University visitor centers have become more ubiquitous and media savvy, especially as schools use these gateways as both orientation sites and marketing portals at a time when college admissions have slowed. A visitors’ center with state-of-the-art audio and video connotes a media-smart institution, a critically useful advantage when persuading millennials weaned on mobile devices and touchscreens.
A visitors center can also provide a sense of history, another good card in the deck for universities, especially when that history contains some difficult moments. That’s what Kent State University confronts in its new visitors center, which opened in 2012, 42 years after the Kent State Shootings in 1970. The incident, which became a turning point in domestic sentiment against the Vietnam War and generated an iconic Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph, is the central theme at Kent State’s May 4 Visitors Center, named for the date of the tragedy. A series of three multimedia galleries in the center includes exhibits that inform guests about what led to the confrontation between students and the National Guard, the incident itself, and the aftermath.
Bryan Molnar, the electronics technician supervisor with Kent State, oversaw the integration of the technology for the May 4 Visitors Center. He worked with the center’s designers, Cybelle Jones and Carl Rhodes of Gallagher & Associates, and used funds from a $300,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Each of three galleries has an array of artifacts from specific periods surrounding the incident, such as letters and news clippings.
The most complex one in terms of media is Gallery 1: “The Context,” which delivers background information on the Vietnam War, the so-called Generation Gap between students and their elders, and the larger struggle for social justice in other areas of American life at the time. The center of attention falls quickly to three vintage console television sets typical of the era, authentic down to their beam-scanning cathode-ray tube displays. Molnar sourced these from a boutique restoration company in New York, which took out the original CRTs and replaced them with newer tubes to allow them to interface with an Alcorn-McBride A/V binloop that stores and plays their content.
“There are three CRT TVs,” Molnar says, “Each one plays a nine-minute video loop about the war, generation gap and social justice. Much of the content was from old 16-mm film, which would have looked cheesy on an LCD display, but it looks perfect on an old Magnavox CRT.
“Visitors can see all three TVs at once. But the audio changes to a different TV every three minutes, so the programs loop with one three-minute video with audio and two three-minute videos without audio.”
The A/V binloop’s four video cards accommodate these requirements with the first three slots in the binloop playing back the video feeds to the TVs and the fourth slot the audio.
“Thinking about getting all that synched was crazy,” Molnar says. “That’s why the A/V binloop was perfect, it’s designed to do exactly that. Most players don’t have this type of synchronization, but the binloop could handle all the displays at once.”
Edgeblends and Touchscreens
The second gallery utilizes a pair of Panasonic video projectors, edge-blended using Watchout software to get the projected images around a load-bearing pole to illuminate a 100-inch screen. The projected images also include a ten-minute video montage developed by members of the May 4th Task Force, the student organization which organizes the school’s annual May 4, 1970 Commemoration event.
The last of gallery uses three touchscreens which enable visitors to access news clippings and interviews about the outcome and implications of the events. Two additional touchscreens let visitors sign in and leave comments. These are vetted for appropriateness by the library staff before they are posted for viewing, and older comments are periodically moved to an archive in SQL database format on a client server in the library.
The entire system is managed by an AMX control automation system located in a rack at the rear of the space, which once housed the school’s newspaper.
“The entire thing is essentially automated,” says Molnar. “It turns on in the morning and off at night as a single macro operation.”
Molnar says the visitor center has no specific marketing applications for the school, but acknowledges that it’s an introduction to the school’s place in history and to what it has become. He also says that seeing the galleries is a mandatory part of freshman orientation, and high school students are often bused in to see it as part of field trips.
Centers like these have become popular with schools and corporations as a way to convey curated messages to visitors.
“Not everyone has a story like this to tell,” he says.