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Digital Signage

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Send those flyers to the recycle bin: There’s a whole new way to communicate news and information to students and other campus members.

Digital Signage IF THE PURPOSE of a business school is to prepare its students for real-world commercial environments and scenarios, then the College of Business Administration at Creighton University (NE) is doing its scholars proud. The college, which has close to 900 students and provides instruction in everything from economics and finance to entrepreneurship and marketing, recently installed four 40-inch liquid crystal display (LCD) screens from NEC, in prominent areas of its main facility. The goal: to make campus information and news from Wall Street more accessible on a regular basis.

With the help of solution provider Rise Vision, the school installed the displays in two of the college’s busiest areas: Two of the monitors are mounted to the ceiling of a high-traffic hallway, and the others are mounted side-by-side in the main entryway, in a custom wooden enclosure (the entryway displays are controlled as one large presentation, allowing scrolling tickers to flow from one screen to the next). Anthony Hendrickson, dean of the college, says the screens provide news, weather, and market updates to students as they move between classes, revolutionizing the way the school communicates with students overall.

“Before we went to digital displays, we had no means of sharing market information, and we used e-mail and the web for the dissemination of campus events and activities,” he says. Hendrickson adds that because of the way the displays publish information on the interface, “there is clearly energy and excitement surrounding them.”

Digital Signage

CREIGHTON'S DIGITAL DISPLAYS are revolutionizing the way the school communicates with students.

That energy and excitement is spreading rapidly these days, as dozens of schools are re-architecting on-campus communication strategies around a similar technology. Insiders call the approach “digital signage,” and hail it as the future of communication. Logistically speaking, the technology mixes LCD hardware with software that facilitates updates over existing IP communications networks. From a practical perspective, it enables users to be better informed, and allows school officials to deliver information more quickly than ever before.

Across the country, these implementations have taken a variety of forms. Schools such as Bryant University (RI), the Community College of Southern Nevada, and the University of Massachusetts- Boston are using the technology to replace the old-fashioned approach of communicating via paper flyers. Others, including Texas State University and the University of Missouri-Kansas City, are following the same route Creighton has taken, and have built networks of digital signs that mix campus news with news from the outside world. All of the approaches are turning heads.

How It Works

No discussion of digital signage can begin without at least a rudimentary explanation of what the technology is, and how it works. First, some context: If you’ve been to a modernized airport in the last few years and have checked the status of your flight, you likely have seen digital signage in action. Instead of pertaining to planes, however, in higher education the data refer to meetings, graduation and sporting events, or the like. The technology revolves around displays that are big enough for passersby to see, without stopping or slowing down. It also offers schools the ability to incorporate images, and flip one image after another. Depending on the quality of the screen resolution, these screens can cost anywhere from $500 to $5,000 apiece.


Cisco's new Digital Media Management tools (designed to work with NEC digital displays) are the first designed to work with specific hardware, offering schools the opportunity to purchase everything in one fell swoop. The tools (tiny hardware devices and software that lives in the data center) work together and have the capacity to push content to dozens of digital signs at a time. They eliminate the need for schools to assign staff to upload content sign by sign.

From the user perspective, the hardware appears to be the focal point. But behind the scenes, each display is connected to some variation of computer. In some cases, the computers are regular PCs; in other cases, they are thin clients. The computers are web-enabled, and are patched into the internet wirelessly or via a standard Ethernet connection. Elsewhere on the network—usually in a back room—a server stores data for display on the screens and feeds that information to each display unit individually (or to a networked loop of displays), via the web. The upload process can occur or be scheduled intermittently, or can take place in real time.

Currently, there are a number of products and services to manage content and orchestrate uploads. Perhaps the most common of these solutions come from Access Television Network and VBrick Systems, two vendors better known for delivering digital video over the internet. In January, Cisco Systems jumped into the fray as well, with two products specially designed to work in conjunction with LCD screens from NEC. The announcement created a good deal of buzz: While the nascent digital signage space has attracted some heavy hitters, Cisco was the heaviest, up to that point.


At Creighton University, four 40-inch LCD screens are installed in two of the college’s busiest areas. Two are mounted to the ceiling of a high-traffic hallway. The others sit side-by-side in the main entryway as one large presentation, tickers flowing from one screen to the next. The screens provide news, weather, and market updates to students as they move between classes.

The first of the Cisco products, the Cisco Digital Media Player, is a piece of hardware that connects to a display unit and controls the physical attributes of what gets played on the screen. The hardware is about the size of a deck of cards, and can attach to the back of a display screen so that it is virtually invisible to onlookers. The second product, the Cisco Digital Media Manager, is webbased software that resides somewhere in the data center, and enables authors to go in and schedule video or motion graphics to be published out to digital displays, anywhere in the world.

