Introducing Homewood at your fingertips. The university today unveils and puts online its new "i-Site" system, a network of 12 computerized, touch-controlled information kiosks installed around the Homewood campus.
A wayfinding device and more, each i-Site can tell the user where he or she presently is on campus, how to get from point A to point B and even when and where a university-sponsored event is occurring.
The impetus for the new system arose two years ago out of the campus master plan's wayfinding committee, whose members felt that a dynamic instrument was needed to reflect both a revitalized Homewood campus and the university's desire to foster innovation.
The i-Site system--believed to be the first of its kind--integrates existing leading-edge technology with customized components and software that was created specifically for use by Johns Hopkins. The final product is the result of a unique, collaborative effort between outside designers, hardware vendors and a team of Hopkins staff from various departments.
The i-Site works by way of a touch-sensitive map and touch screen. With one finger, a user can display both a lit picture of a walking route and text-based directions from that location to any building on campus. Seen as a one-stop-shop for campus visitors, the device shows regular and handicapped-accessible routes, parking lots, current photos of university buildings and a listing of departments and offices located in each building.
In addition, the units show a daily calendar of Homewood events, JHU shuttle schedules and the operating hours of various facilities on campus. All units feature buttons to instantly call up information on the screen.
For those with a question the i-Site can't answer, each unit also has a button, identified in both type and braille, that activates a hands-free microphone that connects the user to a help desk in the Security Office.
The 12 devices are located at the north and east entrances to campus (both of which are drive-up units); Barton Hall; Garland Hall, Levering Plaza; Hodson Hall; near the Ralph S. O'Connor Recreation Center; the front and north sides of the Milton S. Eisenhower Library; and on the freshman, upper and lower quads. The plan is to add five more kiosks to the 128-acre campus as construction projects are completed.
How does i-Site work? Each kiosk is connected, by way of fiber optic cables, to a dedicated computer server, which in turn is connected to a main server. By using Web-based software from a remote location, information stored on the entire system can be regularly updated, the changes simultaneously reflected at all locations. The static map inside the industrial-strength protective casing of each device can be replaced easily when the need for a more current map arises, such as when a building goes from "under construction" to completion.
Steven Campbell, director of planning and project development at Homewood, says that for a growing campus that has recently undergone a "tremendous revitalization and transformation," both the usefulness and flexibility of the new system are invaluable.
"It eliminates the need for a phalanx of intermediate post-and-panel signs to get a visitor from gate to building entrance," Campbell says. "And it enables a flexible medium to highlight campus events."
To design the kiosks and provide project oversight, the university looked to Thinkframe, a Philadelphia partnership of designers, Web developers, writers and photographers. It was Thinkframe's associates who came up with the kiosk's basic look and information architecture and who conducted the research and development. The hardware and customized software for i-Site was provided by Touch Controls, a California-based company specializing in touch screens, kiosks and remote computing. Concept to Production, a product development service in Canada, did the final structural engineering.
Barbara Schwarzenbach, a senior designer at Thinkframe, who managed the i-Site project, says that Johns Hopkins staff were instrumental and "very much involved" in the design process every step of the way, offering feedback and deciding what sort of information would be made available. The departments associated with the planning and implementation of the project were Facilities Management, Homewood Security, Communications and Public Affairs, Plant Operations and Hopkins Information Technology Services, all of which will continue to support the project.
Referring to the finished product, Schwarz-enbach says the system is better than imagined. More than just physically attractive, she says, the i-Site units are built to last and can withstand frequent use and the elements. Each kiosk comes equipped with a thermometer and internal heating device so that ice and snow will cascade off its specially coated screen.
"The kiosks are really beautiful; I'm both gratified and amazed," she says. "I think the system is very intuitive, and people will be able to get the information they need very quickly. It's also very expandable, and I'm sure all the creative minds at Johns Hopkins will find ways in the coming months and years to add to it and personalize the system even more."
Campbell says he wouldn't be surprised if similar-looking kiosks pop up at other colleges: "To date, we have received much interest from Emory, UNC Chapel Hill and others," he says.
To complement i-Site, building identification signs for pedestrians and campus perimeter signs for drivers will be going up soon.
Alicia Campbell in the Office of Communications and Public Affairs has been named the university's new campus information coordinator, who will be in charge of i-Site content. Campbell, who is no relation to Steven Campbell, says that she welcomes comments and suggestions about the new system, such as what works, what doesn't and what information, if any, needs updating.
"The i-Site lists every event from the university's online calendar, so it provides up-to-the-moment and advance notification of what is happening on the Homewood campus," Campbell says. "Perhaps the best thing about the kiosks is that they make it easier for a visitor to find out what they want to know. It's better than having to stop and ask people for directions, as it will give you the most direct path, or the handicapped-access route, to where you want to go. And with the help desk connection, each one really becomes everything in one complete package."
Campbell says the beauty of the system is that it is a campuswide network. "If you get directions from a kiosk and still get lost, there will always be another kiosk somewhere nearby."