Signs of the times: Digital displays go to college

Colleges use digital signage to warn students of campus emergencies.

From revenue-generating message boards at concession stands and athletic venues, to point-of-sale displays at campus bookstores and alumni gift shops, to distance-learning applications and asset-reservation panels outside lecture halls and conference rooms, to giant video walls in football stadiums and basketball arenas—digital displays are becoming ubiquitous at colleges, universities, and even in some K-12 facilities.

Nearly 20 percent of U.S. colleges and universities now use digital signage in some form, according to industry veterans attending the 2011 Digital Signage Expo (DSE) at the Las Vegas Convention Center in Las Vegas, Nev., Feb. 22-25. DSE is the official show of the Digital Signage Federation.

These electronic displays come in virtually all sizes and shapes. Some are stand-alone, self-contained units.

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Others are linked to the internet or a university network and can transmit news and entertainment programming, commercials and announcements, and emergency messaging instantly throughout a campus. Some feature 3-D images – viewed with and, sometimes, without special glasses. Some offer touch-screen functionality.

Newer digital signs even contain cameras and tracking software to capture viewer characteristics and behavior with an emerging technology known as video analytics.

At the moment, except at research facilities in settings such as Carnegie Mellon, few universities are using video analytics, but as digital signage increasingly becomes a source of advertising revenue for schools and colleges, advertisers are sure to demand information about who is seeing the messaging and how they’re reacting to it.

And that’s where smart signs come in.

Intel is a leader in the development of video analytics. A whitepaper sponsored by Intel provides much more information about video analytics, but here’s how a company website briefly describes the technology and its potential benefits:

“Imagine the possibilities as a person approaches a digital sign equipped with Intel AIM Suite capabilities. This software can – totally anonymously – gather basic viewer demographics such as age range, gender, and the amount of time a person spends looking at the sign. By analyzing the data in real time, the software can change the content of signs to align with the viewer’s demographics, meaning consumers can see more targeted, relevant advertising and advertisers can gather more accurate data for tracking return on investment.”

In the near future, digital signage experts predict, signs will be able to receive data from mobile devices using the open-source software stack called Android. This will allow cell phone owners, for example, to authorize a virtually unlimited volume of data to be projected about themselves.

A student carrying an Android cell phone, for instance, might approach a smart sign in a campus bookstore. Information transmitted from the cell phone might let the sign present a discount coupon now for an eTextbook the student will need later.

The discount offer might be based on knowing the student’s major and anticipating what materials that student will need next semester.

Intel representatives, as well as other exhibitors at DSE, were acutely aware of the privacy issues such scenarios raise.

Almost universally, they expressed their commitment to respecting individual rights and accessing only that information made available voluntarily. The possibilities of these emerging technologies nonetheless seemed likely to have an increasing impact on the operations of schools and colleges.

For that reason, education facilities were a central focus at the DSE 2011, now in its eighth year.

According to DSE spokeswoman Geri D. Wolff, the conference began as a small specialty gathering at Chicago’s Navy Pier in 2004 and has grown nearly every year since. This year saw records fall in attendance (5,200), exhibit booths (195), and exhibit floor space (60,000 square feet).

Education applications both here and abroad won recognition at a DSE awards program, too.

The annual DSE Apex Awards honor innovation in the development and deployment of digital signage. Chosen by an independent panel of five journalists from digital signage publications, the winners were named from a field of 78 entrants vying in 10 major digital signage categories.

Winners included a program initiated by schools in the Netherlands, which snagged a gold award; Texas State Technical College, which received a silver award; and West Texas A&M, which took a bronze award.

The top education award honored an initiative called TENQ (pronounced “tank”). Local water companies and health organizations in the Netherlands are working together to install multimedia-enabled water coolers across hundreds of schools in the country, according to a report by Scala, the industry partner for TENQ.

“Currently, nearly 400 TENQ coolers are found in middle schools and vocational schools around the Netherlands, offering students the option to fill up their own bottle with sparkling or regular water. Each cooler features a 19-inch LCD screen that plays educational programming, advertising, and user-generated content. Schools have the option to install larger LCD screens near the TENQ unit for increased visibility,” a Scala whitepaper explained.

Texas State Technical College, a state-supported system, won for its online degree program, reportedly one of the only digital-signage degree programs in the U.S.

“The degree includes courses on digital content creation with animation using Adobe Photoshop and Flash, as well as other animation and video software,” a college website promotion explained. “You will learn system design and scheduling using well-known industry products. Many of your courses will be taught using simulations in the virtual environment, Second Life.”

West Texas A&M won with an entry that highlighted the university’s new digital signage system.

“The system provided the solution to the university’s need for next-generation communication and integrates well with the existing network infrastructure and academic learning environment,” according to a university website. “The digital system is user-friendly and bridges the gap between academics and information technology, allowing departments to manage, control, and deliver timely digital content to today’s generation of technology-focused students.”

Although DSE began in Chicago, it is now held annually in Las Vegas. The next expo is scheduled for March 6-9, 2012, at the Las Vegas Convention Center.

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