Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Running Digital Signage through Google Apps EDU

A few months ago, I had a goal in mind and set off to figure out how to harness Google's capabilities to create low budget, easy to use digital signage for my high school. Ultimately, I wanted to run daily announcements including upcoming events, sports scores, photos of class projects, reminders, lunch menus, etc. etc. etc. on a flat screen TV in our main lobby.

At first, the trick was getting everyone else to understand and support my goal. I spoke to several colleagues in neighboring districts and all had purchased fairly expensive presentation software to run their signage off of networked Mac Minis. That was too much for us. I wanted something simple, something cheap, and something repurposed.

This week, I got one step closer to my goal. We purchased a flat screen TV that was versatile enough to meet my needs and well as future needs down the road. We were able to repurpose a computer tower that could be used for my greeter as well as the TV. The next step was setting up Google Apps to run the presentation.

It took most of the day with a little investigative Googling, brainstorming with interested staff, and a few attempts and reattempts, but it is coming together.

That being said, here are a few tips/tricks I learned along the way.

Going Wide Screen! 
If you are going to run Google Presentation on a wide screen TV, you'll want your presentation to match. To get started, create the first few slides in Microsoft PowerPoint. If you go to Design followed by Page Setup and then On Screen Show 16:9 and you'll be able to change the aspect ration from 4:3 to 16:9. Once you have this set up, upload your PowerPoint to Google Drive. Once in Drive, simply duplicate each slide to create matching slides.

Go to your Home!
Originally we embedded the Google Presentation on the high school website, set the slide transition time, and set the presentation to loop. It worked, but we came up with an even better idea. Rather than embedding the presentation, we created a "Go To" link from the website that would automatically link directly to the presentation link.


At first, we were concerned that we would be able to manually adjust the slide transition timing. However, by adjusting the number in bold above we could easily adjust the timing (6500 = 6.5 second per slide). Just make sure you make this adjustment in the link that you post on your website.

Automatic Updates
The next task is actually two-fold. Google Apps is great in the fact that changes are automatically saved to your "living" document. However, a Google Presentation will not automatically refresh while playing forcing the user to manually refresh the browser to load updates, or so we thought. This is where a little brainstorming and Google driven investigation/research came into play. First we had to figure out how to get the browser to automatically refresh. A quick Google search lead us to Auto Refresh Plus, which is a Chrome Extension found in the Chrome Web Store. It's a quick and easy install that can be done without administrator rights (bonus!). Auto Refresh Plus allows you to set the refresh rate for the Chrome Browser; it also allows you to set a designated amount of time and start whenever a particular URL is loaded. Make sure you make the appropriate adjustments in the Options Settings or the following setup won't work!

We set our system to run whenever the browser went to presentation link, which would refresh every 15 minutes. We could still manually refresh if we wanted, but we figured 15 minutes was sufficient for our needs.

Keep in mind, the presentation will jump back to the beginning whenever the browser refreshes regardless of where it is in the presentation. Based on our setup, this will happen once every 15 minutes and we doubt anyone will notice anyway.

Auto Refresh in Full Screen?!
This next step (part II of our two-fold problem) is what threw us off a bit. We discovered that Auto Refresh Plus kept kicking our presentation out of full screen. This wouldn't do. This wouldn't do at all. We could have left the presentation in regular mode with the address bar sticking out like a sore thumb, but we knew there had to be a better way.

Enter Kiosk Mode. Did you even know that there is a Kiosk Mode? I didn't either - until today! Let's see if I can explain this as simply as possible:

  1. Copy the Chrome Browser Icon on your Desktop and Paste it back to the Desktop. 
  2. Rename the second Icon to whatever you want. 
  3. Right Click the Icon and go to Properties
  4. In Target you will find the code extension to run Chrome. At the end of that code write --Kiosk followed by the link to your presentation 
C:\Users\Liquidsnowman\AppData\Local\Google\Chrome\Application\chrome.exe --Kiosk https://docs.google.com/our_daily>present/d/1-u8vVnBPy1yxggcCuU6TTZkY83gmpYnBtfxw2BqkW-w/pub?start=true&loop=true&delayms=6500#slide=id.p16

Doing this will allow the user to launch the link in Kiosk Mode, which means the presentation will be in full screen mode and all buttons will be hidden from sight. This is great if you want to run a presentation on a device without granting other users access to options such as searching, home, bookmarks, etc.

This will also allow the full screen presentation to automatically refresh using Auto Refresh Plus without dropping out of full screen!

In Summation
This may seem like a lot of work, but the above tips and tricks will save you a day of wrestling with the system. In all actuality, it took us under an hour to figure out everything I mentioned above. As any school day, that hour happened to be stretched out across most of the day.

Tomorrow, we'll swap out the greeter's computer tower, set the system up for dual screens, and launch the application. I'm hoping that we can add the Kiosk Icon to the startup menu so that it will launch automatically without the greeter having to manually click on the icon.

In total, this system cost us a TV. We repurposed a computer and obviously Google is free.

Now I just need to train my front office on how to use Google Presentation and we'll be all set!