Video Walls in an Academic Setting: Userful Take an In-depth Look

Userful Video Wall
  • Video walls are taking over but are used differently for in academic settings
  • Conventionally there are two types of video walls (video wall controller and a video wall matrix scaler)
  • Controllers are expensive and complicated; scalers are lower cost but very limited (limited to a single source, etc.)
  • Often a shared use facility (need to ensure things are reset between users)
  • Ability to use different operating systems
  • Ability to configure and save settings and have different permissions for different admin groups

Video walls are one of the fastest growing sub-segment in the AV market. Video walls are providing a ‘Wow!’ factor to many different industries—retail, corporate, museums, airports. But they’re also popping up in numerous educational and academic settings both in lobbies, class-rooms, research facilities, and arts areas. Academic institutions serve a broad a broad and technologically demanding demographic as well as a broad range of use cases that sit outside the traditional features set.

Whether it be bringing powerful visualization to the classroom or research facility or creating a powerful impactful impression on students or donors, or whether it be keeping all members of the campus informed and engaged, or celebrating the creative works or successes of the campus. Higher education campuses are starting to leverage the power of video walls in a myriad of different ways. For example, many institutions have installed video walls to impress prospective students on their visits; or perhaps to showcase donor recognition. Others, have done so to showcase and celebrate student’s artworks and/or accomplishment. All in all, a common denominator is that educational institutions are leveraging investment in video-wall technology to create powerful results and showcase their institution as a leader in technology.

What to consider

So we know that video walls can play an important and diverse role within the educational institutions. Private universities, state schools, community colleges, technical institutes, all of them are discovering new and powerful uses for video walls on campus. But how do I manage the process and what are the key things I need to know and consider if I am thinking about leveraging this technology in my institution?

There are many variables and considerations to be taken into account before choosing and implementing a video wall. Things like the space and ambience—the environment where the video wall is going to be—will determine the appropriate size and components of the solution. Also, a very important factor is to provide enough cooling space for the displays. Of course, the end purpose of the video wall is to engage the audience, but knowing beforehand how to impact them—with HD or 4k videos, slideshows, HTML5 applications, etc.—will provide great great insight into what video wall solution acquire.

One aspect, often overlooked, to consider is the setup, calibration and maintenance of the video wall solution. These can be all laborious processes, although it doesn’t have to be (but more on that later). Video walls require a variety of components—including displays, media players, cabling, display mounts, etc—that need to be properly installed, otherwise it can pose a safety issue—especially if installed in a highly-trafficked area. Video Wall mounts are very important components of a video wall, and key aspects to consider relate to safety, mounting type, ease of installation and service, security, local and federal regulations and system life cycle. If not properly calibrated a video wall can actually generate a negative impact on the end-users, so a solution that simplifies the configuration and calibration of your video wall would be ideal.

Flexibility is paramount when it comes to technology solutions. Academic settings and educational institutions often has very standardized system in place when it comes to infrastructure, IT and administration. For video walls in a classroom setting, heat, noise and theft can be a big problem, so an ideal situation would be to put the controller outside the room. Also, when it comes to purchasing and support agreements, a video wall system that can be readily supported by institution’s existing IT staff makes things easier. Look for solutions, like the Userful video wall controller, that can run on existing PCs. A solution that is flexible enough that can be customized to a specific need comes a long way. For example, when not used in a classroom setting, a video wall displays can be used for signage.

In an academic setting, different operating systems play key roles for different tasks, and the flexibility of having either Windows, Linux or web-based desktops available within the same system provide an added value to the solution. Virtualization (or VDI) is an ideal approach for running different operating systems on a video wall, where the virtual machines can be set to “reset” after each use—a very useful feature in shared meeting spaces and educational settings as it ensures no personal data or changes reside from one user group to the next. Administrators can easily switch between tasks—from displaying information to interactive desktop environments—easily, although this approach is not recommended for graphic intensive activities.

