Biopharmaceutical company’s Delaware-based U.S. Corporate Headquarters get a new digital signage network, screens and audio to match.

By Dawn Allcot

Most, if not all, Sound & Communications readers remember a time before digital signage (and HDTV monitors, for that matter) existed. But technology in this industry advances quickly and we’re already seeing the next generations of digital signage solutions. Some early adopters may even be ready for an upgrade of their systems to enjoy the expanded capabilities, better ease-of-use, and enhanced flexibility of today’s digital signage hardware and software. This was exactly the case for the global biopharmaceutical firm, AstraZeneca, who recently called on West Chester, Penn.-based audio visual integrator Advanced AV to completely replace and update the digital signage systems in their U.S. corporate headquarters, located in Wilmington, Del.

The company needed a versatile, easy-to-use system that could be used for internal corporate communications and branding along with emergency messaging services, with the goal of completely doing away with paper signage across a multi-building campus and improving the company’s carbon footprint with more eco-friendly technology.

In 2002, the Advanced AV team, headed by Digital Signage Market Development Manager Vince Faville, had installed a digital signage system from Magic Box in AstraZeneca’s corporate headquarters, using some of the earlier models of 4:3 aspect ratio plasma monitors to display content intended for internal communications.

Faville says, “Magic Box is a one-to-one solution. In other words, you have one Magic Box system, and you push that content out to multiple displays through distribution equipment.”

“At that time, the plasma programming was leading-edge technology,” says Rebecca Everitt, senior manager of corporate communications for AstraZeneca.

But the old system didn’t give the client the ability to show multiple unique messages on different screens, to separate the screens into zones to share a variety of information at one time, or the ability to make real-time updates to the programming. It also didn’t give members of various AstraZeneca departments the ability to create and upload their own content.

“In the past, when someone wanted to put content on the screens, they would send the corporate communications department an email with the information,” Faville relates. “It would need to be formatted for Magic Box, so they would have to send it to the production team to re-format, taking up a lot of valuable time and resources. Now, anyone designated as a content owner can create content using a template established by AstraZeneca’s communications department. Authorized content owners receive a unique log-in to the system, so they can create content to be approved by the communications department and then delivered to the digital signage system.”

This was one of the requirements outlined by the client. Other features the client requested included the ability to:

  • Make real-time changes in content, as spearheaded by the communications department
  • Display full-screen alerts as part of an emergency system
  • Plan programming in advance and target information to different locations and during specific times

At the same time, the original 2002-model, 4:3 aspect ratio screens were beginning to show signs of image burn-in (which older-model plasmas are prone to do after time), and were not as eco-friendly as today’s models.

AstraZeneca’s Everitt explains, “We wanted to replace and upgrade the aging campus-wide plasma communication system with a digital signage solution that provided greater flexibility and timeliness in message delivery to our employees, while using less energy, generating less heat and reducing paper use for communications.”

Environmentalism, or steps toward a “greener” workplace, was a project objective for the biopharmaceutical firm, according to Everitt. The company knew how much time, money and natural resources was being used with the printing and hanging of paper signs across the facility, many of which remained on the walls for a short campaign before being replaced with a new message.

Advanced AV, acting as a consultant at the beginning of the project, shared several different solutions with the client, and AstraZeneca decision makers liked the flexibility, customization and ease of use of the Tightrope Media Systems digital signage solution. The system includes a player PC mounted behind or near each display and outfitted with Carousel’s proprietary licensing software, and Carousel Enterprise Server software, which resides on a virtual network and is managed by the Information Services (IS) department.

“This system allows us to provide creation and editing rights to more people in the business and it’s very user-friendly,” Everitt says. “We can split the screen into zones, so multiple types of information can be shown at the same time. Various file types can be uploaded without distortion of quality, eliminating the need for file conversions and allowing for real-time communications.”

Faville adds, “The client ultimately chose Tightrope because it seemed to fit best in their workflow. Since they can get messages out easier and more efficiently, they’ve done away with all those posters.”

The Tightrope system provides the capability to display five different “zones” of messaging on one screen, and it can custom-size content to fit any of the zones automatically. The client can also pull content from corporate RSS feeds and other external data to display on the screens. “We were very excited,” Everitt says, “about the ability to split the screen into different zones so multiple types of information can be shown at the same time, such as video in one section of the screen and weather and upcoming events in another part.”

Selling Digital Signage

Often, when audio visual integrators are pursuing a big digital signage project, the key challenge is in customer education. Prospects have to be sold on the benefits of digital signage and integrators must explain the vast capabilities and applications of the system before the project is a “go.”

This was not at all the case with the digital signage upgrade for AstraZeneca’s U.S. corporate headquarters. “AstraZeneca was different because they were already familar with digital signage but they were looking for a ‘better mouse trap,’” Faville says. “Advanced AV installed the original system with the best product available to meet their needs at that time. However, with computers becoming more powerful and prices of digital signage solutions dropping, we were able to offer a much better solution today.”

Faville worked closely with Advanced AV project manager Tory Holmwood, applications engineer Peter Claffey, the architects and the AstraZeneca IS department, along with other AstraZeneca staff, to implement the Tightrope Carousel server and equipment, along with 27 LCD flat screens and audio for video throughout the space.

