB) has a number of advantages for education.
  • The content is driven from a ChromeOS ‘player’ attached to each display which can be a Chromebox or even a Chromebit. Purchasing these devices with a management licence can provide a cost effective solution as all other elements are free.
  • CSB integrates into the G Suite for Education management framework that schools are already familiar with and uses common content creation tools such as Google Slides which can be easily shared and manipulated by a group. There is no requirement to master a separate content management system (CMS).

However the approach has a number of limitations.
  • Setup of the devices can be a little complicated, which is why it’s documented here.
  • Control of the screen layout through the Chrome Sign Builder Utility is fairly crude and does not come close to matching commercial offerings. The elements you can embed at are limited to a web URL and CSB does not support widgets, The utility lacks a number of key features which makes it user unfriendly in a number of places and it's functionality has not been extended since it’s launch in 2015. Hopefully it's due a makeover in the near future.

There are several elements to the solution.

The Display Screen.
The screen can be any commercially available flat screen monitor, There are no prerequisites other than support for 1080p input through an  HDMI connection which is standard in every modern device. If the display is wall mounted you will need two power connections, one for the the display and one for the the ChromeOS player.

ChromeOS and Chrome Kiosk App - the Player.
Each display will need a ChromeOS device connected through the HDMI connection that will run a Chrome Kiosk app. Commonly solutions use the devices listed below.

Chromebox: Asus, HP, Dell, AOPEN, Acer, or Lenovo
Chromebit: Asus

The advantage of using a Chromebox is that they support a wired Ethernet connection and can be purchased with integrated bluetooth trackpad and keyboard which is useful during setup and makes the ongoing management easier. In contrast the Chromebit is cheaper, supports wireless only and can be useful where space (and money) is tight.

Content Management System (CMS).
Unlike similar commercial offerings Google signage doesn't include a dedicated content management system (CMS) to design the content. Instead you can reference any URL that can be resolved by the Chrome app on the player. This can be a simple website or, as shown in this example a Google Slides presentation. The sophistication of the display is limited to the capabilities of the web target rather than the CSB software.

Google Chrome Sign Builder (CSB).
The Chrome Sign Builder is slightly misnamed because it doesn’t actually ‘build’ the signage but simply schedules the URL to run on various ChromeOS players.

Google Chrome Sign Builder create the schedules and specifies the content URLs that will be displayed. Later you might need to change the display content but that’s done by updating the Google Slide or website rather than any information held by the CSB. Although fairly basic, this model is quite powerful for education as it makes maintaining and updating the display as simple as editing a Google Slides presentation. At the same time it limits what can be achieved to the features of Google slides which currently does not support widgets.

Creating a simple display using Google Slides.

Step1: Create the Content

In this example we will use Google Slides to manage the display content. This document is not intended as an introduction to Slides but a few tips are provided.

It’s quite a good idea to create a dedicated resource account (Digital Displays) to be the owner of the slide documents and then reshare to the slide editors.

Before you start your design it's worth matching the page size to the pixel ratio of the target screen just to make sure you are using the whole canvas and won't be subject to odd stretching or shrinking features once your presentation hits the screen.

   1080 (HDTV)  1920 × 1080 = 16:9 aspect ratio

Don’t use too many transition features or plan to move through the slide deck too quickly. 

Be aware that your display will need to be seen from a distance so choose your font sizes accordingly.

You could reserve pages to be updated by various teaching teams or groups. By keeping the background consistent you can give the impression of the information changing while the display remains constant.

The slide presentation needs to be shared publicly using the option “Publish to the Web”.

You can set the features of the slideshow at this point although the CSB allows you to reset this for each schedule so it’s not actually necessary. The URL generated must be copied and re entered into the CSB extension as shown later.

You can test your display by entering the URL directly into a browser.

Step 2. Create the Display Schedule.

The display schedule and content URL is controlled by a config file that is created using a special Chrome app -  the Google Chrome Sign Builder (CSB).  The config file is uploaded into the console and then downloaded to each player when the kiosk app initialises.

You can download and install Chrome Sign Builder directly from the Chrome Web Store onto any device that has Chrome installed (Windows, MacOS, Chromebook).

Once loaded it presents a blank calendar with a day, week and month view and a default schedule.

