Isometric view of Rob Szumski's thesis

The events of April 16, 2007 at Virginia Tech had a massive impact on my 4 years in Blacksburg. As a freshman during the 2006-2007 school year, I watched as the campus I had just become accustomed to was transformed overnight. The after-effects of this event were seen on almost every college campus in the form of increased police presence, the rollout of SMS-based emergency communications systems, mass notification signage and other campus safety devices.

Virginia Tech rolled out its own safety gear, including one very high-profile program, VT Alerts. VT Alerts consists of several communications mediums, including an SMS gateway based on 3N's technology & mass notification signage based on devices from Inova Solutions. When I saw the installation of the Inova Solutions OnAlert devices, I was appalled. The signage was nothing more than a repurposed, scrolling LED sign.

Why isn't there a device designed specifically for campus mass notification? Shouldn't these devices designed to be read from long distances in stressful situations? The answer to this question forms the basis of my undergraduate Industrial Design thesis at Virgnia Tech.

Can technologies from other sectors of industry be utilized to improve campus digital signage to make it easier to read, more accessible and more effective at communicating its message?
University Unit
Director of Facilities
Furnishes emergency equipment
Director of Environmental Health
Expertise in non-police releatd events
President/Vice President
Directs the Emergency Management Team
Director of Housing
Represents the needs of on-campus students
Law Enforcement/Campus Safety
Liason with State/Federal Agencies
Response Levels
Level 1
Localized, minor incidents that occur on campus that can be resolved with existing university resources.
Sewage Stoppages, Plumbing Failure, Localized Fires
No Alert Issued
Level 2
Major incident that effects a sizeable segment of the campus. Emergency Action Plan may be activated.
Structural Damage, Severe Flooding, Fires, Chemical Spills
Possible Alert Issued
Level 3
Events that effect the entire campus and cannot be solved with regular resources. Coordination with State/Federal officials.
Earthquakes, Hurricanes, Terrorist Attacks, Major Fires, Shootings
Multiple Alerts Issued
Alert System

Digital Signage is just one component of a well-designed campus alert system. Signage is one of the most responsive components in most systems.

Current emergency notification devices only work well for the typical English speaking individual. Why are we ignoring the rest of the population?
English isn’t my first language. I frequently misunderstand complex English words.
19 years old
International Student
I have to balance the need to inform the campus with the responsibility to prevent panic.
53 years old
University Public Relations
I look to the classroom signage for important updates to my schedule and campus life.
21 years old
As a deaf individual, I’m concerned that I may miss important safety messages.
23 years old
Graduate Student
I get updates on campus situations at the same time as the students. In emergencies, we are equal.
48 years old
Professor, Biology
If I encountered a situation while visiting, I wouldn’t know what to do, where I am or where to go.
56 years old
Visitor to the University
Regulatory Criteria
ADA Accessibility Guidelines for Buildings and Facilities (ADAAG)

“At a minimum, visual signal appliances shall be provided in buildings and facilities in each of the following areas: restrooms and any other general usage areas (e.g., meeting rooms), hallways, lobbies, and any other area for common use.”

“Visual alarm signal appliances shall be integrated into the building or facility alarm system. If single station audible alarms are provided then single station visual alarm signals shall be provided.”

“The appliance shall be placed 80 in (2030 mm) above the highest floor level within the space or 6 in (152 mm) below the ceiling, whichever is lower.”

“No place in common corridors or hallways in which visual alarm signalling appliances are required shall be more than 50 ft (15 m) from the signal.”

National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code (NFPA 72)

“A coded alarm shall consist of not less than three complete rounds of the number transmitted.”

“Where subject to mechanical damage, an initiating device shall be protected. A mechanical guard used to protect a smoke, heat or radiant energy-sensing detector shall be used with the detector.”

“Notification appliances shall provide stimuli for initiating emergency action and provide information to users, emergency personnel, and occupants.”

“Lights used for fire alarm signalling only or to signal the intent for complete evacuation shall be clear or nominal white and shall not exceed 1000 cd (effective intensity).”

Current Limitations
  LED Signs LCD Signs
Power Outage Most LED models are powered over the data connection which makes installation easier, but the sign can’t function autonomously if the data connection is disrupted. LCDs require large amounts of power and are useless without the building’s power supply.
Data Connection Can’t function without data connection. This creates a dual risk of failure because of the combined connection. Could function without data if set up properly.
Deaf Users User can reliably read the display, but may not be alerted to its important in an emergency. Can reliably read the display, but may not be alerted to its important in an emergency.
Non-English Speaking Users User has a low probability of interpreting display unless accompanied by symbols or an alternate language. Low probability of interpreting display unless accompanied by symbols or an alternate language.
Current Limitations
Incorrect margin and line-height.
Existing products have limited color options of yellow, green and red. This doesn’t create high contrast with the background of the sign.
Pixel density is very low. This creates hard to read fonts similar to those used on early computers.
Could E-Ink displays used in consumer e-book readers be applied to digital signage to improve readability?
E-Ink Display
History & Current Usage

E-Ink is commercially produced product by the E-Ink Corporation. The company was based off of research into electronic books headed by Joseph Jacobson from MIT’s Media Lab.