Digital Signage

AT TEXAS STATE U's business college, networks of digital signs mix school info and world news. Business students can't help but stop to read the market ticker display.

Thomas Wyatt, general manager of the vendor’s Digital Media Management business unit, says that while these tools aren’t the first to serve the purposes they serve, they are the first designed to work with specific hardware, offering schools the opportunity to purchase everything in one fell swoop. He adds that because Cisco’s tools work together and have the capacity to push content to dozens of digital signs at a time, they eliminate the need for schools to assign valuable staff resources to upload content sign by sign.

“For most schools, creating content is not a problem,” says Wyatt. “Getting it out there, however, is where digital signage can really help.”

Replacing Paper

No school understands this concept better than Bryant University. After a deadly fire in a Rhode Island nightclub in 2003, new 2004 state fire codes stipulated that all paper messages had to be posted behind glass. On campus, where students had grown accustomed to stapling and taping flyers all over the place, the new ruling took its toll. When information changed, it was difficult to get access to the glass displays, to update the flyers. Some students, especially those who lived off-campus, never saw some ads or information at all. The result: Student groups began complaining. Then they went to administrators and demanded change.

Phil Lombardi, director of academic computing and media services, set out to find a solution. After a lengthy RFP process, in 2006 the school discovered digital signage from NEC. Lombardi worked with the vendor to determine exactly how many displays he’d need to distribute across the campus to make the investment worthwhile. Ultimately, Bryant installed 50 LCD screens in academic hallways, the library café, classrooms, and labs. Lombardi says he likes the technology because it satisfies fire marshals and students alike. He adds that from his perspective as well, the signage has proven a satisfying solution.

“We’ve improved communications and streamlined our workflow process because everything is digital,” he reports. “We’ve cut down on the amount of time it takes to put a message out, and we’re reaching a greater number of people.”

The system operates on software from Access TV. A web-based interface allows authorized registered users (certain students, faculty, and staff members) to input information about upcoming events into templates. Each division of users is assigned an administrator who must approve the content before it is scheduled for publication. Once the content is approved, it moves into the live presentation queue. Depending on the time of year, the queue is refreshed every day, or even every hour. Either way, the message runs for a predetermined period of time; then it is dropped from the queue.

It’s difficult to quantify results of a technology implementation such as this one, but since the rollout of the digital displays, Bryant has experienced a marked increase in the amount of communication pieces being created electronically, compared to what had been created in print. Lombardi notes there are other benefits, too, such as the way the technology has inspired creativity: The digital signage solution allows students and faculty to incorporate computer graphics, music, and multimedia. Some students even have created 30- and 60- second public service announcements (PSAs) that air as commercials, periodically throughout the day.

Countering Ineffective E-Mail

Elsewhere, schools such as the Community College of Southern Nevada and the University of Massachusetts-Boston are using digital signage to achieve similar results. At CCSN, for example, administrators turned to digital signage in 2005 after a 10-year-old strategy of sending announcements to students via e-mail finally disintegrated. Because so many of the college’s students commute and change residences (and ISPs), CIO Shah Ardalan says there was no way for the school to make sure it had the right e-mail addresses. As a result, many critical communications about campus events went undelivered.

To reverse this trend, the college spent $150,000 on a digital signage system jointly supplied by NEC, VBrick, and Cisco. The system consists of 60 displays installed across campus, with each board rotating roughly 60 messages a day. Ardalan says that in addition to seeing these messages all over campus, students now receive the information in a timely fashion, which even enables them to modify their schedules around certain events. He adds that over the next few months, as the school opens a number of new buildings, the digital signage network should grow exponentially.

“This is something we want to develop and continue to put in all over campus,” he says. “Keeping our students informed in a timely manner is one of our top priorities moving forward.”


In Rhode Island, where new state fire laws dictated that all paper signage must reside behind glass, Bryant University students demanded a less archaic solution, to keep them updated on events and changing information. Fifty NEC LCD displays peppered across the campus, working in tandem with Access TV software, were the answer.

At UMass-Boston—another commuter school that had failed to effectively communicate with students via e-mail—technologists mixed NEC displays and VBrick video over IP technology with a different solution: digital content-creation software known as Scala. To create advertisements, students access the software through a web-based interface; once the messages are approved, they air on 50-inch display screens and televisions across campus. John Jessoe, director of the school’s Distance Learning Video Production Center, says that as many as 35 different messages are cycled each day. He notes that feedback indicates students love it.