If the content will be constantly changing, there are Content Management Systems (CMS) that can be paired with the video wall solution to provide a dynamic way to manage the content. These allow content scheduling, easy and intuitive customization of the video wall canvas, and provide different add-ons and widgets for all sorts of information—such as weather, news and sport reports, twitter feeds, local events and programming. Administrators can easily embed video content, web streams, slideshows and other content source that the video wall supports.

Trying to build a video wall on a budget

Userful - Stunning Video Walls

Academic institutions can sometimes be tempted—by their readily available and inexpensive student labour pool—into pursuing Do-It-Yourself (DIY) solutions. This temptation comes with big risks. While there is a learning benefit for the teams involved in building something themselves typically the solution is unsupportable once those students leave and it is an expensive and embarrassing situation to have a big expensive video wall that isn't’ able to be used. With some of the new controller solutions on the market, like Userful, often the cost of the displays themselves is many times more expensive then the video wall.

Buying an affordable commercial controller solution that pairs standard displays with a detachable controller gives you a working commercially supported solution. It will certainly not prevent student teams from using the wall for their own projects and hooking up different sources and controllers. This way students can work on their own projects without the obligation of producing a commercially supportable solution. One option is to use consumer TVs instead of commercial displays. With 55” HD TVs costing around $500 (vs. $2500 for commercial displays, on a 25 screen wall this can save you over $50,000).

In most cases, implementing a video wall solution with commercial displays would be more advantageous. Commercial displays would be the sensible choice in cases with continuous usage—between 16-24 hours a day—and where the very-thin to zero bezel is needed for seamless integration. For artistic—or mosaic—video walls, with unique orientations and layouts, commercial displays are also required (consumer TVs only allow landscape or portrait orientations); and in the case where it is located in environmentally challenged locations—with high cold/heat, grease, dust, vibration or corrosion.

Know what is out there

There are a variety of video wall technologies currently in the market, although conventionally there are two types of video walls: video wall controller and a video wall matrix scaler. Controllers tend to be expensive and complicated, while scalers are lower cost but very limited (limited to a single source, etc.).

Traditional video wall controllers are video-card based, with a dedicated computer driving the video wall through video cards, one for each display. These solutions are proprietary hardware solutions, which tend to be expensive, but offer very high total resolution; and the number of displays supported is constrained by the number of video cards installed.

The matrix scaler approach is done with commercial displays that come with a built-in daisy chain solution that allows the displays to scale a single input into an entire grid video wall. This is a simpler approach and works well in settings where more advanced features—like rotations, multiple simultaneous content streams and preset zones—are not needed. With matrix scalers a media player is still needed to generate the HDMI or DisplayPort source.

There is also the Network-based (AV-over-IP) video wall controller. This technology combines the flexibility of the traditional video wall controller with the cost, scalability and advantages inherent in AV-over-IP approach. Leveraging the use of standard PCs, the content is delivered over standard Ethernet network to the displays. With the resolution, multiple sources simultaneously and advance features of a traditional video wall controller, all the content management, splitting and delivery is done in real time, and capture cards offer a wide range of inputs (like HDMI and SDI). But while the traditional video wall controllers are constrained by their physical video cards, network-based controllers offer almost unlimited scalability—in terms of number of outputs—and artistic flexibility.

A campus-wide solution

While almost all departments will see benefits to having a video wall, few departments—at least for now—can afford to have more than one video wall. But even so, there are still substantial savings to be had from considering trying to standardize upon a campus wide “recommended” solution. A solution that can accommodate the broad range of use cases that will be proposed by the various departments would certainly be ideal. For example, a video wall solution designed just for advertising may not be what you need in your research facilities, but very well may be what is needed in the admissions office, or the campus’ common area.

With a central IT department, most institutions would benefit from a centrally managed video wall solution, where administrators can easily configure, update and troubleshoot from their office—even going as far as doing it remotely from a web-based configuration console.

Video walls can both provide a platform for research and development, as well as the means for conveying vital information. Moreover, institutions would greatly benefit from solutions that are capable of combining both tasks within the same system, resulting in an engaging environment that guarantees the success for current and prospective students, alumni, faculty and administration.

