One-Stop Shopping for Digital Signage

When Oklahoma's Choctaw Nation needed new AV throughout all its casinos and a digital signage system, it turned to a single source: Alpha Video & Audio of Minnesota. 10/14/2010 10:37 PM Eastern

One-Stop Shopping for Digital Signage

When Oklahoma's Choctaw Nation needed new AV throughout all its casinos and a digital signage system, it turned to a single source: Alpha Video & Audio of Minnesota.

CHALLENGE: Design all-new AV systems and a digital signage network for a family of casinos.

SOLUTION: Hire an AV integrator with its own digital signage platform and run the systems over Ethernet -based TCP/IP.

The modern casino is the entertainment industry’s answer to the aircraft carrier. It’s gigantic and self-contained, with its own life-sustaining ecosystem of food, fun, and lodging, all working 24/7. Aircraft carriers, however, are mobile. To extend a casino’s reach, you have to build more of them. That’s what the Choctaw Nation has done with its burgeoning casino empire in southeastern Oklahoma.

Headquartered at its Durant, Okla., casino, the tribe has expanded rapidly from two casinos to seven, spread throughout towns with names that could have sprung from a Louis L’Amour novel—Broken Bow, Grant, Idabel, McAlester, Pocola, and Stringtown. Like any growing enterprise with multiple locations, the Choctaw Nation wanted its disparate casinos to convey a unified message about the Choctaw Casino experience. Critical to that end was an enterprisewide digital signage network.

“We’ve used digital signage previously to some extent, but the expansion of the casinos gave us the opportunity to use it in greater quantities, with more features and options,” says Hayden Mathews, analytics manager for Choctaw Casino Resorts. “A lot of the impact of our marketing comes from digital signage, so that’s a big part of our strategy.”

Of course, new casinos also mean all-new general-purpose AV, from distributed audio to system controls. In an ideal world, Choctaw Casinos would find a single AV contractor that could design and install both in order to maximize efficiencies and ensure a well-integrated system. Answering the casino’s 365-page request for proposals was Alpha Video & Audio of Edina, Minn., which just so happens to have its own digital signage division, Digital Display Group (DDG), that has built a signage platform specifically for projects like Choctaw’s.

“Usually, a client will hire an AV integrator and a digital signage company separately, because traditionally they’ve been different things,” says Paul Medlin, director of business development for DDG and the account executive for the Choctaw casino project. “We were able to offer them the ability to do both within the same company.”

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One-Stop Shopping for Digital Signage

When Oklahoma's Choctaw Nation needed new AV throughout all its casinos and a digital signage system, it turned to a single source: Alpha Video & Audio of Minnesota.

According to both client and integrator, the benefits of all that in-house synergy were real, if for no other reason than that programmers and integrators from one division could pitch in on work the other division was doing to keep the $3.6 million AV project on schedule. Furthermore, both were familiar with DDG’s proprietary CastNet digital signage system, which the company has tailored specifically to casino installations. For example, among the bundled digital signage content is footage of winners celebrating, which can be streamcast to displays throughout a casino. In the case of Choctaw, it can go to all casinos simultaneously. DDG also developed dynamic wayfinding software called CasinoView, which integrators could install in kiosks around the various casinos.

Perhaps most importantly, DDG has a strategic partnership with Gaming Support, a Las Vegasbased company that is licensed to provide digital interfaces to casino gaming machines. Such access is highly restricted by various states’ gaming commissions in order to prevent tampering. Integrating slot machines into an AV network, however, can create a very unique, real-time casino AV experience.

DDG embedded Gaming Support’s Jackpot Junction XL interface software into its CastNet system, establishing a connection between the digital signage system and slot machine controllers. This connection allows CastNet to take event signals from the machinessuch as a player hitting a jackpotand trigger preprogrammed scenes across the entire digital display network, from a 42-inch display above a lounge’s bar to the massive digital billboard next to U.S. Route 69.

“A signal from, say, a slot machine will go directly to a module on our display system and trigger the appropriate response, such as countdown to a win or a jackpot celebration,” says DDG’s Medlin. “It will send out a message to all the displays, trigger music and other sound effects on the distributed sound systems, set off confetti canons, and activate projectors. The audio will also override the zoned distributed audio system and send that message to specified zones. The idea is to create a sense of celebration and get people feeling lucky so they want to stay at the tables longer.”

One-Stop Shopping for Digital Signage

When Oklahoma's Choctaw Nation needed new AV throughout all its casinos and a digital signage system, it turned to a single source: Alpha Video & Audio of Minnesota.


The CastNet system is TCP/IP-based and controllable through a Web browser. DDG integrated custom-built Dell OptiPlex PCs with Scala digital signage player software to display local content at about 30 screens, as well as a ClearOne NetStreams IP-streaming network to distribute video. (NetStreams made a name for itself as a residential multimedia-over-IP solution before the company expanded into commercial gear. ClearOne acquired the company last year.) DDG deployed 40 NetStreams MLAV9300 MediaLinx encoders to packetize AV streams and send them to more than 150 NetStreams VL100 ViewLinx decoders at various displays throughout the casinos.

