The signs they are a-changing

When the University of Sheffield opened its Information Commons in 2007, it was looking to convey a sense of ‘fresh thinking’

Luke Dormehl report

With more than 1,300 study spaces, 500 fully networked PCs, and a library with over 100,000 volumes of reference and short loan books, the University of Sheffield wanted a type of signage that would be equally comprehensive and exciting. Working with digital signage company ONELAN, the University found it. “The building’s internal signage was a crucial element of the design,” said Hugh Coghill-Smith, sales and marketing director at ONELAN, a company which has provided digital signage solutions to hundreds of clients. “The brief was to have a flexible and easy-to-use means of delivering a media-rich experience.”

What the University of Sheffield ended up employing was an eye-catching display that used attention-grabbing Flash animations to convey relevant information to staff, students and visitors. It was a bold vision of how the spirit of innovation permeated every aspect of university life.

Sheffield’s decision was more than just an example of form over function, however. Like any form of advertising, conveying information effectively is all about presenting the data in a way that is going to gain eyeballs. In this sense, digital signage is key to the university experience, and the field is a fast-growing one that is constantly adapting to the changing requirements of the modern campus.

“To me, what makes digital signage so useful is that you can have multiple types of information, and you can have this changing all the time,” said Brandon Nourse of Image Supply Systems, an Irish company which specialises in professional audio visual, photographic and digital imaging services, including digital signage.

He added: “If students and staff see signage that doesn’t change regularly, where they can look at it and think, ‘Well, that’s the same information that was up yesterday’, it’s very easy to get out of the habit of reading it. Digital signage is able to remain fresh. You really notice that in the universities that we have worked with: students will have a glance at the digital signage screens every morning when they arrive because they become attuned to the idea that this is the best way of getting up-to-date information relevant to them.”

Garnett Stewart, of audio visual company Squareone, agreed: “The main appeal of digital signage is just how dynamic it is,” Stewart noted. “People are not going to be stood in front of a noticeboard for 10 minutes. Digital signage allows you to provide relevant information that can be conveyed to a person walking past. It is extremely effective.”

Forget scruffy sheets of paper and messages that are as often outdated practically the moment they are printed, digital signage can combine traditional text with high-resolution images, PowerPoint presentations, RSS feeds and video. And in the process it’s changing the world of signage as we know it.

Spreading the word

One of the areas in which digital signage stands head and shoulders over its physical predecessor is in the speed at which information can be rolled out. Many branding experts recommend that universities and HE institutions change their branding every few years to ensure that they stay relevant, while information concerning day-to-day activities needs to be changed far more often than that. Making this possible is the fact that digital signage can be easily disseminated and updated from one central location with the touch of a button: an indispensable tool in today’s digital world. 

“Students of today come from the ‘digital baby’ generation who have grown up with the internet, making and consuming multimedia content,” said ONELAN’s Hugh Coghill-Smith.

He added: “For a campus to communicate effectively today we need to use these same methods. Traditional printed information such as noticeboards are simply outdated and no longer effective now that the audience expect more compelling and constantly updated information. In successful digital signage implementations, messages, instructions and information are being posted on a minute-by-minute basis by staff and students wishing to communicate with each other.” 

“You can communicate messages far more easily using digital signage,” said Squareone’s Garnett Stewart. 

He added that it is much easier to roll out messages across the whole of the campus very quickly than it would be to do the same with physical signage. At the same time, however, digital signage also makes it possible to have area-specific messaging.

Stewart continued: “To give you an example, a science building may wish to have some general information, say, a ticker-tape containing up-to-the-minute branding information, while also having specific science-related content. It’s possible to have very flexible solutions, and these are very easy to implement.”

Efficiency and ease of use are, of course, incredibly valuable qualities, but what about sustainability? After all, with the push toward green values in HE, isn’t there a danger in turning all information over to always-on screens? Thankfully, digital signage companies have considered this. “A lot of the major manufacturers are pushing toward emphasising sustainability,” said Brendan Nourse of Image Supply Systems.

“I would especially point to the move toward LED screens in recent years as an example of this thinking in action, since these are lighter and more energy efficient than what came before them.”

Mark Cronin, technical director at ONELAN similarly pointed out that sustainability is a key issue when the company designs its own hardware: something that is not just good for the environment, but also ensures long-time performance and reliability. “We are constantly considering how the amount of energy consumed by our products can be lowered,” he said. “For example, some of our newer models have a typical power consumption of 15W.”

The way of the future

“Digital signage has been a huge story over the last couple of years,” said Garnett Stewart. “At the same time it’s still in its relative infancy at the moment, and is growing and changing at a very rapid rate. To give you an example of what I mean, a number of manufacturers are now developing technologies that will allow different information to be presented according to who it is that is standing in front of a screen at any given time, whether that be student or faculty member, male or female, or young or old.”

What this essentially means is that signage will be able to be made even more ‘granular’ than ever, with presented information not just made relevant to departments or specific buildings on campus, but the individuals who are looking at it.

“This is really the logical next step for signage,” said Brandon Nourse. “Google has been doing something similar for a number of years, where people who put in search words relating to a particular item then find themselves receiving customised results, or targeted advertising. This is something that has been discussed in signage for the past five years, or thereabouts. It’s clearly coming in the near future. We’ve just got to wait and see how it’s implemented.”

What initially sounds like a seismic jump for signage (essentially allowing every person to have their own customised signs) is already happening. A tech startup called Facedeals, based in Nashville, Tennessee, is equipping shops with facial recognition-enabled cameras, that allow retailers to scan customers and link them to their Facebook profiles, then target them with personalised offers and services based on the ‘likes’ they have expressed online.

Closer to home, Tesco has begun rolling out video screens at its checkouts around the UK: using inbuilt cameras to work out the age and gender of individual shoppers, so that tailored advertisements, which can be altered over time, depending on both the date and time of day, can be shown as you queue to pay for shopping. “It is time for a step-change in advertising,” said Simon Sugar, chief executive of Amscreen, who developed the OptimEyes technology behind the screens. 

He continued: “Brands deserve to know not just an estimation of how many eyeballs are viewing their adverts, but who they are, too.” 

The potential of being able to apply this technology to the HE realm might raise accusations of ‘creepiness’, but it could still prove revolutionary. As unthinkable as the idea might have been even 20 years ago, the concept that two different people in the same university space may see different information presented to them is in a very real sense the way of the future.

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