Importantly, the backbone of the UMass system is unique. Instead of running messages over the IP network (the same network that carries internet traffic), the school constructed a parallel network exclusively for messages and cable television signals that are funneled through the VBrick hardware. Jessoe declines to reveal how much the entire display system cost, but explains that the school currently is in the process of replacing its network switches, and that when this effort concludes, messages and cable alike will be migrated to the IP network so that any user can view anything at any time. With the new switching setup, the school’s IP network will be better able to handle the heavier traffic load.

“Unfortunately, improvements to this part of our network are subject to funding and staffing,” Jessoe says. Though the new switches are a bit of a workaround solution in the short term, they will still benefit the school in the long run. “Believe me: Long-term, this is something we want running together on one network,” he maintains.

Mixing News With Business Know-How

At Texas State University, the drive for digital signage was much broader than simply dispensing information in a timely fashion. Certainly, timeliness was important. But William Chittenden, associate professor of finance at the school’s McCoy College of Business Administration, says he and his colleagues in the Department of Finance and Economics also wanted technology that could project a “real-world atmosphere,” and give business students a taste of what securities trading on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange is actually like.


The Community College of Southern Nevada turned to digital signage when communicating events and information via e-mail proved ineffective. Because so many of the college’s students commute and change residences (and ISPs), there was no way for the school to make sure it had correct e-mail addresses, and critical communications went undelivered until the college installed 60 digital signage displays across campus.With 60 message rotations a day, students never miss updates and can schedule around events.

Their solution? A mix of digital signage displays from Rise Vision. The school now boasts a 10-foot LED ticker that displays financial market activity, as well as four 40-inch LCD displays that roll “slideshows” of information in a variety of forms. Chittenden says that one slide might display the biggest stock gainers for the day, while the next will show the biggest losers, and others will graph activity in various markets around the world. Of course, these systems also occasionally display campus news, giving students a mix of both types of information— campus and market.

“The design on each screen is customized to our needs, and we have the ability to edit our announcements area via the web,” says Chittenden. Even better news, he adds: “Everyone stops to read the ticker display.”

Digital Signage for Competitive Edge

At some institutions of higher learning, electronic displays are being used as much for their effectiveness as institutional marketing tools, as for their educational benefits. Take the Henry W. Bloch School of Business and Public Administration at the University of Missouri- Kansas City. When the decision was made to install four large NEC LCD screens on campus, school administrators had them mounted not inside classrooms, but in a highly visible student commons area where both students and visitors can easily see them. The purpose: simply to show off the technology.

Digital Signage

AT UMKC, digital signage 'glitz and pizazz' is sponsored by a powerhouse banking corporation.

Lanny Solomon, the school’s associate dean for academic affairs, says the university wanted to put such mediarich screens in a public area to send the message that it is tied into the latest technologies and utilizes contemporary communication media. With this in mind, UMKC hired Rise Vision to set up the displays. Today, the screens show a mix of school announcements, business facts, financial data, alumni spotlights, general news, even live TV. Solomon says the displays have added a certain “wow” factor that has excited students and alumni alike.

“From the beginning, we wanted glitz, color, and pizzazz,” he says, noting that it didn’t hurt to have a little help: State Street Bank has sponsored the displays and they’ve been appropriately dubbed the State Street News Center. Was the “glitz” worth the effort? “We are very satisfied with the results,” Solomon says.

What’s Next

With all of these recent developments in digital signage, it’s hard to predict what will happen next. Sure, companies like Rise Vision already have 100 or so customers in their stable, but there are still hundreds (if not thousands) of higher education institutions that do not currently make use of digital signage technology, yet could see great benefits from the investment. Ryan Cahon, president of Rise, estimates that the world is “only seeing the tip of the iceberg” in the digital signage market, and that by this time next year, LCD screens with messages and news programming will be even more prevalent on campuses everywhere.

From the perspective of the technologist, perhaps the only challenge to this growth is interoperability. CCSN’s Shah Ardalan says (with an eye to partnerships like the one between NEC and Cisco) it’s imperative that vendors figure out how to make their technologies talk to each other. Luckily, no digital signage technologies on the market today have presented this problem.

Down the road, however, says Ardalan, vendors must be even more careful to make sure it’s effortless for customers to get on board. “This technology isn’t worth it if it’s not easy to set up and easy to use,” he insists. “Anything too complicated, and schools might go back to using paper.”

::WEBEXTRA :: Another way to go paperless on campus: document imaging! :: Two more digital signage case studies: Morton College (IL) and Saint Joseph’s University (PA) :: Browse our solution center on Presentation and Display Technologies for the Campus Enterprise.

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