Digital Signage technology is not something widely studied in the technical schools of America — yet. So for tech companies hiring recent graduates, much of the training in digital signage and other "real-world" technologies happens after the students have already left college, and after they're already on the job.
Global technology distributor Avnet Inc. started its annual Avnet Tech Games to show college students some of the challenges waiting for them in the real-world job market — and to possibly better prepare its own future hires — and this year the company has added digital signage to the mix.
Avnet recently opened registration for college students across the nation to compete in its seventh annual Tech Games, which this year will include the first Microsoft Embedded Digital Signage Challenge.
The Tech Games, which include both Arizona Onsite and Spring Virtual events, are aimed at helping students prepare for their post-graduate job opportunities and giving them the chance to compete for scholarship money. The Spring Virtual Avnet Tech Games competition is open to college students nationwide, while the Onsite Avnet Tech Games competition is open to Arizona college students only and will be held April 14, 2012, at The University of Advancing Technology in Tempe, Ariz. Both competitions require students to test their knowledge, creativity, decision-making, problem-solving and technical skills.
In this year's Digital Signage Challenge, teams will compete to design the best all-around example of an engaging interactive digital signage application. The digital signage interactivity can include touch, gesture or mobile interactivity, according to Avnet.
Microsoft has been a sponsor of the games for the last four years, but this will be the second year for specifically Microsoft Windows Embedded sponsorship of the games and the first for the Microsoft Digital Signage Challenge, according to Jon Parks, product marketing manager for Avnet's Brilliant Digital Signage division.
"This year digital signage is one of our big initiatives here at Avnet; it's one of Microsoft's big initiatives for Windows Embedded, and we decided interactivity is the huge new thing in digital signage," Parks said. "You've got to have it to drive return on investment, so what we decided to do this year was to make the game not only around digital signage but include interactivity and use the Windows Embedded platform for the operating system part of that."
The students can use different technologies to create interactivity, from creating a mobile app or using QR codes to using touch to using a Microsoft Kinect camera for gesture interaction. Each team will have access to a Kinect camera to use for the competition, and winners will get a camera and a Microsoft Xbox Kinect Bundle, along with $1,000 scholarships, for each of the one- or two-person team members.
The games started out in 2006 as a way to both get the Phoenix-headquartered Avnet involved in the Arizona community but also as a way to help local colleges and universities tweak their curricula to better prepare students for the real world, according to Ken Marlin, technical consultant, Microsoft products, Avnet.
In addition to the digital signage challenge making its debut this year, the games feature a "Robot Race," which involves building and programing a robot to maneuver and tow objects through different courses, and a "Solar Scrimmage" to design, build, test and present the best overall solar-powered "green energy" water pumping system.
The games started with the Maricopa College System and local community colleges, Marlin said, but have since spread nationwide with several "virtual" games.
"With the students, we wanted to help them understand what technologies are in the marketplace today and help them stay current with the latest technologies," he said. "We were finding, with new hires, that they had some basic skills, but they didn't have the skills they needed for the job market."
So Avnet created the Tech Games "to help steer the market a little bit" and to help students and faculties get a better handle on what new graduates would need to head into the technology workforce, Marlin said.
More than just the scholarship money and prizes, participation in the games is meant as a resume builder and to help students make contacts with the companies, like Microsoft and Cisco, that help sponsor them.
"Anything that can set a student's resume apart from the thousands of similar resumes is crucial in today's market," said ," said Teri Radosevich, vice president of Avnet community relations and public affairs, in an announcement of the games. "Participating in one or two of the many competitive events that comprise the Avnet Tech Games can be the leg-up for students when it comes to nailing their first job."
Bob Danielson, a faculty member at Mesa Community College in Mesa, Ariz., has had students in all of the Tech Games and will have more participating this year. He says the games are very beneficial to students.
"The benefit I've seen is it gives the students some real-world, out-of-the-book experiences," Danielson said, adding that the games force students outside of their normal comfort zones.
And while the competition and winning is good, as are the scholarships, Danielson said the games also teach more. This year, he pointed out, the games feature a "High-Tech Home Makeover" to design the best all-around high-tech transformation of a paralyzed Avnet employee's home "into a haven of technology allowing him to accomplish a set of specific scenarios and requirements that would make for a better life."
"I really think in many ways, things like that – where they're actually working to help somebody – that's not a game; that is something where you're actually trying to use technology to promote the betterment of human beings," he said.
And while Danielson was less than familiar with digital signage and digital place-based media, he said the always-changing events in the games also provide added benefit to competitors.
"The cool thing with Avnet is they kind of evolve the games that they have. They don't just stick with the same old, same old," he said. "They kind of go with, they think this is a current technology or an upcoming technology, so they tend to modify the games a bit, so in many ways we don't know what we're going to have from year to year – which is a good thing. Why just stick with certain technologies when new ones are coming along?"
The 2012 Spring Virtual Avnet Tech Games include:
- Android App Showdown – Students develop a Google Android App using Google's Android SDK and Open API.
- Green Video Competition – Competitors combine video production skills, environmental awareness and marketing skills to create a short video on environmental initiatives at their college.
- Kevin's High-Tech Home Makeover – This game honors Kevin Olson, an Avnet employee who was left paralyzed after a car accident. Kevin was one of the early champions of the Avnet Tech Games. Teams compete to design the best all-around high-tech solution that would transform Kevin's home into a haven of technology allowing him to accomplish a set of specific scenarios and requirements that would make for a better life.
- Virtual Digital Design Dilemma – Participants will create and document a working digital design in a Xilinx FPGA with a focus on quality and thoroughness of the design documentation.
- Microsoft Digital Signage Challenge – Teams will compete to design the best all-around example of an engaging digital signage application. Digital Signage can include viewer touch interaction, camera recognition and integration with handheld via QR Codes.
The 2012 onsite Avnet Tech Games include:
- Build and Tune the Fastest Computer – Build, troubleshoot and tune a PC the fastest.
- Cisco Expert Battle – Student teams will set up, deploy, troubleshoot and repair a network similar to a small office configuration.
- Digital Design Dilemma – Create, validate and document a FPGA design that works on a provided circuit board.
- Green Data Center Challenge – Develop and present a proposal to bring an aging legacy data center forward into a model Green Data Center.
- Patch Panel Madness – Build a working data network using a provided network diagram, cabling, patch panels, switches and racks.
- Robot Race – Build and program a robot to maneuver and tow objects through different courses.
- Solar Scrimmage – Design, build, test and present the best overall solar-powered "green energy" water pumping system.
Registration is scheduled to end on Feb. 24.
Read more about interactive digital signage.