What's Your Sign?

Have you seen those new digital billboards along the side of the road? They beam high definition messages that are so sharp, clear and attention getting that the Federal Highway Administration has undertaken a study to determine if digital billboards distract drivers and create roadway safety hazards.

Digital sign systems with equally crisp, clear images are also showing up on college campuses and in K-12 schools, directing messages to students, not as they drive, but as they walk past signs in halls, libraries, cafeterias, auditoriums and across the grounds.

“About five years ago, colleges and universities began to ramp up their use of this technology,” says Bob Rosenberry, manager, visual solutions with Palo Alto-based Hewlett Packard (HP). “Early adopter K-12 schools began looking into the technology about the same time, and in the last year or two, we’ve seen growing activity in K-12 schools.”

Rosenberry, who has global responsibilities for HP digital signage, cited research projecting digital signage sales to the U.S. education market of $59.7 million this year. He also notes projections estimating that sales to educational institutions will grow at a compound annual rate of 21.7 percent through 2013. That’s the second fastest rate of growth projected for 11 industries including retail, hospitality and medicine. Medicine ranked first.

How do digital signs work? What can you do with digital signs? How much does the technology cost? Should you buy in now or wait and see if this is just a fad?

Digital Signage Technology
If you use a laptop or a desktop computer with a liquid crystal display (LCD) screen, then you understand basic digital signage technology.

A digital sign consists of an LCD display or screen, a computer, called in this context a media player, which communicates with the screen, and software that tells the screen by way of the computer what to display and how to display it.

You can buy two kinds of screens, says Gene Ornstead, director of digital TV and business development with Walnut, Calif.-based ViewSonic. “Our K-12 customers buy flat screen televisions or commercial displays,” he says. “The most common size is 42-inches.”

What’s the difference between the televisions and the display screens? “The images are identical in quality, but the televisions are less expensive,” Ornstead says. “Commercial displays come with three-year warranties and feature more robust technology designed for 24/7 operation.”

Ornstead recommends the commercial displays for public locations and round the clock operation but says that the televisions will probably work fine in classrooms and other less demanding applications.

The computer and software that manage content on ViewSonic systems use a Windows or Linux operating system. “The neat thing about Linux products is instant on and off,” says Ornstead. “There is a short booting process, but it is fast, almost like turning on a flat screen television. We’ve sold systems to two school districts and both have gone with Linux.”

Digital signage systems can connect to a school or district computer network and act as clients to a central signage server that resides in the main computer room.

The server provides centralized control and delivers content to storage devices in the local computers. Unlike a computer accessing video content on the Internet today, digital signage content typically doesn’t stream. Instead the server uploads the content to a storage device in the screen’s computer or media player. Streaming takes up so much bandwidth that it can compromise the performance of a network.

Sign Applications
The commercial world uses digital signs to advertise. Educational institutions are beginning to use digital signs to communicate information.

At a basic level, school signs can display lunch menus, athletic schedules and announcements of events. Displays can reinforce announcements made over the public address system.

Media players can cycle through announcements throughout the day.

To take full advantage of colorful digital display systems, media players can combine the announcements with photos.  For instance, a system might be configured to show a photograph — or video — of a victory celebration in the end zone, with the football schedule laid in over top of the illustration. The schedule might also appear in a separate box on the screen. Photos of last year’s homecoming dance might advertise this year’s event.

Individual schools can use the signs to communicate virtually anything the school community needs to know.

School districts can purchase district-wide systems and set up signs in schools. The district can create screen templates that reserve space on one side of the screen for district communications, allocating other areas of the screen to the individual school.

More sophisticated applications can integrate the digital signage system with the Internet and mobile smart phone systems, enabling students and parents, for instance, to check on dates and times from home computers or smart phones.

“Some schools might choose to control content themselves, while others may use a digital signage content provider,” says Jennifer Wolk, a spokes person for Groveport, Ohio-based StarTech.com, a company that markets audio-visual technology among other technical product lines.

Perhaps the most compelling application for digital signage arises in the ability of these systems to communicate emergency messages. “These systems can be integrated into a school or district wide mass notification system,” says Rosenberry. “The systems can be set up so that school safety and security personnel can override messages with emergency communications.

“One of the most useful features of digital signage in an emergency is that messages can be tied to particular locations. For instance, during an evacuation, each sign can be set to point to the nearest exit. If the emergency calls for sheltering in place, each sign can direct people toward the appropriate rooms.”

Digital Dollar Signs
The recession has, of course, made funding for new technologies hard to come by. Fortunately, the cost of digital signage systems has come down far enough that schools and districts can at least begin to consider them.

Schools that qualify for the federal Education Rate or Erate program, provided for under the Telecommunications Act of 1996, may be able to purchase digital signage systems at discounts ranging from 20 to 90 percent.

As for actual costs, 42-inch ViewSonic television sets cost in the range of $700; commercial displays of the same size run around $1,000. The price for ViewSonic’s media player is about $700.

The player comes with a software application that manages video content. It can, for instance, import Power Point slides and convert the data to a format appropriate for the display system.

“The software can also divide the screen into zones,” Ornstead says. “One zone might show highlights from yesterday’s football game, while another displays the season’s schedule and still another lists the lunch menu for the week.”

For systems in which the signs are not connected to a network, the software will save the data to thumb drives and memory sticks, which can be hand delivered to the displays and uploaded.

How many screens do schools typically buy? It varies widely. An elementary school in Alabama recently bought a handful of 42-inch television sets, while the Mobile school district purchased a system with 200 commercial displays.

Systems vary in kind, too. HP just introduced a system called Signage Player. Available for $1,100, it includes a screen and a computer. “You power up, and the system takes you to an online portal and provides you with a registration number that activates a Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) subscription that costs $45 per month,” Rosenberry says.

The SaaS site offers intuitive buttons that enable anyone to manage a digital signage system. One button, for instance, carries a label that says: Create A Message. Click on that button, and the system will take you through a routine that results in a sign message.

The various intuitive buttons and prompts on the site enable users to fill in pre-existing templates with messages and to deploy the messages the Signage Player screen.

Typically each Signage Player functions as a discrete system. “But if you have identical content, you can split the signals and use one player to drive multiple screens,” Rosenberry says.

Video Communications Systems
Evolving video communication technology offers still another reason to consider digital signage: digital signage can form the foundation of a start-up video communications system.

Mobile smart phones, electronic tablets, laptops as well as desktop computers are developing video conferencing and communication capabilities.

Digital signage networks can add functionality to these capabilities. In fact, some companies have already begun to take digital signs beyond signage in the direction of communications.

Westborough, Mass.-based BurstPoint Networks, for instance, markets a device called a Video Communication Platform (VCP). “Video communication requires four steps,” says Tom Racca, BurstPoint’s president and CEO. “The first step is to capture or create video. You might record it from television, record yourself with a webcam, download it from the Internet or create it with a software application.”

Second comes editing and publishing, continues Racca. The editing process manipulates video into a useful form, while publishing involves satisfying intellectual property right requirements. The third step is distribution, sending the video over cables or through the air to a receiving system. Finally comes displaying the video.

BurstPoint’s video communication platform captures, publishes and distributes video to several or tens of thousands of display devices. It can send video to and retrieve it from storage devices for video on demand applications. It can stream high-definition video to individuals or a large online learning audience and create live webcasts.

Digital signs are the first step toward school- and district-wide video communications systems that will sooner or later become a key tool for educators.

The next time you seen one of those brilliant digital billboards along the road, think about the role that technology might play in your school or district. Just don’t let it distract you from driving.