Digital Signage

Sign Age: Museum Musings

The backstory about a recent project.

The Center of Science and Industry (COSI) of Columbus OH recently completed expansion of its digital signage system. I invited John Shaw, COSI’s Director of Experience Production, to share his perspective on the project here. An article on the system integration by Hammond Communications Group is featured in the Fall 2015 edition of IT/AV Report, published with this issue of Sound & Communications.

COSI recently completed a multi-year digital signage rollout. What were the major project challenges?
There were a couple of challenges with the project: none were insurmountable, but together, they made the project a bit complicated. First, although COSI is a private not-for-profit, the organization gets some financial support from the city of Columbus. The funds available for this project were from those public funds, which required COSI to issue an RFP and solicit multiple bids. The time required for that process pushed the project back a bit, and our leadership team wanted the project to be up and running as soon as possible.

A big upgrade to our ticketing system had already delayed our starting this project and we wanted to avoid interrupting our normal business operations as much as possible. Because much of the work had to be done at our admission desk (a busy area where we check in all visitors) and the museum is sometimes open seven days a week, it meant scheduling the work during a small window when we were closed for a few days and having a contingency plan for how to handle admissions if the work wasn’t completed on time.

What were the design criteria for the signage system?
We knew where we wanted the screens, but designing the solution was a little outside our knowledge base. By researching options on the market, talking with various systems integrators and considering the visitor experience, we started to hone in on the functionality we wanted. We were cautious about not ending up with a solution that had low entry costs but high operating costs. Our offerings change frequently so we wanted a solution that we could update in-house.

Because the visitor experience is important for us, we knew we wouldn’t be satisfied with any sort of slideshow. Fortunately, we already do a lot of design work in-house and have staff skilled in motion graphics. We had some ability to absorb this work as long as the system is easy to use.

Next, it had to integrate with our ticketing system to display available show times, exhibit entry times and when a show or experience is sold out. Finally, we wanted the flexibility to use our five-screen arrays as one large desktop to make creating content easier. We also wanted a system that we could continue to expand both in scale and function.

What were some of the major technical challenges?
Our situation presented several technical challenges, most of which were identified in the design phase and resolved easily:

  • We needed the digital signage system to communicate with our ticketing system in order to display movie show times. This involved some research on the software of both systems (Scala for signage, Outbound for ticketing). The solution was a Python script within Scala that pulls information from Outbound’s web API. Using an Activity ID number, we can pull content on any COSI experience directly into a Scala script.
  • The project involved adding some new displays and also integrating existing displays. The old displays were of different brands, which created a little more work in figuring out how to send RS232 commands to turn them on and off.

On top of that, in two locations, we have five-screen arrays that are arranged horizontally, but in a non-traditional, staggered way: Four of the screens are portrait orientation at various heights, and one is in landscape mode. That meant a bit of effort to create a layout in Scala that would display the content in the correct orientation and position.

  • Although wireless networking is cheaper, we’ve found it to not be as reliable, so everything is hardwired. We’ve since tried some wireless installations with some success.
  • For cost and reliability reasons, we wanted to keep video cable lengths short; hence, the media players had to be located as close as possible to the displays. This means that the mounting locations for the media players are not as easily accessible as we would like.
  • In the early days of operating the installed displays, we had some issues with the signal being dropped between media player and the displays. Updating the video card driver and adding power conditioning to the circuits resolved the issues.

Who specified the AV components, and were they involved in the design phase of the project?
COSI worked with iVideo Technologies based in Cleveland to supply the screens. The media players weren’t specified during design, but we did specify that the players should support the five-screen arrays and required certain software functionality. The final solution was provided by Hammond Communications in its bid on the project.

Was touch interactivity considered and why was it not selected?
The goal for the project was to provide better message event offerings to visitors as they enter and choose from admission options. Because COSI can have upwards of 4000 visitors each day, we wanted a solution that would be large and visible to all. Although we like the idea of a standalone touch interactive kiosk to supplement our admissions team, we knew that a touch solution would have to be in a future phase of the project due to budget and time constraints.

Was mobile interactivity with visitors’ smartphones considered and why was it not selected?
Mobile interactivity was considered but quickly dismissed. COSI is already a highly interactive setting, so we were not interested in creating an interactive experience so much as in displaying up-to-date information. Moreover, in previous projects, we’ve discovered that there are barriers to visitors using smartphones to interact: It requires an app download. We’ve tested experiences using smartphone interfaces and have had very low usage rates. Perhaps that will change as this type of interaction becomes more common among smartphone users.

What are COSI’s concerns going forward?
We are happy with the project outcome and eager to expand the system. We are somewhat concerned with how we will manage a growing system. Much of our content is location-specific, so keeping track of what content is on what screen becomes more difficult. We also use our building in different ways throughout the day: We may have campers being checked in at 9:00am, open to the public at 10:00am, close at 5:00pm and offer AfterDark (an event for 21+) from 5:30pm to 10:00pm. Digital signage works great for delivering custom content to each audience, as long as we can schedule the right content on the right screen at the right time.

What criteria were used in the selection of SIs?
COSI has ordered much of our AV equipment from iVideo Technologies over the years. Our exhibits often use screens, projectors and other equipment, so it was logical to involve them in this project.

We were introduced to Hammond Communications Group during our research phase and invited them to bid on the project when we issued the RFP. Part of the selection process involved checking references, and Hammond’s past clients spoke very highly of the company, particularly when it came to supporting the project after initial launch. That feedback, combined with Hammond’s competitive bid and their demonstrated understanding of our goals, led to a great working relationship.

What advice do you have for SIs regarding museum projects?
I would say that building an open, honest relationship is key. Museums don’t know the options out there, so they need someone to guide them, not just to try to sell to them. Museums also have limited budgets (nearly all are non-profit) and finding a sponsor or trying to build a large expense into an operating budget may mean waiting six months or a year.

I don’t think most museums view digital signage as a priority (maybe that is starting to change), so presenting museums with a low point of entry, allowing them to see some results and then plan for expansion is probably the best approach.

There are so many factors that influence our sales, it’s hard to determine our return on the investment in this system, but we are happy with its impact on the experience that our visitors have at COSI.

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