In the networked AV ecosystem, signage takes a back seat at many universities. While key stakeholders, such as the marketing, communications, athletics or continuing education departments play a significant role in digital signage deployments, the IT department may have its own priorities. Because digital signage involves the network, IT management typically is responsible for the operation and management of DS systems, and strives to ensure the best possible service to all of the campus communities. Budget, schedule and personnel are the typical limiting factors, particularly when it’s time to upgrade hardware or software, consolidate legacy systems or migrate to the next-generation DS solution.
One recent example of the challenges involved in expanding a campus system is the DS expansion at Tyler Junior College (TJC) in Tyler TX (see related in-depth feature beginning on page 54). Signage in a newly constructed building features nine display screens and media players, as well as the infrastructure to support many more.
The IT department opted to stay with the player and software that was currently in operation across all campuses. “The system is not dynamic and it is not easy to change the information being displayed,” noted Rick Besch, Executive Director of Information Technology at Tyler Junior College. “What we have is basically a PowerPoint presentation that has to be stopped and updated and then started again; there are no ‘decks’ available to change out information. As a result, the content isn’t eye catching, so little of it is actually viewed.
“Additionally, although there are some integration points with the emergency notification system, there is no way for the alert system to override the current deck and display emergency information.” Besch cited schedule, budget and the complexity of the process as factors that inhibited TJC’s move to a next-gen signage system at this time.
The IT department at a university is responsible for several critical functions, such as information security. Although IT personnel are usually aware of the overall benefits of deploying signage, they may postpone costly and time-consuming signage upgrades until upgrading becomes a priority for senior management and leadership. Another concern may be the difficulty of selecting technology that enables simplicity of use by nontechnical content creators.
“We are dealing with this problem right now. We’re trying to find out how other departments want to use digital signage because it’s a great medium for distributing targeted messages,” noted Jeremy Kim, IT Project Leader of Core Services & Student Experience at Wharton, University of Pennsylvania. “However, we have to consider the priorities of various parties, especially the departments contributing to the costs,” he said.
With regard to the selection of signage components, Kim noted that many of the available signage software packages are not easy for nontechnical staff to use. “We have to consider whether to use the technology provided by vendors where we might not have 100% control over maintenance and support, or whether to create a system that totally meets our needs,” he explained.
As AV and IT technologies evolve, the challenges of upgrading a signage system go beyond software upgrades and media player replacement. The University of Scranton’s digital signage network, which consists of 51 displays in nine buildings, recently addressed the limitations of a legacy analog system. “Although the content is distributed in high definition, 80% of the distribution points used an analog signal,” said Senior Instructional Technologist Robert Kennedy.
“We started the upgrade process in the DeNaples Student Center by replacing the Extron ultra-wideband matrix switcher with an Extron XTP CrossPoint 3200 Series matrix switcher. Audiovisual signals are now distributed through Cat6 cable to Extron XTP HDMI SR receivers that feed and control the 18 individual Sharp displays on the Visix signage platform,” Kennedy explained. With this switch from analog to digital, the university has also futureproofed its signage system, making it ready for 4K/UHD signals.
The best time to get involved in a project at an educational institution is during the discovery phase. That’s when staff from various potential content-contributing departments, as well as from IT, facilities and management, collaborate to define the project. Often, before signage, the discussions will focus on upgrading classroom technologies. That’s fine. The discussions will reveal whether or not the AV distribution system in place is adequate to support a successful next-gen signage network, and provide other opportunities to showcase your value as an AV/IT partner.
“When upgrading or migrating signage to a newer system, ensure that the content and data can be transferred over to the next system and that it will be compatible,” suggested Christopher Welch, Media Services Manager at Louisiana State University. “Equally significant is compatibility with the enterprise’s current network. Not all products on the market meet the security requirements for an enterprise network. The university may use certain network switches that don’t allow particular content to pass through for security reasons,” he explained. Welch also noted the need for signage compatibility with safety, campus transit or other systems on the university’s network.
“Before a next-gen signage system can even be considered, a collaboration between all departments that currently use signage must happen to make sure the next-gen system doesn’t create a problem or fail to meet the needs of a certain department,” Welch cautioned. “The unique thing about signage systems is that there are many features available and some features may benefit one department more than another.”
Becoming a part of the campus-wide collaborative team that defines an institution’s next step into signage offers a great opportunity to increase your value to an entire academic community. And, if you can help IT help different schools and departments within the university work together on a new DS solution, you’ll be in a great position to win future systems business all around the campus—from the lecture hall to the football stadium.