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Digital Signage Delivers on Campus

Affordable wide-screen digital signs are finding multiple uses on campuses, and may even generate revenue.
University Business, Oct 2004

The millennial generation was raised on the moving image. HDTV, MTV, flat-screen PCs, PDAs and other electronics have created a generation with high expectations of media and its messages. No wonder digital signage--a new presentation technology--is making its way onto campus.

If there's a sale in the bookstore, a new cell phone plan for students, or a concert on campus, a digital sign can deliver the message. Even better, that message can be punched up with animated logos, photos, video clips, and text messages that change every few seconds. No print poster can do that.

"Digital sign" is another name for an electronic, flat-panel screen. Although some large and costly models have been around for a decade or more, the first flat-panel plasma screens were introduced only six years ago. Since then, plasma screens, and newer LCD screens, have become staples in sports and entertainment arenas, interweaving advertising with pictures of celebrities, or sports trivia fun facts. They are also appearing in more retail outlets to inspire impulse purchases, and in restaurants, hotels and conference centers. Now they are making their way onto campuses, where they are being used for promotional, and even academic, uses.

Some digital signs are only several inches wide, allowing for flush wall mounting.The sleek design of a digital sign, or flat screen, makes it easier to mount than a bulky TV monitor.

And notably, digital signs are becoming more affordable. When plasma screens were first introduced their prices were out of the reach of the education market. A 42-inch home plasma screen made for home theater use cost $8,000 three years ago, says Gary Kayye, principal of Kayye Consulting, an audio-visual advisory firm. That same model would cost $3,000 today. The price for a professional grade plasma screen--one that has special covering to protect it from oil residue left by finger and handprints, and that resists image burn-in--has dropped from $10,000 to $4,500.

The intention is to have
a digital newsletter that
keeps students posted
about events.

Their LCD counterparts, newer to the market, and generally more costly, are also coming down in price. When 42-inch LCD screens were introduced just 18 months ago, they cost $10,000 or more, says Kayye. Today, the same screen can be purchased for $6,000.

Increased inventory has driven the prices down, he explains. "More manufacturers are making digital signage. Where there was one plasma screen manufacturer 10 years ago, today there are six offering 30 brands," notes Kayye. LCD manufacturers have lowered their margins to make their models competitive with plasma products.

Affordable prices are what convinced administrators at Bellevue Community College (WA), to install three plasma screens in March. The college's student government drove the project, asking the media professionals on campus to create a new messaging system with a modest budget. BCC paid $3,000 for each of its 42-inch Gateway screens. The digital signs are placed in strategic campus locations--the cafeteria, the student programs office and the campus coffee shop. "The intention is to have a digital newsletter that keeps students posted about events," explains Roger Ewald, BCC media engineer. Case in point, the signs kept students abreast of building closings and schedule changes after a rash of flooding in the Bellevue area in late summer.

Ewald helped research and purchase the necessary software and network connections needed to make the system work. In all, BCC invested $25,000 in hardware, software and peripherals.

Student groups create their own slide presentations to promote their events or groups. These, in turn, are submitted to administrators in the Student Programs Office for review. Once accepted, the text and images of each presentation are uploaded into software and broadcast on the screens. Administrators also maintain the broadcast schedules, selecting when the messages will be displayed. Scheduling software feeds data to digital signs, and ensures that messages are "looped" to replay as often as desired. Information is dynamic and colorful, and created with the goal of cutting through visual clutter and attracting viewers.

So impressed were students and administrators that they have opted to add a fourth screen this month to the area that includes the campus business center and satellite bookstore, a locale used largely by working professionals who take classes.

Considering the newness of the application, Cornell University (NY) can be labeled a higher ed pioneer. Managers installed digital signs in the campus bookstore during 2001 and 2002, according to Margie Whiteleather, project manager for Cornell Business Services. The "virtual display windows," as Whiteleather calls them, were purchased when the bookstore was remodeled and several internal walls were taken down.

The plasma screens provide details about campus activities to passersby--a key point considering the Cornell bookstore is located in a basement. Two screens on the lowest level, which are placed in close proximity to each other and to the store's entrance, usually run identical content promoting campus programs and student activities. These screens might also inform students about textbook buy-back programs and other store promotions.

"We make loops with no more than 15 minutes of content," explains Whiteleather.

Another large screen inside the store, which is actually a video wall made up of four small screens placed together, promotes book titles. Presentations might run biographies of Cornell faculty members who have authored books, and provide historical facts about the university.

The University of Central Arkansas created its own "technology plaza" to showcase its digital sign, which measures 13 feet wide and 9 feet high. Completed at the beginning of 2004, technology plaza is meant to be a co-curricular area: an outdoor classroom, an open-air movie arena, and information center.

The digital display, a Daktronics LED model, is simply known on campus as the "jumbo screen," explains Ronald Toll, dean of the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, a key force in building the plaza and bringing the display hardware and software to campus.

"This vision was driven by academics," he says. The screen is viewed as a tool to improve teaching and learning. At times the screen is used as an interactive whiteboard, displaying academic presentations as part of a class. On warm nights, students gather to watch movies. And thanks to a TV feed, at least 200 administrators could gather together this past summer to watch CNN's coverage of President Ronald Reagan's funeral.

"We can change the message instantly. It is a great advantage over standard signage," adds Toll.

Retailers and
pizza shops can
place their
message in
front of 10,000

Benches in the plaza will comfortably seat 80, but more viewers can stand on the balconies of other academic buildings and easily see the screen.

Toll also wants the jumbo screen to have commercial applications. To date, the new screen has only been used to promote campus events and groups, but he plans to sell advertising messages. Toll expects local retailers and pizza shops will want to place their messages in front of UCA's 10,000 students who walk through campus. National retailers and tourism companies could be potential advertisers as well, he adds.

Toll is breaking new ground on advertising. "To the best of our knowledge, there isn't a model out there that suggests what 15 seconds of advertising are worth on this screen," he says. Still, Toll and the UCA staff intend to find out. The university would like to bring in $100,000 in annual advertising revenue to offset the costs of purchasing and running the jumbo screen.

In total, UCA spent $240,000 to install the digital sign and purchase the Windows-compatible software that controls the messaging. As for managing the screen, an existing technical support staffer was asked to take on the additional duties of scheduling messaging and scheduling the screen. Although the screen is technically part of Toll's science and mathematics' department, other departments and extra-curricular groups are encouraged to use it. The department has provided training to faculty and students. To date, 40 percent of UCA's faculty has been trained to use the jumbo screen.

The jumbo screen is an example of Toll's overall vision for education. "Teaching and learning take place everywhere," he says. The screen provides a tool that brings education to the outdoors. Toll, who is helping in the effort to make UCA a completely wireless campus, envisions a constant flow of information from the classroom, to technology plaza, to a student's laptop. "We want to empower faculty to create better outcomes."

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