Icon Pdf Red Video Walls In An Academic Setting (PDF - Size 247 KB) | Network Video Wall Resources

Userful Industry Insight: Decoding Modern Video Wall Technologies

Userful - Stunning Retail Video WallsHalf of digital signage is capturing people’s attention and the other half is powerful visual communication. With the proliferation of digital displays, means wow people isn’t as easy as it used to be. Organizations involved in digital signage and public display technology are constantly looking for ways to regain that “Wow!” factor. One of these approaches—and the focus of this article—is Video Walls. They capture attention and provide a big canvas to communicate and promote brands in a unique way. Not surprisingly video walls are one of the fastest sub-sectors of the world of digital displays.

Video wall technology is often misunderstood, and perhaps sometimes even feared. In this article, I want to help shed some light into some of the most common approaches to implementing video walls. There are basically 4 core technologies on the market today driving video walls:

1. Traditional Video-card based video wall controller:

This is the oldest of the technologies. A dedicated computer—basically a specialized PC equipped with extra video cards—is physically attached to the displays, each video output driving one display. These video wall controllers typically come with software and capture cards to connect multiple inputs, configure presets, control outputs and manage the overall configuration. Traditional video wall controllers are proprietary hardware solutions with a fixed number of inputs and outputs purpose built for video walls. Typically video wall controllers scale captured input sources, but some video wall solutions allow you to render content directly on the controllers. These are often very expensive but offer very high total resolution via the large number of installed graphics card.

  • Vendors include: Barco, Christie Digital.

2. Tile-matrix scaler:

Many of the commercial zero-bezel video-wall displays come with a built in daisy chain solution that allows the displays to scale a single input source across an entire grid video wall. Tile matrix solutions work best video walls which don’t require high resolution or advanced features like rotations, multiple simultaneous content streams, preset zones. Obviously the tile matrix approach you still need a player to generate the HDMI or DisplayPort source.

  • Vendors include: Samsung, LG.

3. Media-players playing back pre-split content:

Some companies have taken multiple signage player devices and time-synched them together to create a video walls playback system. Here the content must be pre-split and only the relevant portion of the video uploaded to each of the corresponding individual players—one per display. The players constantly talk to each other or to a server during over the network during playback to maintain synchronization. The key disadvantage of this is the inflexibility and cost of having to prepare the content in advance and the high subscription fees.

  • Vendors include: Brightsign.

4. Network-based (AV-over-IP) video wall controller:

This technology marries the power and flexibility of a traditional video wall controller, with the cost, scalability and flexibility advantages inherent AV-over IP. A central PC renders, captures and splits the content then sends it out over a standard Ethernet network to the displays. This offers all the resolution, multi-source and flexibility advantages of a traditional video wall controller. All the content management, splitting and delivery is done in real time, and capture cards and network streaming source offer a wide range of inputs (like HDMI and SDI). But unlike the traditional controller it has built-in distribution and almost unlimited scalability (in terms of number of outputs) and artistic flexibility.

Userful Video Wall Controller
  • Vendors include: Userful.

Each technology has its benefits and downsides, for example, traditional video card based controllers have the ability to output very high resolutions, and spread as well as divide and subdivide the display as you want. Unfortunately, these systems are the most expensive and rely on proprietary hardware, and must be sized in advance for a specific configuration limiting opportunities for system expansion.

Tile-matrix scalers provide a low-cost—usually included with high-end commercial displays— solution that is simple to set up. However future upgrades—for example moving from 4k source content to 6k source content—would require the entire solution to be upgraded.

Pre-splitting the content then delivering via media players is a great trick if your video wall content changes very infrequently. However this can often lock you into a specific content management system at very high subscription costs, lock you out of real-time content (like social media feeds, weather, news, live TV). The key downside is pre-splitting content is time consuming (which can be a deterrent keeping content fresh) also the approach rules out interactive content or real-time feeds such as social media posts, weather, live TV/video.

