“How do I create digital signs that I can update easily?” Imagine having to physically manage computers, logging in remotely to each machine, installing anti-malware software, trying to avoid the blue screen of death from popping up instead of scheduled announcements. If digital signage is a concern for you, whether as a classroom principal, campus technology coordinator, or district technology director, then this post shares some solutions.
Let’s quickly review what “digital signage” is:
Digital signage is a form of electronic display that shows television programming, menus, information, advertising, and other messages. Digital signs (such as LCD, LED, plasma displays, or projected images) can be found in public and private environments, such as retail stores, hotels, restaurants, schools, and corporate buildings.
Source: Adapted from Wikipedia
If this is a need you have for your campus, then let’s dig a little deeper!
What will I need to put in place to support a solution?
Before working to implement a solution, you may want to consider these questions:
- Do you want all displays or some displays to show the same content? Some solutions may only allow you to broadcast the same content to all displays, while some systems will allow you to send different content to various displays.
- Have you budgeted for the cost of electrical cabling (e.g. electrical outlets)? Often, you may want to place displays in places where electrical cabling has not been placed. Cost for an electrical outlet can begin at $250, so it’s worth thinking strategically about placement of these displays. In addition to the display’s power source, the mini-computer or device “serving up” the content may need power. While some devices will rely on built-in HDMI or USB ports on the display itself, a separate power cable for the device may be needed.
- Who will be your primary point of contact and support for this on campus? Empowering someone on the campus to maintain the software and technology and update the displays often results in more responsive support that campuses need. This will eliminate someone calling the Technology Department asking for help and enables campus staff to take greater ownership of the displays at their location.
- Will there be sufficient WiFi signal to support these displays and content streaming?
Along with electrical cabling, one potential obstacle to digital signage involves not having sufficient wireless signal to support the streaming of images, text, and video. You should always plan for video, since as displays grow more popular, the expectations for what the display can showcase will rise.
- Will you be able to secure the mini-computer or device? Given how enterprising some students and/or staff may be, failing to secure (or lock) the mini-computer or device could be fatal. While these devices are relatively inexpensive, replacing them periodically could become costly. As such, finding a way to “lock” the devices is necessary.
- What size monitor display will you need? You will want to find an appropriately-sized monitor that includes HDMI/USB connections. Again, what size monitor you get really depends on pricing options available and the space you have available.
What solutions should I consider?
There are various solutions you could invest in. The solutions mentioned below have all been considered by Texas school districts:
Solution #1 – Texas Digital
One school district has invested and deployed a solution from Texas Digital (NCR). The main selling point of this solution is that it’s supported and managed by an external vendor at cost.
Solution #2 – RiseVision
This solution is in use in multiple districts. Dr. Joy Rosseau (Arp ISD) shares, “It allows you to add apps like news feeds, weather, Google slides, streaming content from TV or radio, etc. We have found it to be limitless. You can schedule your displays and use multiple templates on multiple displays. It is cloud-based and can be used across the district.” One of its main selling points is that it is no-cost except for the hardware itself. There are no additional support or vendor costs. It is also centrally managed.
- Eustace ISD Demo
- Watch a Video About How It Works
- Training for Your Team
- Recommended Equipment: HD TV (<=$300-$600) and Cenique’s Android Dongles ($100-$250) – all managed remotely via a web interface.
Eustace ISD’s Rusty Meyners makes these points:
“As it happens, our high school principal asked for a digital signage solution and he had a budget ready for it. It fell to me and I went to town, trying RiseVision.com and two other solutions on inexpensive flat panel TVs from Wal-Mart fitted with Android dongles from Amazon.com. RiseVision was the one most prominently recommended by technology directors in the state and I can validate it as the best choice with some caveats. Just this week, our first two displays went live: one 32″ and one 47,” with another 47″ in the queue and probably a 40-42″ to be added soon.”
Think this solution would be worth trying in your situation?
Solution #3 – Chromebox with Google Slides or Chrome Sign Builder
This solution, growing in popularity, involves using a Chromebox (Dell Chromeboxes are about $149-$349 depending on specifications, but you can also find others online) to manage content. Of course, you will need to include an HDMI-friendly monitor display. In regards to what is providing the content, some districts like to use Google Slides, while others use Chrome Sign Builder. Google describes Chrome Sign Builder in this way:
“Chrome Sign Builder makes it easy to show web content content, such as restaurant menus, images, and YouTube videos and playlists, as well as Google Presentations, which can be edited by anyone who has access to the presentation. You configure Chrome Sign Builder once. In initial setup, you create schedules and specify the URLs for content that will be displayed according to the schedules. Later, you might need to change the content at those URLs, but you don’t have to reconfigure schedules and settings in Chrome Sign Builder.”
Timothy Ezler (Ricardo ISD) shared, “I played with Chrome Sign Builder, but the use of Google Slides was much easier.” Check out this example from Timothy. Bland ISD also does the same, eliminating the need for a device: “Students actually maintain the presentation under supervision of classroom sponsor. Difference is presentation runs on two TVs with built in wireless. No need for connected netbook or other device.”
But wait, there’s more!
Solution #4 – Next Unit of Computing (NUC)
Next Unit of Computing (NUC) serves as another option. The approximate cost is $300-$400 per device, which means that many districts see it as an affordable option. NUCs usually run the full Windows operating system and provide a level of familiarity for technical support staff. A NUC is a small form factor device and is appropriate for use in displays.
Solution #5 – Flat Panels Displaying a PowerPoint
Other districts have simply hooked up flat panels running in kiosk mode to a “video multiplier.” The video multiplier, also known as a video splitter (one example for approximately $23), is connected to a computer running Microsoft PowerPoint. The slideshow appears on all connected displays.
Solution #6 – Digital Signage
“DigitalSignage.com is a free solution and works great,” says Ricky Cline (Melissa ISD). “You will need to use a Windows client to use it. I would recommend using the Intel Compute Stick for it. Still cheap and small.” DigitalSignage is based off an “open source framework available through the public Apache repository.” It supports web standards such as HTML5, Flash, HD videos, MRSS, weather, live TV, and much more. You can see live examples online via their web site.
Next time a campus principal asks you “How can I setup digital signs?,” you will have a starting point.
This blog was updated with additional content on April 24, 2017.