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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.

The millennial generation was raised on the moving image. HDTV, MTV, flat-screen PCs, 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.

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 alt, 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

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 extracurricular 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."


For a complete list of digital signage companies go to

RELATED ARTICLE: Wall Street on campus.

A handful of colleges and universities have created mock financial centers on campus, and have counted on digital signage to give these learning centers a working-world feel.

At St. Joseph's University (PA), each business student uses the Wall Street Trading Room in the Erivan K. Haub School of Business to get stock quotes and follow financial news. The data assists each student in the care of a virtual fund valued at $65,000.

The trading room, completed in late 2003, includes a Trans-Lux Ticker Board and Trans-Lux Picture and Data Wall. All are used to display stock prices, exchange rates, financial news, and the specific portfolios the students are managing. Any information that appears on the wall can also be displayed on a monitor in front of the classroom and on each of the 35 IBM Net Vista desktop computers.

"We built this to give students a feel for what a trading room would be like in a professional investment organization. This type of technology is what they will find there," says Joseph DiAngelo, dean of the business school.

St. Joseph's invested $400,000 to convert a traditional classroom into its trading room. That cost includes software installation and the licensing fees to use Thomson Baseline and other financial information services. Students can enter the ticker system and research 30-years' worth of information on companies listed on the exchanges.

Tulane University (LA) also opened its trading center in the A.B. Freeman School of Business in fall 2003. The center, which can fit 28 students, sports nine display wall cubes made by Christie Digital Systems. These are mounted in a 3x3 array to create a large datawall for projecting one large image, or to take feeds from different sources.

Tech Tips and Terms

PLASMA: A plasma display illuminates tiny colored florescent lights--red, green and blue--to form an image. Plasma screens are the most affordable digital signage option. While the price is right, buyers need to be aware of limitations. Plasma screens are known for having burn-in problems. Images and text that are routinely repeated-sometimes several hundred times per day--will eventually create ghost images that permanently burn into the screen. Professionals have tricks for delaying this. "We change the intensity of the logos and the way they wipe in and out," explains John Melilo, president of Diversified Media Group, a company that designs and installs digital signage hardware and related software.

LCDs: LCDs, or liquid crystal displays, are commonly found in laptop computer displays. The liquid crystals react to electric current and control the passage of light.

LCD screens have only been introduced to the market within the past 18 months. LCD screens cost more than plasma, but this may change as manufacturers provide more inventory and price LCD competitively to cut into the market.

LCD and plasma screens are made for indoor use only.

Those who want a weatherproof option must rely on LED screens. LED stands for Light Emitting Diode, which is an older technology. LEDs are considered the workhorses of the consumer electronics world, displaying the numbers on digital clocks, transmitting information from remote controls to devices, and--when gathered in large numbers--projecting the images on television screens.

LEDs: LED technology runs the giant screens used in outdoor arenas and other large venues. LED screens cost more because of the additional safeguards that must be built in to withstand weather and temperature changes. The price for a 50- or 75-inch LED screen could run $100,000, according to Gary Kayye of Kayye Consulting.

"Most of the effort that goes into this is not for the hardware installation, but in the back-end preparation," explains Jody Thomas, Kayye's CEO.

There are several ways to set up the systems. Some users rely on a dedicated computer that directly sends content to the display device, while others have installed specific content management software. Still others have hired integrators that handle the content for them.
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Author:Angelo, Jean Marie
Publication:University Business
Date:Oct 1, 2004
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