Digital Signage | Feature

Finding Your Way With Digital Signage

Touchscreen technology is turning digital signs into interactive route planners, giving users customized directions based on everything from time of day to weather conditions.

This story appeared in the February 2013 digital edition of Campus Technology.

It's tough being a digital sign these days. Everyone wants a piece of your action. From announcements to advertisements, menus to broadcasts, digital signs provide dynamic messaging tailored to locations and circumstances. Now they're being asked to dispense directions, too. With the advent of wayfinding technology, today's digital signs can serve up customized directions around campuses and all of their buildings. Even men might stop for directions.

Wayfinding relies on touchscreen and finger-gesturing technology, says Andy Gomez, vice president of technology at TouchQuest, a digital signage solutions provider. And he believes students are natural users: Accustomed to smartphones and tablets, they simply expect to touch screens.

For their part, campuses are an ideal locale for wayfinding technology, with their myriad buildings and thousands of people who need to know how to get around on a daily basis. Factor in a parents' weekend here, a homecoming game there, and campuses become a perfect storm of directional disarray.

How It Works
In the most basic terms, wayfinding technology enables users to find a route from wherever the digital screen is sited to another location on campus. The challenge, says Gomez, is to give users directions with a minimum of screen touches. To achieve this goal, screens use a mix of selection trees, drop-down lists, and/or soft keypads with text boxes that auto-fill as users type.

While vendors strive to keep the user interaction simple and intuitive, the results themselves are pretty sophisticated. Directions can be context sensitive, for example, changing according to weather conditions or time of day. At night, a sign might give directions that follow a well-lit route; during rain or snow, the route might take advantage of available cover.

Wayfinding technology can also customize directions based on a user's own situation, says Jeff Collard, president of Omnivex, a company that specializes in digital-signage software. "Someone in a wheelchair won't be sent by way of an escalator, but via an elevator instead," he explains. To receive a tailored route like this, users simply press the button on the screen depicting a wheelchair. At that point, the software also shifts the buttons to the bottom of the screen so they're within easy reach. Audio options exist for blind users, with Braille instructions to get them started. Once users have created their routes, many wayfinding systems can then text or e-mail the directions to their smartphones.

The Challenges
While the user interface might be a study in simplicity, the back-end system is anything but. In a February 2012 webinar that featured Collard and Mark Naylor, then assistant vice president for information technology services at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, Naylor describes wayfinding on campus as a many-to-many problem. "Universities often have multiple campuses, some have tens or hundreds of buildings, and those buildings have many entrances and often many floors," he explains. Compounding the complexity are the many different types of users, from students, faculty, and staff to tradespeople and emergency services, all of whom have different needs.

The solution is smart content that can handle changing circumstances on the fly. In addition to responding to weather conditions or specific user needs, smart content can also disambiguate the destination itself: When a user keys in "psych 101," for example, it can help identify the correct location even if there are four other course sections taking place that day or at that time.

Smart content also helps universities capitalize on directions requested by users. When attendees use digital wayfinding to locate their seats at a sporting event, for example, the route can highlight concession stands and merchandise booths--or steer spectators clear of construction areas.

The usefulness of wayfinding signs is limited only by the data inputs. In an arena, for example, most of the escalators might go up at the start of the game and then reverse direction at the end. If the wayfinding system has access to this information, the digital signs can change accordingly, helping to keep people moving. 

The ability to input data or make changes quickly might even save lives. Many schools are now using digital signs to alert the campus population in the event of emergencies, whether it's a tornado or a gunman. In situations like these, digital screens might provide instructions on where to go or warn people away from a particular area.

The Software
Anyone who works at a college or university knows how siloed campuses tend to be. Unfortunately, digital signage is no exception. The music department, for instance, might have bought a sign to advertise concerts and events, while the athletic department might own several screens in the student union for broadcasting games and news about the school's teams. At some point, most departments end up on the doorstep of the IT department, wanting support for technology that the IT department never specced or bought.

Good back-end software can overcome a lot of the problems that these disparate efforts create: Software that enables the screens to be networked, that allows for security standards, and is Active Directory or LDAP compliant. Digital signage software such as CastNET and Omnivex's Moxie help schools manage their digital sign and wayfinding networks. They also provide easy-to-use content-development tools, so even artistically challenged staff can create attractive and dynamic content with appropriate branding.

Another important feature to consider is analytics, which allow schools to evaluate how campus constituents are using their wayfinding signs. "They can see if a particular classroom is being searched for often and determine the cause," explains TouchQuest's Gomez. "Maybe the classroom is in a hard-to-find area, and more specific directions or landmarks can be added for that classroom."

The Hardware
While the software and its accompanying data ultimately determine the value of a school's digital signage, it's all useless if the actual sign is broken. Given how and where they're used, digital signs need to be robust.

"Wayfinding means lots of touching," notes Tom Di Nome, senior PR manager at Sony. "The screen needs to be able to handle that." Sony sells interactive LCD touchscreens with "chemically strengthened glass," but there are other considerations. According to Di Nome, the signs can't become too hot or too cold, which means they can't be directly in the sun, rain, or snow. Depending on the climate, they might even need to be kept in a heated or cooled cabinet. In addition, the screens need to be protected from themselves: They frequently run 12-24 hours per day, which requires additional thermal protection from overheating. The same could probably be said about the volunteers who used to man the information kiosks.

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