E-Ink has only materialized in consumer electronics in the form of E-Book readers. Most notable are the Amazon Kindle and the Barnes and Noble Nook.

Recent developments have seen E-Ink used in the out buttons of the Samsung Alias 2 cellphone and on the cover of one issue of Esquire Magazine.

These product use E-Ink for its two main features: low power consumption and ability to retain its message without power. This is ideal in an emergency situation where power and data connectivity may be sparse or non-existent.

E-Ink Features
Low power usage:
54 microwatts/in2 per refresh
Battery Life:
5+ days with a 9V battery
Loss of Power:
Last message is still displayed
1200 pixels/inch
400% increase over typical print media
E-Ink display construction
Can modern typeface research be combined with an E-Ink display to create a superior notification device?
Clearview Development
The ClearviewHwy typeface was developed out of a Federal Highway Administration research program to increase the legibility and ease of recognition of road signs. This research was specifically targeting older drivers which were suffering degraded comprehension of signs on modern, highly-reflective materials.
Improves night time reading distance by 16%. That’s a 1.2 second improvement travelling at 45mph.
Clearview has several improvements over the existing typeface, FHWA Series E:
Sign Comparison
Highway Gothic and Clearview Highway signs
Clearview X-Height
Clearview X-Height
Adequate space is contained between the first line’s descenders and the second line’s ascenders.
1-1.6x the X-Height is recommended for maximum readability
Clearview Margin
Clearview margin
Clearview Comparison
Comparison of Clearview vs Highway Gothic
Shouldn’t emergency messages be crafted by a designer to be highly readable?
Message Shape Study

Instead of reading individual letters, the eye recognizes the shapes of common words and matches that to a library of shapes in your brain. The more irregular the shape of a word is the more recognizable it is, especially at long distances.

Diagram explaining the message shape study
Extreme Weather
Extreme weather messages
Building Fire
building fire messages
shooter messages
What does a properly designed indoor emergency notification device look like?
Front View
Front of my redesigned Mass Notification Device
Mass Notification Device in English and Spanish
Icons on the face of the device
E-Ink Display Unit Exploded
Exploded view of the e-ink display unit Materials that make up the e-ink display unit
LCD Display Unit Exploded
Exploded view of the LCD display unit Materials that make up the e-ink display unit
Housing Exploded
Device housing exploded Materials that make up the device housing
How can you justify purchasing notification equipment if it hasn’t been tested?
Prototype of the Mass Notification Device
Eye Tracking

Eye-tracking equipment was used to test different locations and configurations of the indoor sign. Test subjects were put through a series of tests to measure visibility, reaction times and other metrics.

Subject Wearing Eye Tracker
Subject wearing an ASL Mobile Eye Tracker
Raw Output to Software
Software for the ASL Mobile Eye Tracker
Eye Tracking Test 1

In the first test, the participants were asked to walk into a room without an existing notification device to record where they would attempt to look for one.

Subject 1
Eye Tracking Subject 1
Looking toward top left of the wall for a notification device.
Subject 2
Eye Tracking Subject 2
Subject is looking towards the top of the pillar in the upper right hand corner of the video.
Eye Tracking Test 2

The second eye tracking test was to have users enter another room with the prototype notification device and have them identify where it was, read the message and comply with the instructions. This was tested with and without a directional arrow instead of an icon.

Subject 1
Eye Tracking Subject 1
The subject has spotted the prototype and is gazing at the iconography.
Subject 2
Eye Tracking Subject 2
Subject is scanning the wall while entering the room.
Placement Heatmap

Each subject’s gaze pattern was combined into a heat map of where they tried to find a notification device from Test 1.

Heatmap of Mass Notification Placement
Comprehension Heatmap

Eye Tracking video was condensed into a visual heatmap of all of the subjects gaze patterns while reading the prototype.

Heatmap of Mass Notification Reading Comprehension

© 2010 Rob Szumski

Undergraduate Thesis
Department of Industrial Design
Virginia Tech

Eye tracking equipment kindly furnished by a grant from the National Science Foundation.

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