News Release

New in Class: Digital Signage to Make Campus Smarter, Safer, Greener

Jacobs School electrical engineering student Andrew Permenter assembles a cluster of digital signs. The sensor-equipped signs will collect data pertaining to the classroom environment, such as light, temperature, humidity, particle concentration, and carbon dioxide levels.

San Diego, CA, October 23, 2009  - Classrooms at the University of California, San Diego, just got considerably more intelligent — and this time, it has nothing to do with the students inside them.

Researchers from the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology (Calit2) are installing a number of LED digital signs in classrooms throughout UC San Diego, with the eventual goal of outfitting the entire campus with the notification system. Not only are the scrolling signs capable of broadcasting tailor-made information specific to certain classrooms via embedded computers, they will eventually alert faculty, staff and students during emergency situations, such as a fire or in the event a shooter enters a particular building. 

In addition, the sensor-equipped signs — which cost about $400 each — will collect data pertaining to the classroom environment, such as light, temperature, humidity, particle concentration, and even carbon dioxide levels. The data will eventually help scientists determine the "physiologically equivalent temperature" for each classroom, or the optimum conditions for both comfort and productivity.

"We're really hoping to get multiple uses out of these signs," says Vice Chancellor Steven W. Relyea, who provided partial funding for the project through the office of External and Business Affairs. "LED digital sign technology has dropped in price so dramatically that it's a really a cost-effective way of achieving multiple things."

Aside from the technology's potential as a custom-made, wireless notification system, Relyea adds that the "most impressive thing about the project is the fact that we have brilliant faculty, graduate students, undergrads and staff all working on it together. This is something that's unique to UC San Diego — you don't see this kind of collaboration happening on other campuses very often."

The digital signs project is a partnership between Calit2's Circuits Lab, the Jacobs School of Engineering's Teams in Engineering Service (TIES) program and UCSD's DEMROES group, or Decision Making Using Real-Time Observations for Environmental Sustainability, which operates a sophisticated network of wireless meteorological sensors to collect a variety of atmospheric data.

A student listens to a lecture in UCSD's Center Hall, where four of the LED digital signs have been installed. The signs are capable of broadcasting tailor-made information specific to certain classrooms and will eventually alert faculty, staff and students during emergency situations. Photo by Erik Jepsen
Red alerts

For now, the signs replace existing clocks by displaying the time and, at the top of the hour, information about the course currently in session, including the professor's name and the course title. ("That gets asked about a million times a day on the first day of class," says the project's lead, Calit2 Principal Development Engineer Doug Palmer.) Eventually, the campus police department will be able to use the signs during emergencies to alert students in hard-to-reach areas of the campus — an added public safety tool that will complement existing emergency infrastructure such as large area audio announcements, fire alarms and other emergency sirens. 

"During emergencies, police dispatchers are extremely busy and don't have time to program in multiple messages for multiple displays," notes UCSD Police Chief Orville King. "They need to be able to enter information and have it displayed immediately and simultaneously across campus. The key is integration, where everything we do is done once and reaches as many people as possible. But this technology will also allow us to pinpoint specific areas of the campus and notify specific members of the campus community when necessary."

Although the signs' accompanying public safety software is still under development, police will eventually be able to "lasso" a cluster of signs via Google Maps and remotely update them in real-time. Students in the targeted classrooms would see the sign flashing a warning along the lines of "Shooter @ West end of building. Exit North end."

So why not just use an existing technology, like mobile text messaging, to send word to students in times of emergency?

"Students are asked to turn off text messaging while in the classroom," Palmer notes. "And if you want to send a specific message to a specific classroom, you really can't tell from a student's phone ID who is in what classroom."

Signs have already been installed in four classrooms in UCSD's Center Hall —  CENTR 201, 220, 222 AND 224C —  with 14 additional classrooms slated to receive signs in the coming months. UCSD Media Services will be responsible for maintaining the non-emergency content, and the system server will eventually be housed in the UC police department.

Although the signs are stock, off-the-shelf LED displays, two undergrads from Calit2 —  electrical engineering (EE) students Andrew Permenter and Jason Hightower —  assembled and installed the signs' circuit boards and designed the signs to be resistant to overheating and tampering. Calit2 Programmer Analyst Javier Rodriguez Molina designed the signs' firmware and user interface, and former UCSD EE student Xavier Monraz led the student group and assisted with networking.

Greening the campus

In addition to displaying emergency and non-emergency messages, the digital signs also collect environmental data via a PIC-based on-board sensor platform (provided by DEMROES), which can measure carbon dioxide levels, particle matter, sound, light, temperature and humidity to gauge whether a room is occupied, is too hot, has adequate ventilation or is threatened by fire. While the current fire alarm system only alerts authorities as to what segment of a building is on fire, the new digital signage system will allow them to narrow down a fire's location more quickly and more accurately.

"Ultimately, our DEMROES data is much more valuable if we can bridge the inside environment with the outside environment," says Assistant Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Jan Kleissl, who heads the DEMROES project. "If we can read the sensor information from inside a building by way of these signs, that gives us a complete picture of, for example, the temperature differences and heat flows that occur between inside and outside and their impact on the cooling system. By analyzing these data, we may discover malfunctions in the building ventilation system causing rooms to be too cold or warm for students, or causing excessive use of energy to achieve comfortable conditions.

"But additionally," Kleissl continues "we can use this system as a mode to communicate 'emergency' energy conservation and energy efficiency measures, with the goal of influencing human behavior. On a day when there is severe demand on the electricity grid, we could send out alerts over these displays asking faculty, staff and students to turn off lights, increase thermostat temperatures, or ask for forgiveness for lower air quality in the centrally controlled classrooms. In the event of an elevator shut-down in a specific building, for example, we'd be able to alert the people who are directly affected."

Relyea says he also sees the signs as a potential platform for educating the campus community about UC San Diego's renewable energy initiatives.

"So many of our energy initiatives are invisible to people — they're hidden on roofs, or tucked away inside walls," he explains. "These LED signs provide a teaching moment for the campus community and a great way to educate people about what these initiatives are doing.

Aside from their environmental sensing and alert capabilities, the signs provide a super-efficient — and eventually ubiquitous — means for notifying the campus community of events going on around campus, important academic calendar dates, departmental information, even the current menu at campus dining facilities. Future proposed plans for the system include two-way audio/video communication similar to the emergency blue talk-a-phone poles currently in use throughout the UCSD campus, as well as plans for a Bluetooth tracking system being developed at Calit2.

Permenter, the TIES student who helped design the signs, says he appreciates the system both as an electrical engineer and as a UCSD student.

"I think these signs have the ability to make life easier for all of us," he remarks. "They're a platform for incorporating technology and multimedia into campus life. We're always hearing a lot of talk about building community at UCSD, and these signs are certainly something that can really help do that."


Media Contacts

Andrea Siedsma
Jacobs School of Engineering

Tiffany Fox
Qualcomm Institute