Network based video wall is comparable in cost to tile-matrix or pre-splitting but offers all the traditional controller. Finally, with network-based video walls, the only restrictions on the scalability of the solution are the power of the PC and the capacity of the network, which can be virtually unlimited. Also, these solutions have the flexibility to display and arrange multiple simultaneous real-time content sources, as well as support for multiple video walls running off a single PC. Network transport enables advanced features like high-availability as well as built-in cable extension enabling the PC to be securely locked away. The key disadvantage is since distribution is over an IP network at gigabit speeds, you need to install at least Cat5e cabling. Additionally most solutions recommend operation at 30fps to conserve bandwidth (whereas some high end installations require 60fps).and support for multiple simultaneous content, non traditional, artistic ‘mosaic-style’ video walls.

In conclusion, with any other technology market out there, companies should focus their attention on implementing solutions that are more powerful and flexible, without breaking the bank. Obviously picking the right core technology is just part of the decision. Features like easy setup and configuration; and flexibility to support your full range of customer use cases with a single product can be a huge time-saver for system integrators. Another key consideration is how future proof the solution is, and what type of upgrades or expansion would necessitate a complete replacement of the system. In 2016 expect to see more activity in the AV-over-IP space due to the enormous advantages this offers for video walls and digital signage in general.

Icon Pdf Red Decoding Modern Video Wall Technologies (PDF - Size 186 KB) | Network Video Wall Resources

Pixel perfect alignment using Userful's video wall designer

Userful’s video wall designer is an intuitive drag’n’drop browser interface with powerful patent-pending features to dramatically accelerate video wall setup and configuration. Interested in how easy Userful makes it to design video walls? You can try it live on our website.

Userful's artistic mosaic-style video wall being displayed at different angles.Achieving Pixel Perfect Alignment

Multi-display video-wall installations can be challenging to design, install, configure and manage. Creative multi-display installations often require different sizes and perhaps even makes of displays to be arranged in unconventional positions. The software needs to be aware of the exact positions and rotation of each display, correctly compensating for varying bezel sizes, gaps, rotation angles and monitor positions. Designers, installers and integrators all require simple yet effective tools in order to ensure pixel-perfect results, without having to go back and forth repeatedly and without making onsite installation incredibly laborious.

Particularly with complex advanced layouts it is inevitable that minor but visible differences exist between the planned and actual placement during mounting of displays. The video wall software needs to be able to quickly reconfigure, to adjust for the inevitable minor variance, between the display positioning the design called for and what the installers actually achieved.

Userful's unique interactive visual calibration approach enables pixel-perfect alignment of displays ensuring perfect output with just a few minutes of calibration. This saves an enormous amount of time for installers who can quickly mount at roughly the right angles and positions, then use the keyboard arrows to align software display positioning with the real physical mounting to the wall. Pixel perfect alignment can be achieved within minutes, with the help of a specialized alignment grid, the software output’s to the displays.

Userful's browser based video wall layout designer is the perfect solution for creating and managing an entire video wall project. The drag and drop tool lets takes you from proposal stage right through to completed installation all with an easy intuitive tool. Designers can access the tool online and build and print out proposed layouts. Installers can use these layouts to correctly mount the displays. Then after displays are mounted the installer can fine-tune alignment using test patterns to achieve pixel perfect alignment and color calibration, all using the same interface.

Userful Video Wall - ControllerThere are different approaches to implementing a video wall, and usually people looking at deploying one are not too clear on what will fit best their project. Video wall controllers provide more power and flexibility to a video wall deployment; but they used to be substantially more costly— although there are solutions nowadays that have made them more affordable (for example the Userful video wall solution). In this article we want to shed some light on the situations where having a video wall controller would be very beneficial for a deployment.

Video wall controllers vs. Video wall scalers

Video wall scalers (or matrix scalers) offer a simple way to split a single video stream into multiple outputs, but they are generally limited in both resolution—with even the best scalers supporting only 1080p, and 4k at most—and layout options—many are limited to juts grid configurations. Many high-end, zero bezel displays include built-in scalers, though end users are “forced” into using only compatible displays within a supported arrangement. Matrix scalers are usually limited to a single source, and many can’t handle irregular aspect ratios (i.e. 1x5, 1x10 configurations, etc.), and those that do are still limited to the original source resolution, and look very poor quality.

