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January 10, 2013

Technology Corner

tech corner

Enterprise digital signage

Jeanne Marie Laskas, director of the English department’s writing program, is teaching a graduate nonfiction workshop in digital narrative this term. She had questions about Pitt’s enterprise digital signage service; CSSD’s Orr Goehring and Dan Menicucci had the answers.

There’s a lot of interest in our department in digital media, so I’ve been keeping an eye on all the screens popping up around campus and checking out related services at Pitt. What is “enterprise digital signage”?

Enterprise digital signage is a CSSD service that allows departments to easily deploy and manage digital signage — those screens you’re seeing around campus.

That term “enterprise” means it’s a centrally managed service, one that can be applied across the University.

CSSD has researched, evaluated and implemented a software solution that departments can use. We did the technical background work, in other words. Departments then can concentrate on the visible side of digital signage, including sign placement, size and content.

So this is about the software running the information on the signs, and not the physical screens themselves?

Right. CSSD helps you set up the software so that it works with the digital displays you have; we don’t provide the signs. If you don’t have any screens yet or don’t know what to buy, we can point you in the right direction.

And CSSD will monitor the digital signs through our Network Operations Center, plus provide support from CSSD staff with experience in digital signs and expertise in the software.

What are examples of the service’s use at Pitt?

Student Affairs’ digital signs are the most visible, with locations such as the ground floor of the Cathedral and the William Pitt Union. They’ve just started using the enterprise digital signage service to manage their content.

CSSD’s signs use the software to share details about our services and to scroll real-time info about how many computers are available in each of our campus computing labs.

In addition to images, text and video, we scroll our department’s Twitter feed along the sign.

You can display live data? So not just Twitter, but other online content?

Yes, there’s a lot of flexibility here. Once you have a monitor and we’ve set up the software, enterprise digital signage allows you to drag-and-drop content (like images, video and text) into designated areas on the sign.

It also lets you schedule when and how often you want different types of information to display on your sign.

How tech-savvy do we have to be to do this?

One of the most important factors that CSSD considered when selecting this product was usability. We understand that no one is going to hire a full-time digital signage administrator. We wanted a product that someone could learn and be able to go from nothing to a dynamic sign with minimal training.

We’ll set up the software and familiarize you with the software program itself. The interface is pretty intuitive, and we provide free training for the people in your department who will be managing the signs.

We also give you a few Pitt sign templates that you can use to get up and running quickly.

So we can experiment with it without breaking it.

Exactly. This product has an easy-to-use interface but still is powerful enough to bring in and display the richest types of content: images and video, real-time data showing calendars or news feeds.

And you can test-drive it. We’re working with some departments now who are trying it but have not committed to signing up for the service.

What kinds of feedback are you getting from people using this?

We’ve heard two main things. The first, honestly, is that people are very happy with the price. Some have said that it’s a lot less than what they are paying now, or a lot less than what they’ve been quoted by outside vendors.

The second is that they are excited that the software makes it possible to share content across departments. If a department creates a video to promote an upcoming event, they can put that video clip in a public folder within the software program and other departments that use enterprise digital signage can drag and drop that video into their own signs to help promote the event.

Were you surprised by anything when you began using the software for your CSSD signs?

One thing we learned was that we hadn’t been realistic in estimating the amount of lead time required to get our sign physically up and running. We hadn’t built into our timeline things like getting Facilities Management’s approval for the location, identifying what types of mounts we needed to purchase and scheduling time required to build a cabinet. Lesson learned.

I’m going to have to figure digital signage into a budget: What does the service cost?

Short answer is $700 per “content player,” which is just the computer that runs your sign. That’s a one-time cost. There’s also a $100 annual maintenance cost per content player, but we’re waiving that charge until July 2015.

As you’re looking at how this fits into your budget, it’s important to recognize that upfront costs vary. The basic elements of digital signage hardware are a screen and a computer (a typical PC-class machine will do the job) to drive the display. Some departments already have that hardware; others don’t.

Screen size is a cost factor, with costs ranging from hundreds to thousands of dollars. Costs will vary due to size (both screen size and depth) and whether or not you want to use a touch screen.

Other expenses include costs involved in mounting the display. Depending on the sign’s location and what’s already there or needs to be installed, costs can include running a network port to the location, making power available and putting the screen in a secure or decorative cabinet.

We’ll help you look at all the screen and location options and figure out what works best for you, both in terms of the purpose of the signs and your budget.

Any final words of advice?

Think about the sign’s primary purpose before you buy the hardware or subscribe to our service. What you want to display on the screen will be a factor in what size and type of screen you buy – and where you put it.

Talk to us. We like to help!

Orr Goehring supervises the marketing & communications group in CSSD. Dan Menicucci is an enterprise architect in CSSD, helping to make the most effective and strategic use of Pitt’s IT assets.

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