in August 2008
Healthy Possibilities For Digital Signage
By Dawn Allcot
Fraser Health’s IMRO is a technology proving ground.
Each videoconferencing room features a control system with a 60-inch plasma display and overlay plus two additional 42-inch plasma displays for near and far camera support. The dual videoconferencing suites are used for internal company communications with more than 20 other offices in the region, and to support remote interviews for the human resources team located in the building.
Are there any boundaries to what digital signage can accomplish? The original, and still primary, use for digital signage is marketing and promotions in retail establishments, but innovative integrators and end users have expanded the applications for the technology.
The Information Management Regional Office (IMRO) for Fraser Health Authority in Surrey, British Columbia, Canada, stands as a landmark example of the many, varied uses of digital signage. “Most people, when they think of digital signage, think of retail or public display applications,” said Colby Harder, owner and chief engineer for Vancouver BC-based CONTI Electronics, who completed the installation in Fraser’s 44,000-square-foot administrative office. “In this application, we’ve used digital signage technology to fill internal needs for Fraser Health.”
Fraser Health Authority provides healthcare services for nearly 2 million people in British Columbia. The company’s offices span 120 miles and more than 130 hospitals, clinics and community health offices. The Surrey-based IMRO houses Fraser’s human resource, IT and IT call center departments.
Dick Ratchford, a consultant for Fraser Health who specializes in technical architecture and security, along with engineering, voice communications and voice over IP, described the IMRO building as a “proof-of-concept, live lab environment.” New technology is introduced in the facility before it is rolled out through the rest of the Fraser locations.
For this reason, not only does IMRO receive the latest IT and AV innovations first, but the design for these projects mimics what would be found in other locations. In this project, the digital signage and videoconferencing looks exactly as it would look in other field offices, with telecomm closets and cable runs similar to what they would put in field offices, and multiple servers to handle the workload.
The installation, completed by Harder and his CONTI Electronics team, who partnered with NEC Unified Solutions for the project, included three separate applications of digital signage, all using the Omnivex software platform, and 10 meeting rooms with projection capabilities and audio. Two of the meeting rooms include full videoconferencing capabilities by means of a Polycom system, operated through a Crestron control system.
Although the project began with this initial AV installation in 10 meeting rooms, it blossomed into digital signage solutions for meeting room scheduling, a visual paging display in the IT call center, and digital signage displays in the lobby to educate visitors about the purpose and goals of the facility.
CONTI Electronics faced many challenges typical to AV installers, who routinely enter projects after the other trades are nearly done with their portion of the work. In this case, Harder said, “We weren’t engaged in the project until the site was near completion. Most of the contractors had completed their work and left the site by the time we were one-third of the way through our project.”
Cat5 cabling was pulled through the raised plenum floors in many cases, rather than the ceiling, which required navigating air vents that normally would be in a drop ceiling. “It was not entirely clear how to get cabling from one spot to another in many spots,” Harder said. However, with a bit more hands-on work from his staff, the job was accomplished easily. The true challenges, he said, were behind the scenes, and related to the integration of multiple technological disciplines.
“What really makes this project innovative,” Harder said, “is the use of the Omnivex software platform to drive three totally different signage applications.” He continued, “This project showcased the meaning of integration, pulling together IT resources, digital signage, public display and videoconferencing into one solution.”
Guests are greeted in the lobby reception with promotional and information content.
120 Miles, Plus
The $1 million overall IT/AV project launched with AV installations in 10 meeting rooms, the first in a series of 23 total meeting rooms in the Fraser network for which CONTI supplied audiovisual systems. “After we installed the first two,” Harder said, “it stimulated a greater desire for conferencing capabilities. We’ve since gone on to install more than 20 other sites throughout the region.”
Eight meeting rooms contain basic AV gear, including an NEC VT676 ceiling-mounted projector, a Da-Lite 72-inch projection screen and an Altinex TNP502C tabletop connection box.
Two rooms feature extensive videoconferencing capabilities through a Polycom codec and MGC-100 bridge and Crestron control through an MP2 processor and STX 1700CW touchpanel. A Polycom camera is mounted directly atop the center plasma display to capture images from the near-end. A 61-inch plasma display in the center displays data from a variety of sources, such as a DVD player or PC. The screen includes a PN360 SMART Board overlay, which turns the display into an interactive whiteboard.
Two 42-inch plasmas flank the center screen, showing live feeds from the cameras on the near- and far-ends of the videoconference. Through the Crestron control panel, users can reconfigure the displays to show far-end on the main display if they choose.
