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MIT: Infinite Diversity and Control

Opened in 1865, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is one of the premier educational facilities in the United States and, in fact, the world –  recently gaining the coveted first place in QS Worldwide University Rankings, beating out rivals such as Cambridge, Harvard, Oxford and Princeton. Always at the leading edge of innovation, MIT has garnered much praise for their technological work (cutting-edge research into computer technology, artificial intelligence, and robot design), architecture (from founding the first school for architecture in the U.S. to eye-popping designs such as the Kresge Auditorium ,the Stata Center for  CSAIL, and the award-winning Simmons Hall student dormitory), environmental studies, biology, medicine, physics, engineering (chemical, mechanical, electrical and civil), mathematics linguistics…the list goes on and on. Yet at the heart of it all, the focus remains on the more than 11,000-strong student body.

Communicating effectively to such a vast and varied audience requires modern solutions. Lou Graham, Manager of Audio-Visual Services at MIT, tells us how they came to use digital signage and AxisTV. “Consumable resources were certainly a factor, and there are some beautiful architectural elements that needed something that didn’t detract from them, like the rotunda and the Infinite Corridor.” The Infinite Corridor has been described as the “spine” of the university – it’s an 825-foot long straight passage that extends along the entire length of the main building and full of students at all times. “No one saw digital signage when I came on in 1996 – signage was just…signs: sheets of paper on boards. Then we put in a 35mm photographic slide projector displaying on the walls. When PowerPoint came out, we started thinking about that; we crafted a custom scripted thing to turn the projectors on and off and started pushing PP shows – we had that as a pay-service, and it paid for itself. Then, in the early  2000’s, students started getting more interested in student-driven content, and with the help of a partnership with Microsoft called iCampus, we decided to unify  all of our communications  under a single platform.” They contacted Visix through HB Communications, a local partner, and crafted a user-friendly communications system that allows for tailored and targeted communications.

“We’ve structured it so that the owners of the displays drive the content – we get them started and then they take it and fly with it whatever way they want,” Graham explains. “Lots of different departments have taken to this – like MIT Housing has just added three or four more sites and are adding more soon. As an example – in their dorm lobbies, they have displays linked to a FileMaker database, and when a student receives a package, they get an email telling them so, plus this information is displayed on the screens running AxisTV, refreshed every 30 seconds. When a package is picked up, it disappears from the playlist.” Student housing is not the only department that has taken to digital signage. “The business school has eight screens, chemical engineering has two, and there are a couple of screens in the rotunda entry lobby. The career center has screens that show recruiter interviews in the waiting area, plus tips for interviews, who is up next, that sort of thing. Also, the main lobby area has their main sponsors displayed, and they charge those companies to defray costs.”

Getting the system to pay for itself has been important to Graham. The area that gets the most student traffic is certainly the Infinite Corridor, so Graham has branded the signage there the “Infinite Display.”

Student groups, departments, labs and centers can choose to display their messages in the Student Zone (on the first floor of the Student Center, at the Student Center Shuttle bus stop and the “student street” in the Frank Gehry-designed Stata Center), in the Core Zone (on the 11 displays in the Infinite Corridor and in the Card Services and Parking Office in the basement of the Student Center), or on displays all over campus; each option carries a different price. Non-MIT organizations are also welcome to use the Infinite Display system, for a bit more than MIT groups. “It’s not exactly profitable,” says Graham, “but we have to replace equipment and it seems to be covering those costs. Plus, our audience knows that, while the prices are pretty reasonable, people have paid to get their messages displayed and there is value to that.”

So, why AxisTV? “Lots of stuff is developed by the students,” explains Graham, “but they are a transient population and there’s a sustainability factor, so we wanted something that could be supported by a single company, such as Visix. We wanted a system that is up and running, working, proven and successful and that can grow with us, which AxisTV certainly has. “We’ve had a very good experience with the training Visix offers, though the system is pretty straightforward, so we haven’t really had to make a lot of use of that. They’ve also done some great custom work for us. The Sloan School of Management, a graduate-level business school here, wanted two wayfinding displays in the Sloan executive leadership building, so we asked Visix for help and they designed some very nice custom wayfinding to help people navigate through the four floors of the newly renovated building. It’s now a fairly simple building to get around in, and what Visix did was develop a pretty slick way to get people through it.  Some other departments have noticed this and are discussing getting something similar for some of the more confusing buildings on campus.”

The system Graham has implemented continues to grow. “We’re doing more and more expansion,” he tells us. “The housing folks are really excited about this digital signage system, especially the emergency alert capabilities, which is an essential communications tool these days. MIT Medical has all kinds of spaces and they like to do their communications is a very organized way, so we’re about to launch a digital signage solution for them – information for people standing in line at the pharmacy, and other useful messages for their stable of medical practitioners and students.”

In fact, MIT Medical has found that messages about flu shots put on the Infinite Display increased the number of people who came to the clinic. The medical team, as well as Environmental Health and Safety have also used surveys for events, asking people how they heard about the event and found that very often, the answer was “the digital displays.”

“You know, we are crazy busy from mid-August though December, especially with the Infinite Display” says Graham. “So we try to keep slides up for 15 seconds at a time, repeating every five minutes.  This is one of the selling points I’ve used with people – that you can get a lot of content on display for really good audience saturation.”

What would Graham tell other organizations that were considering digital signage? “You have to know your audience, first of all, and the potential users of it, and craft your deployment around their needs.  The hardware is the easy part; what matters is what you put out there and how you can use it do what you need it to. The flexibility we have with Visix and AxisTV – we have so many groups using this – allows us to keep the content looking fresh. And if you can find a way to distribute your system to the deep thinkers and the good eyes in your organization (and they might be anybody), then no one person has to be burdened with always trying to come up with something new.” This strength through diversity approach has been one of the key philosophies that keeps MIT consistently ranked high in the educational sector.

He concludes, “Knowing what you are trying to do and having as vision of where you want to go is vital. If it is going to be campus-wide and everyone runs their own show, that’s one thing, but if you want to control the look and content more, then you go a different way. A flexible system like AxisTV lets you do whatever you want.”