“Each of the digital signage players is connected to a NetStreams MLAV-9300 encoder to transmit the digital signage to the displays,” explains Alpha Video systems engineer Steven Westra. “The MLAV-9300s are also used for the cable channels that are available as part of the digital signage system. The encoders convert the audio and video signals into a multicast IP stream and send it throughout the casino utilizing a dedicated network infrastructure that’s not shared by the gaming systems and other internal communications.”

That infrastructure comprises a 10-Gbps fiber backbone with a Cisco Systems Catalyst 4506 core switch and a variety of Cisco 3750, 3560, and 2960 closet switches throughout the casino. “At the majority of the displays there are NetStreams VL100 decoders,” Westra continues. “The decoders subscribe to one of the available multicast streams and the video is then displayed on the monitor.”

All told, the completed digital signage system includes more than 300 displays, mostly Samsung 400DX and 460DX-2 LCD screens. There are also several Samsung 460DXN LCD displays with embedded media players that are used as menu boards. Their content is fairly consistent from day to day and doesn’t require a lot of updating. But when computer interfaces aren’t triggering digital signage events automatically, casino management needs to maintain a certain amount of control over what’s displayed.

Control of the entire signage system rests back at the Durant headquarters, where operators can monitor and override anything on the signage network. At the local leveldown to the lounges and casino floor—both digital signage and general AV systems are managed by Crestron Electronics PRO2 controllers and operated by Crestron TPS Series touch panels. Depending on the location within a casino, Alpha Video and DDG programmed more or less control into the system. For instance, lounge managers and pit bosses had to be able to quickly change the mood and content of a system depending on the crowd.

“It might be to display different images or insert a visitor’s name into the digital signage,” Medlin explains. “Or it might be to just [reduce] content overall in order to create less of a distraction for a whale,” he says, using the Vegas term for a high-stakes player.

The casinos’ larger, 12-inch Crestron touch panels have QuickMedia receivers built in so that casino workers can preview digital signage content before it is sent to the displays. “The goal is to allow the casino to customize the experience for the players when they need to,” Medlin says.

The distinct AV and digital signage systems are bridged by a centralized Crestron controller. The integration means content can move freely between the digital signage network and the zoned audio, for example.

“There are many areas where the AV system can take its feed from the digital signage system,” Westra says. “In the poker room, the distributed audio speakers have the capability to play any one of the background music channels, but they can also play the audio that accompanies one of the digital signage displays in that room.”

Doing so required additional control logic from Alpha Video to ensure that the digital signage and AV systems communicated information about which source is being played where and to synchronize the audio and video for that specific area.

For the casinos’ various audio zones, Alpha Video installed more than 600 Tannoy ceiling speakers, powered by roughly three-dozen Crown Audio amplifiers and controlled by a series of BSS Audio Soundweb London BLU-800 and BLU-80 processors, networked together via BSS Blu-link and CobraNet.

One-Stop Shopping for Digital Signage

When Oklahoma's Choctaw Nation needed new AV throughout all its casinos and a digital signage system, it turned to a single source: Alpha Video & Audio of Minnesota.


Of course, with a dizzying array of AV equipment, sending content to one endpoint or another can be challenging, particularly when it comes to the many video feeds. Choctaw Casinos’ Party Pits are collections of tables grouped together and imbued with their own entertainment options. “Each Party Pit has over 20 displays, which are mounted to two steel trusses that run the length of the pits,” Westra explains. “We had to devise a way for the user to clearly understand on which display he was changing content.”

Programmers designed a touch-panel interface that was a graphical representation of how the displays were laid out in the pit so that it would be easy to visualize where a person was about to send selected source content.

In fact, Alpha Video’s DDG left no stone unturned when it came to usability. The wayfinding kiosks that DDG installed were placed in “greeting areas” at the various casinosout at the edge of the facilities where visitors enter and might need help in finding their favorite machines. The kiosks communicate wirelessly with the casinos’ central computers to generate reports on what games, amenities, or other casino features patrons seek out the most.

With many installations, updating the wayfinding software on kiosks to reflect changes in a floor plan or to include new attractions requires a visit from a programmer. DDG made it so Choctaw could perform the updates itself. “We template-ized the screens for them,” Medlin says. “The update process is simple and the client can do that themselves, which is a huge cost- and time-savings factor.”

Which isn’t to say Alpha Video and DDG simply installed user-friendly systems and walked away. Alpha Video also contracted with Choctaw Casinos to supply training and 24/7 technical support for the casino’s AV and digital signage infrastructures. “We felt that that was necessary given the enormity of the systems we’ve put into the casinos,” says Choctaw’s Mathews.

Though the kiosks are wireless, much of the rest of the digital signage and AV systems, including the CobraNet-based audio networks, were built on networks already in place.

“We were able to use [the casinos’] own Ethernet backbones for delivery, so there’s significantly less cabling than there might have been,” Medlin says. “Before, you would have had to have a home run to each screen. Now, they just plug into an Ethernet jack.”

The network-based approach also means that when the various Choctaw casinos want to expand their digital signage networks, upgrading should be significantly easier. And they’ll have just one call to make.

“The network lets the casino erupt when somebody wins,” says DDG’s Medlin. “They can put people’s pictures up on the displays just as the jackpot happens. This is what brings people back here. That’s the ultimate goal of every casino, so it had to be ours, too.”

Dan Daley is a freelance AV writer and frequent contributor based in Nashville, Tenn.

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