Note: You can use the Chrome Sign Builder to maintain a set of schedules.When you export the schedule only the current (highlighted) schedule is exported. The drop down at the end of My Schedules allow you to create a new schedule.
Each schedule has a set of properties that can be accessed from the drop down to the right of the schedule name.

The most useful of these is the Default URL which you can use to define a default back drop when no other URL is scheduled, In this example we plan to create a simple schedule to display the Google Slides URL. First make sure you are on the calendar week view which provides the ‘All day’ option.

Select today's date in the all-day section at the top of the time range  - this will launch a dialog.

In the dialog paste the URL obtained from publishing the Slide into the URL text box.

At this point the dialog will present an option to update this information (below). The options will  vary with the content of the URL.

The values should be set as shown above. 

Note: The time to progress through each slide is in ms, so 60000 represents one minute.
The main dialog should be set as shown below. The reload option should be set for around five minutes to ensure that any change to the slide set is reflected within this time period. This value is in seconds rather than milliseconds just to provide a small amount of confusion.

The reload period should not be set too low as this action causes slight flicker of the display which can be distracting.

The Zone option gives you the ability to load the URL into one of four screen quadrants which can be further customized in terms of size.  Although this gives some control over URL placement the results can be very ugly. Stick to the Fullscreen option and use Sheets to drive the placement.

Once saved the dialog creates a calendar item that will drive the display. The item can be selected to be edited or deleted.

Advanced Display Options.

By highlighting areas of the calendar some sophisticated schedules can be created using this simple mechanism. In the example below a Google Slide displays from 9:00am to 11:30am at which point a second URL is loaded to point to a website that displays canteen information for lunch. This is removed at 12:30 pm  and replaced by a second sheet more suited for afternoon activities. At all other time a default page is displayed,

The repeat options are Once, Hourly, Daily, Weekly, Monthly of which Daily is the most useful. Unfortunately there is no option for Weekday or Weekend.

Exporting the Config File.

The only purpose of the Chrome Sign Builder is to create a config file that represents each schedule which can be loaded into the admin console.

The Export button will create the config file for the currently highlighted schedule only.

On a Windows system the file is created in the user download area as a type “CPanel Policy File” which essentially a readable .text file.

At the same time the app will attempt to logon into the admin console to allow the user to apply the config file. If the user has the correct permissions the file can be loaded against the Chrome Signage app in a single action. Apart from being quite efficient this allows CSB to store the file locally in the Chrome profile so it can be accessed at a later date if the user uses the same devices.

You cannot currently reload a config from a previously exported .text file. The config file can be backed up, edited (it has quite a simple structure) and loaded manually but it cannot be reloaded back into the CSB.

This means that unless you export the config file with the rights that allow it to be written directly to the console AND you always use the same device the config information is lost each time CSB is closed.

This is a minor inconvenience if you have a very simple schedule that is altered infrequently. However trying to maintain a more complex schedule that needs constant updating is a challenge unless you follow the rules above.

Step 3. Deploying the ChromeOS Player

As mentioned previously the ‘player’ is nothing more than a ChromeOS device running the Chrome kiosk app. You will need one for each display supported. 
Note: Configuring Chrome Signage requires super rights on the management console.
First enroll the ChromeOS device into your organisation following these instructions.

Create a new sub-OU to hold your ‘players’. For this document we’ll call it School Displays

Move the newly enrolled players into the School Displays sub-OU.

Follow the instructions listed in the help page to deploy the signage player.

At this point a reboot of the device will cause it to take the new policy. This causes to the device to enter kiosk mode and automatically start the Chrome Sign Builder app. The app will download the configuration file that has been associated with it providing the instructions on what and when to schedule.

To change the display you have a number of options.
  1. Change the content. Update the Google Slide. No other action is required.
  2. Change the scheduling or the URL of the slide display itself. Upload a new config file. 
    Device management > Chrome management > App management - select Chrome Sign Builder.

Select the sub-OU holding the players to be updated.

Remove the existing config file and upload the replacement and then Save.

Managing Different Display Programs

It’s possible to manage displays so that they run separate schedules. This would require a different schedule to be sent to a fixed set of players.

In this case create a new sub-OU, move the new devices into this OU and manage as a separate set. Moving a Chrome device from one OU to another will automatically change the display program. In this case it would be possible to create a program for an ‘out of term’ program and then simply relocate the players as required.

Other Information.