Video wall controllers, on the other hand, address many of the limitations in matrix scalers. The Userful video wall solution, for example, supports ultra high source content resolutions (up to 8k), allows multiple simultaneous content sources (supporting real time content, interactive content, and managed content), and even support artistic, mosaic-style, video walls with unique designs and highly irregular aspect ratios, while still showing ultra high quality images. Userful also provides an intuitive browser-based graphical interface for management and configuration, with advance features that allow for more dynamic and interactive video walls.

How do I know if my project needs a video wall controller?

Userful Network Video WallIf a deployment requires showcasing multiple content simultaneously (i.e. a mix of HTML5, live TV, videos, web content, etc.), or switching easily between content sources, that is a good indicative that a video wall controller is needed. For example, control and command centers, where multiple content is on display—live camera feeds, interactive maps, desktop environment with analysis applications, etc.), would require a video wall controller. With Userful’s solution users can establish preset zones within their video walls and allocate different sources to each section, and switch configurations “on-the-fly” from the web GUI.

Affordability in video wall controllers

Traditional, video card based video wall controllers often cost up to $50,000 (or even as much as $100,000), and are usually complex to configure and maintain. These generally consist of proprietary, specialized hardware and software, and makes users depend on a sole vendor when it comes to setup, troubleshooting, RMA, which may cause delays due to low availability.

Userful’s software-based video wall eliminates these problems by transforming a standard PC (available from a variety of vendors and manufacturers) into a high performing video wall controller, with a simple and flexible configuration interface that includes advanced features, such as pixel perfect alignment, display color calibration, bezel correction, and more. Purchasing a video wall controller won’t blow the budget anymore, it can actually save you money by reducing the cost of the displays.

 

Icon Pdf Red When do you need a video wall controller, and when you don't (PDF - Size 326 KB) | Network Video Wall Resources

Why the network is solving complex hardware challenges for video walls

When thinking about a video wall deployment, it can be intimidating to think about the expensive and complicated hardware usually required. As video walls are becoming more widespread and more powerful, setup features like cabling and boxes can become very costly and confusing for users.

The simple solution to these hardware challenges is the network. A standard Local Area Network (LAN) connection eliminates the need for complex hardware and equipment, like cabling and boxes, that come with many traditional video wall solutions.

Network delivery dramatically simplifies video wall deployments. Only a network connection is needed, which greatly reduces the amount of specialized knowledge, equipment, installers, and IT support needed to setup and maintain a video wall setup. This means the network approach significantly reduces deployment costs for businesses while still maintaining flexibility in video wall capabilities.

Through the network, a video wall server or PC can be placed anywhere in a building. In comparison, many traditional video wall solutions require the video wall player, controller or server to sit in close proximity to the actual screens - or required the use of expensive cable extender solutions. This often makes deployment, service and support a headache particularly in high-traffic areas, or hard to get to places. Connecting a video wall through the network enables central control from a PC located anywhere in the building, meaning no hardware extenders or PC placement issues to deal with.

Userful's video wall displaying subway control centerThere are only a few essential tools needed to connect a powerful video wall when utilizing the network.

  • Zero client devices at each display
  • A network switch to connect the PC to zero client devices
  • One PC/server to power and manage all content for the video wall displays.

Zero client devices located at each display connect to to the network to deliver content in real-time to the screen. At about the size of a deck of cards, the devices have no moving parts, allowing them to be highly efficient and long lasting.

An additional benefit of network delivery is that one PC or server can actually support two or more video walls simultaneously. This can be very attractive for customers looking to deploy multiple video walls. It offers customers the option to eliminate the risk of downtime by having two servers each supporting one video wall, but capable of supporting two in the unlikely event of a hardware failure. Should a component on one server fail, both video walls can temporarily run off a single PC or server.

There’s no need to be worried about complicated cabling, boxes, and other hardware when it comes to video wall deployments. Simply use a network connection to create the same stunning video walls, but without the high cost and complexity.

If you want to learn more about how the network approach works, read our white paper.

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