Digital signs help Ontario college boost its image
Sometimes it pays not to go with your first plan. Sometimes it pays to sit back and dream.
Steve Kosh, the marketing and communications manager for the students’ association at Hamilton, Ont.’s, Mohawk College, learned that earlier this year when he was ready to order a digital signage system for the restaurant, fast food and pub facilities in the campus student centre.

His idea was to install eight digital screens to show menus in the locales. Then he began to wonder “what if …” and he had a better idea: Digital monitors throughout the facility offering all manners of useful information for students. In effect, they would replace messy bulletin boards and emails about upcoming events and such. Then he had an even better idea: A digital wall.

Four months after the 26 screens were installed in the centre, Kosh says they are a huge hit, especially the 10-foot wide by 7-foot high video wall by the main entrance.

“We have people who stop in the hallways to watch the thing through,” he says. “You never watched anyone before in front of a bulletin board to check out the 12 posters that were up.”

The heart of the system is the Scala 5 content management and delivery software from Scala Inc. Kosh discovered it last spring when researching easy-to-use digital signage software. Of the three trial software packages he download for testing, Scala met his needs.

Based in Exton, Penn., Scala only sells through its partners so it directed Kosh to Mississauga, Ont.’s Gorrie Marketing Services, a digital signage solutions provider. While talking with Gorrie project manager Ray Prachun about the digital menus, Kosh began to dream bigger.

Eventually Gorrie agreed to design and install a system to fit Kosh’s new plan. That also meant going back to the student association for more money – about $150,000 in total.

What Prachun came up with was a network of 26 LCD screens from Samsung fed by six custom-made dual-head media player servers that offer 12 “channels” of programming. The Scala software itself runs on a Windows Server 64-bit platform supplied by the college. The dual head players mean two feeds come from each server. That, Prachun said, means a saving for customers because Scala is licenced per server, not per feed.

All are connected through a dedicated Category 6 twisted pair network, supplemented by two college-provided routers and two switches covered by the project. To assure quality video images, DVI connections are used for transmission, which also meant that 13 transmitters and 13 receivers from Kramer Electronics were needed to turn the video stream into data and then back.

The installation was pretty straightforward, says Prachun, although he wasn’t sure how to feed one four-screen menu board used in one location. The solution was to use one media player with 6 MB of memory that pushes out two channels of information.

Kosh says the ad-free system is everything he hoped for. It can flash Twitter and RSS feeds. The college hires a photographer to shoot events and concerts, and one of the popular things to do on campus the next day is gather around the video wall and look for images of yourself.

Prachun says soon the system will have the ability to display QR codes, those digital squares that, if scanned or photographed with a handset, can take a user directly to a Web site.

“It brings the student centre into the 2011-era,” Kosh says of the system. “When students walk in it doesn’t look like we’re a school from the ’80s. We’re now a tech-savvy school.”

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