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National Treasures

An EDS program provides ambience to the National Museum.

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The Smithsonian Institution, whose Washington, DC campus comprises 19 museums, nine research centers and the National Zoo, has long been venerated as the keeper of American cultural touchstones. Through artifacts that range from indigenous, pre-colonial times to an exhibit that pays tribute to the Pac-Man’s cultural impact, it painstakingly chronicles people, places and things that have captivated Americans throughout its country’s history.

Yet, even the most established and celebrated institutions must adapt to progress and offer amenities to suit modern patrons. To create an electronic-digital-signage (EDS) system for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, museum officials contacted the 3M Foundation, a longtime Smithsonian contributor, to seek help in meeting these challenges. 3M Graphics Market Center enlisted its Digital Signage business to develop solutions, which subsequently recruited OpenEye (South Amboy, NJ) to integrate the system, which uses the newest edition of 3M’s digital-signage network operating system.

Jeff Dowell, 3M Digital Signage’s global-sales manager, said, “The program enables scheduling, distribution and execution of media-file playlists at multiple strategic locations. A unified, targeted message enhances the visitor experience.”

Bryan Meszaros, OpenEye’s chief operations officer, said a site visit revealed a facility sorely in need of graphic upgrades. He said, “I noticed a lot of confusion about the location of such amenities as exhibits, stores and restrooms, and some of the static signs were outdated and poorly positioned” he said. “I learned that the space had been designed for 500,000 annual visitors, but the facility’s annual traffic now numbers approximately seven million. We determined digital wayfinding would play a vital role in directing and informing visitors.”

However, wall-mounted, EDS displays weren’t viable for all locations. Because of the museum’s abundance of freestanding directional displays, OpenEye also specified static-signage kiosks that complement both these and the EDS. To accommodate this need, OpenEye contracted FITCH (Columbus, OH) to fabricate kiosks that Meszaros said would incorporate certain museum elements and reinforce the static signs’ theme. David Hogrefe, Fitch’s managing director, said, “The kiosks’ locations offer direct visitor exposure and it’s important that technology blend seamlessly with the environment.”

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Meszaros said OpenEye implemented NEC LCD displays over plasma screens because they offer higher image contrast, and, because of better durability, they offer lower ownership costs. He continued, “Each screen attaches to a desktop PC that runs the software application. This system provides us greater content and flexibility than the standard DVD or media-server playback mechanism.”

Launch Dynamic Media (DM), Wyomissing, PA, developed the EDS dynamic content. Bill Combs, Launch DM’s business-development director, said the program posed a challenge because “the museum didn’t offer many original design assets, but it provided broad guidelines and creative leeway. The end product interacts well with the existing, static system.”

The content-management system, which Launch developed, provides a unique solution because it enables the software to directly control the content without an editing program, such as Adobe®’s Flash® or Photoshop®. Also, Meszaros described the application as “platform agnostic” – which means it can work with any software because it doesn’t impact the network’s structure.

Meszaros underscored the need for content with mass appeal: “The museum welcomes visitors of all ages from all over the world, and dozens of exhibits are featured. Launch DM accomplished quite a task in developing content that integrated information about numerous exhibits and delivering them in ways that could be universally understood.”

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Using Flash, Launch DM built the content and developed a custom system that enables a Smithsonian administrator to make edits to all dynamic content. Combs said, “When the system is fully operational, there will be more than 80 unique Flash animations at the Smithsonian’s disposal.”

“Most media agencies develop content in After Effects, Premier or another editing program,” Meszaros said. “Video is expensive to develop and update, and Flash allows quick animation generation, smaller file sizes and greater utility with the program’s open-source elements.”

Combs said discussions have already taken place about expanding the system, but noted the application’s scalability could accommodate syndicated-content feeds, offer live ticketing for IMAX program information, or integrate with the facility’s emergency-response network.

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