One conference room features ISDN connections directly to the videoconferencing codec, but both are connected to a centralized MGC100 bridge, which permits on-demand and scheduled conferencing through voice or remote control. The system interfaces with MS Outlook, making it easy for users to schedule meetings and invite participants from their contact list.
Enforcer ceiling speakers powered by Bogen amps provide sound for each room.
The videoconferencing capabilities bring Fraser Health’s geographically extensive network, which spans 120 miles, closer together, and has also been used by the HR department for executive-level interviews of prospective employees overseas.
The IT helpdesk includes 16 plasma displays that display critical, up-to-the second, call processing information pulled directly from the phone system’s SQL database. The IT helpdesk empowers operators to prioritize calls and allocate limited human resources to the issues that are most urgent.
Meeting Scheduling, ‘Automagically
With eight active meeting rooms and two videoconferencing facilities onsite, the client needed a way to schedule activities easily and automatically. “In the old days,” Ratchford said, “people would put a piece of paper on the door. Scheduling was an absolute nightmare!”
Together, CONTI and the Information Management (IM) staff came up with a digital signage application that would display, on a bay of nine 14-inch NEC LED monitors, all the meetings assigned for that day. The system handles it “automagically,” Ratchford likes to say.
That’s how it appears to end users, of course, but software programming and the right combination of equipment make it possible. Omnivex Display and CalendarLink software interface with Microsoft Exchange to pull meeting information directly from Microsoft Outlook in real time.
Just like the system in the call center, no additional data entry or formatting is required. When a user books a meeting room for a specific time, the system routes the information through the Omnivex client and displays it on the appropriate screen outside the bay of rooms. The digital signage solutions manufacturer modified the CalendarLink software based on the installer’s recommendations in order to optimize operations with less human intervention.
The displays also show the current time of day and the subject of the meeting: all the information users need to find out if they are in the right place, at the right time, with just a glance.
CalendarLink software allows Fraser executives to check on the availability of meeting rooms and schedule meetings remotely, from any PC on the Fraser network.
The system operates as a proof-of-concept for the whole Fraser Health organization. “Other facilities and hospitals in the Fraser Health family come to the IMRO location and see that this application could work for them,” Ratchford said. “They can then get the capital to bring the project to their facility.”
‘Proof of Concept’
Although the proof of IM’s purpose is in the technology in use every day at the IMRO, the digital signage display in the lobby helps drive home the point to government visitors and Fraser Health executives. A 19-inch NEC plasma display in the lobby above the reception desk shows what Ratchford calls “propaganda” for the IM department to anyone who enters the facility. Omnivex Display software, running on Dell rackmount PCs, pulls video from an existing database and routes it to the display.
Currently, the IT department is maximizing the visibility of the reception signage to show what Fraser’s Information Management department has done, and what the department can accomplish in the future. This message is conveyed through three 20-minute marketing videos that play on a continuous loop.
Ratchford explained, “Because our healthcare system is government run, we want to let people know how we spend the government money and the good things we are doing for healthcare through our IM department. Everybody within the government and Fraser Health who visits our building is aware of the important role IT plays in the business.”
In the future, the display can also be used by the HR department as a recruiting tool for prospective Fraser employees who enter the building for interviews, and to help Fraser Health build brand equity by showcasing the organization’s community involvement beyond the IM department’s accomplishments.
Although digital signage in an office lobby is a conventional application, Fraser’s IM department and CONTI Electronics stretched the capabilities of the technology to install visual paging displays in IMRO’s IT Call Center, which provides helpdesk-style technical support to Fraser employees. The management group also manages the network and monitors network status, along with IT device status, from the same location.
Omnivex’s DataPipe server and SQL List software pulls data from the phone system to display crucial call information on 16 42-inch NEC plasma displays mounted in a single row across the call center wall. The software eliminates the need for additional data entry or formatting.
The client required the ability to view, in real-time, call status, including number of calls in the queue, average wait time, longest wait time, specific caller requests and individual productivity data for call center personnel.
Although CONTI was not familiar with the specific NEC-supplied telephone backbone and switch system, the integrator’s vast experience with digital signage made the solution “fairly simple,” according to Harder, who notes that he was confident in his choice of software for the project.
The Omnivex SQL List software and DataPipe server easily integrated with the phone system’s ODBC database. Through the phone system’s sequel database foundation, the user can make sequel queries into the database, pulling the appropriate live information and routing it to each plasma screen. A color-coding system helps call center personnel manage the challenging level of inquiries, helping them resolve problems more quickly.
The system also provides audible alerts through eight Enforcer EPCS502B ceiling speakers powered by Bogen amplifiers.