Everitt notes, “The success of the project was due to a cross-functional team, including people from Corporate Communications, Facilities, Information Services, Engineering, and Procurement, working together to identify the best solution to fit our needs, from both a functionality and compatibility perspective. Each team member served as an expert from their area to help guide the project to success.”

Keeping Cool and Other Challenges

The challenges to this project, as Faville explains them, were related primarily to IT infrastructure and design elements. The client was sold on the solution; the challenge was to implement it in a way that it would operate properly on the company’s network, and so that the technology would blend in with the architecture.

“What the architects say will look good isn’t always the best thing for the audio video equipment,” Faville says.

Case in point: Thirteen of the 25 46-inch NEC P461 LED display monitors were enclosed in display cases in the center of hallways and high traffic areas. The player PC lives in a drawer in the enclosure, directly below the screen.

These “knuckles” as they were described, originally housed the 4:3 screens, so Advanced AV had to select the largest screen that would fit horizontally in the space but visually fill the space vertically, as well, without modifying the expensive Venetian plaster surrounding it. And, within these enclosures, the equipment had to stay cool. “We had to educate the architect about convection and heat, and how we need some ventilation in there or the units would overheat and fail,” Faville says.

The screens had enough clearance to permit adequate air flow; Advanced AV added Orion muffin fans and mesh guard on top of the cabinet doors to keep the PCs cool.

For six of the displays, Advanced AV worked with the architect to create custom surrounds that contributed to the look and feel of the building while framing the digital signage message. The player PCs for these units are housed remotely in nearby closets on existing Middle Atlantic racks. Running cable wasn’t an issue because Cat-5 was in place from the first digital signage application, where all PCs were housed remotely.

The 46-inch display screens, 25 in all, plus one high-bright 46-inch display and one 40-inch monitor — are placed in high-traffic areas: on the walls opposite elevator banks where people are inclined to linger, at the coffee counters, in the corporate cafeterias and in high-traffic hallways.

One hallway, which connects two of the buildings, created a particular challenge due to the high ambient light and also the reverberant environment.

“There’s a large glass wall directly opposite the display,” Faville explains. An NEC 461HB high bright display was used in this location, since it was deemed a crucial place to hang a monitor.

Audio for Video

A total of 45 Extron 42-103-03 ceiling speakers, driven by Extron 60-850-01 amps, and with easy to use in-wall volume controllers, were hung in pairs via low-profile mounting kits to deliver audio for video easily and inexpensively.

A few areas, however, needed a more advanced solution for better sound containment. In certain areas, such as the cafeteria and in front of the coffee counter where people are inclined to stand and talk, Advanced AV installed Panphonics SS600100V sound shower speakers, named for the way they “drop” sound from the ceiling to a very targeted area, just as a shower nozzle disperses water across a small space.

The PanPhonics speakers are highly directional boxes so that people standing directly in the path of their very targeted dispersion pattern can hear the sound, but anyone outside that narrow field cannot. “The benefit is that if you want to hear the audio you can stand in a particular area, but if you don’t want to listen, you just step away from the speaker and you won’t hear it at all,” Faville says.

The contractor is in the process of adding sound showers to a few more spaces, including the connecting corridor with floor-to-ceiling windows, to keep sound from echoing across the corridor and disturbing people in other areas.

IT and AV Converge (Once Again)

The company’s original digital signage installation, as Faville noted, was a one-to-one solution: one computer, connected to various plasma monitors all displaying a single message. That computer wasn’t required to live on the AstraZeneca network. But Tightrope Enterprise Carousel requires network connectivity to maximize its feature set, including the ability to receive RSS feeds and utilize remote log-ins.

Rather than using one of the AstraZeneca’s existing servers or placing another server on the network, the Advanced AV team worked with the IS department to create a virtual server that would host the Enterprise Carousel software. Then, the technology arm of Advanced AV (ATG), created custom hardware/software players to live on the network.

A collection of Tightrope software licenses 8 CARCHDE licenses, which permits eight separate “channels” of digital signage content to be broadcasted, plus CARDE software licenses, which point to one of those eight channels, were installed. Additional CARCHDE licenses can be purchased in the future if it becomes necessary to show more than eight different channels of content at one time.

Network security, of course, was a top concern throughout the process. Faville, with the good nature of someone who’s become accustomed to making IT part of his job, noted, “You can’t come in as an AV company and say, ‘Hi, we want to put 27 of these boxes on your network.’ As a pharmaceutical company, AstraZeneca has very strict security standards, as you can imagine. We worked with their IS department to make sure everything met those standards and that the virtual environment was stable and secure.”

He concludes, “It was this direct relationship with the IS department that helped make the project a success.”

New bio: Dawn Allcot has been a writer in the AV industry and a Sound & Communications contributor for more than 15 years. As a full-time freelance writer specializing in a variety of topics, she’s been published extensively in magazines and on the Web. Most recently, she has written for New York City-based Bella magazine, the American Express lifestyle website, and is a regular blogger at