Ratchford said he has seen call center efficiency increase by well over 20% since the system was installed. “The digital signage system puts the information in their faces,” Ratchford said. “It allows call center agents to police themselves.” He added that call center agents know, “Big Brother is looking at them and their statistics; it’s not hidden away. With the information in front of them, they can more efficiently run the call system themselves.”
Prior to this installation, Fraser had no centralized contact center, so the technology has already effected improvements. Based on the predicted return-on-investment, Fraser is on its way to recouping the costs of the project, and will continue to see a positive ROI for many years to come.
In keeping with the IMRO’s role as a “proof-of-concept” facility, Fraser currently is planning to work with CONTI to install a pilot program using similar technology in its emergency rooms for patient triage. The plan is scheduled to be rolled out in 13 acute-care facilities within the Fraser network.
Just as the meeting room calendar signage system saves time, money and helps the Fraser Health facility run more efficiently, the digital signage in the call center carries similar benefits.
Across the board, the system’s ease of use means it has been readily adopted, even embraced, by Fraser personnel. Additionally, the centralized network management and troubleshooting provided by the software solution make it easy for the IM technical staff to control.
The onsite system uses Extron video over Cat5 cabling to distribute the VGA signal across the network, but the signage could be thousands of miles away and controlled across the internet.
Sky’s The Limit
“The sky’s the limit,” Ratchford said, referring not just to this project, but also to the possibilities available when IM personnel harness the power of IT/AV solutions. “We want people in Fraser Health to know: Bring us ideas, and we’ll do it for you. We want them to understand that we save money for the government by doing this.”
It’s hard to argue with the results when technology cuts costs and improves productivity. Hunter concluded, “We’re obviously proud of the work we’ve done at Fraser and proud of the fact that it was multi-disciplinary….The client’s happy with it, which makes us feel good.”
CONTI Electronics, based in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, has seen many evolutions in the audiovisual industry since the company’s launch in 1973. “The three big drivers for our business today are digital signage, both in-office and out-of-office applications, along with HD videoconferencing, and corporate presentation centers, training rooms and meeting rooms,” said owner/chief engineer Colby Harder.
He noted that the recent Fraser Health Authority digital signage and teleconferencing installation did not employ HD because the format had not yet come to market for videoconferencing at the time the project was designed. However, the healthcare authority is now integrating HD into all new sites. This is just one indication of the speed of innovation in this field.
Although the AV industry and the company itself have changed significantly in the past 35 years, one thing remains the same: CONTI is still a family-owned business. It was launched by Harder’s father, and now employs 20 individuals. The company also draws on the expertise of a wide range of affiliated partners across Canada to provide value-added services for its clients.
CONTI is, additionally, a member of the Axis Group, Canada’s largest network of AV integrators. This affiliation permits the company to support installations across Canada, including major centers (cities) such as Victoria, Vancouver, Kelowna, Calgary, Edmonton, Red Deer, Lethbridge, Regina, Saskatoon, Brandon, Winnipeg, Thunder Bay, Toronto, London, Ottawa, Montreal, Quebec City, Fredericton, Moncton, Charlottetown, Halifax and St. John’s, and rural areas in Canada’s arctic and the oil patch.
The company also supports AV installations in the US, including a current project in Alaska.
CONTI recently completed the installation of digital signage systems with Crestron control in the retail rental center of the Chateau Whistler hotel in Whistler-Blackcomb, a high-end ski resort in British Columbia; the Vancouver Port Authority surveillance display system; and a boardroom in the British Columbia Medical Association headquarters.
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1 NEC PX42VP5HA 42" plasma display
1 Bogen C30 amp
8 Enforcer Sound Products EPCS502B speaker assemblies
16 NEC PX42VP5HA 42" plasma displays
Meeting Rooms (x10)
1 Altinex TNP502C tabletop connection box
1 Da-Lite manual 72" projection screen
1 NEC VT676 ceiling-mounted projector
Video Conference Rooms (x2)
1 Altinex TNP121 tabletop connection box
1 Crestron MP2 processor
1 Crestron STX1700CW touchpanel
2 NEC PX42VM5HA 42" multi-system plasma display (110/220V)
1 NEC PX61XM3A PlasmaSync 61" display monitor
1 Omnivex Datapipe
1 Omnivex Display Director
1 Omnivex Display Player
1 Omnivex Outlook Link
1 Omnivex SQL Link
1 Polycom codec (client supplied)
1 SMART Board PN360 overlay for 61" plasma
List is edited from information supplied by CONTI Electronics.
Dawn Allcot is a freelance writer specializing in the audiovisual and health and fitness industries.