GV – August 1998

Videowalls Show Data More Clearly
By Sheldon Liebman

Videowall technology is in the middle of a significant upgrade. Just a few years ago, videowalls accepted only standard video input (composite, Y/C or RGB at video rates) and displayed the results on traditional video-style monitors. The result was acceptable, but in most cases, wasn’t stellar. Today, advances in every aspect of videowall technology have resulted in larger displays that do more, show more and cost less. At this year’s INFOCOMM show, dozens of companies demonstrated their latest and greatest videowall solutions. This month, we’ll look at how the technology has progressed and mention some of the companies and products that are available.

Denville, NJ-based IMTECH has been involved in videowalls since they were first introduced approximately 15 years ago. IMTECH’s first generation product, priced at approximately $30,000 when it was first introduced, is still available today as their CLASSIC series. The CLASSIC is available to drive 2x2, 3x3, and 4x4 configurations with limited scripting and effects capabilities. Currently, pricing starts at under $7000 for the controller only and under $12,000 for a turnkey system with 25" RGB monitors.

Seeing is Believing
Today’s systems improve on the CLASSIC in every way, starting with the monitors. In the early days of videowalls, the state of the art in monitors was a traditional television monitor in a square enclosure (for easy stacking). The first improvement was to increase the resolution of these monitors to display a better picture. This mirrored the trend in consumer electronics to provide more lines in a standard video image.

Packaging was also improved to make the enclosures fit the screens more closely. The current generation of videowall monitors is designed around the screen so that mounting multiple monitors together results in virtually no empty "frame space" between them.

In addition, these monitors are more like traditional computer monitors. They accept non-interlaced, computer-style signals and can even accept higher resolution than standard video. SVGA style monitors (800x600 resolution) are becoming commonplace and even XGA (1024x768) monitors are starting to appear. Over the next few years, the growing availability of HDTV monitors will probably result in videowall cubes that accept formats like 1080I and 720P.

Many of the videowall monitors today, whichever resolution they display, are limited to a single resolution. However, companies like Sony and Pioneer currently offer multi-sync videowall monitors, which increases the flexibility of the overall videowall system.

As the resolution of cubes has increased, so has the brightness of the projectors that drive them. With these brighter projectors, screen sizes have also been increased. Sony, for example, offers the RVP411D with a 41" screen and the RVP511DS with a 50" screen. Using these larger screens, each screen in a videowall can be as large as the IMTECH CLASSIC 2x2 with 25" monitors. At the same time, 2-piece construction has allowed Sony to cut the weight of each cube in half, making it easier to install, dismantle and modify videowalls.

It’s Under Control
Videowall controllers have also been improved substantially. Early controllers accepted only video signals, but most controllers today can accept high-resolution computer graphics. ICT of North America, located in Orlando, is one of the pioneers in this area. When cubes were still displaying interlaced video signals, ICT built controllers that accepted SXGA (1280x1024) graphics and mapped them onto a 2x2 cube. This required some scan conversion and reduced the quality of the image.

When VGA monitors became available for videowalls, their 640x480 resolution made it possible for a 2x2 wall to show the full resolution of an SXGA input signal. As the resolution of the cubes has continued to increase, ICT can provide controllers that map SVGA or XGA computer graphics into a single cube without having to modify the original signal at all. This also makes it possible to display a larger number of traditional video signals at higher quality.

High-end controllers today accept at least four inputs with options for more. These inputs can be of different resolutions and can even be one of the HDTV formats. At ICT, their top of the line controller can accept up to a 1920x1600 computer signal as well as HDTV.

On the output side, the better the controller, the more monitors it is able to handle. ICT claims that they their processor can handle up to a 256x256 configuration, but they admit that the largest they know of is 12x12, which is still quite a lot. IMTECH has at least one installation running 20 monitors across in a 20x5 configuration.

All of this power doesn’t do you any good if there isn’t an easy way to operate it, which is where the current generation of setup and scripting software fits in. IMTECH’s ULTRA system uses touchscreen technology that allows users to easily match inputs with one or more outputs. Each setup can be saved and programs are created by specifying timing and transition parameters to move between saved formats.

For their top of the line UltraMAX system, IMTECH created IMpress control software. Running under Windows 95/98 or NT, IMpress can be used with either a mouse or a touchscreen for drag and drop system configuration. ICT also offers PC-based configuration and scripting for their systems.

Whichever system you are running, there are also interfaces to external devices. With these controls, you can run VCRs, LaserDisc players and other equipment to affect the inputs being fed to the system. For example, an external keyer or DVE can be integrated into the system for additional special effects.

The Computer as Controller
Thus far, we’ve covered traditional videowall systems, which are very flexible and powerful. Another class of products is started to appear however, that deals with a computer screen as the ultimate target for videowall style effects. With these products, multiple signals are fed into a computer and placed onto a VGA, SVGA, XGA or SXGA screen. Using the power of the computer, these inputs can be manipulated in a variety of ways and then output as a single, combined source. Instead of being called videowall systems, these products are more commonly referred to as "windowing systems."

Canada’s Miranda Technology is one company offering this type of product. Their Screen-16 is capable of accepting up to 16 real-time, uncompressed video windows and displaying them on a computer screen. The system offers two simultaneous outputs, one that incorporates the computer display as a background and another without it. In addition to supporting a very large number of inputs, Screen-16 offers arbitrary sizing and positioning of these inputs with full scripting capabilities.

Another company addressing this area is RGB Spectrum, based in Alameda, CA. This year, the company introduced MediaWall, which accepts up to 10 inputs and displays them across a 2x2 array of output devices. Like Screen-16, MediaWall allows you to have windows or arbitrary size and move them around easily.

The output from both of these products can be fed to a traditional videowall system, although there would be little need to use the videowall’s processing capability. Instead, you would probably just feed these output signals into the videowall, set it once and leave it alone.

However, these products can be used with large, high-resolution projection systems to display the output on a single large screen without having to set up a bank of video cubes. If the lighting level was right and the space required by a projector was available, this type of solution could offer some additional flexibility over a traditional videowall system.

Whether you use a standard videowall, a windowing system or a combination of the two, the results you can obtain today are light years ahead of what was available a few years ago. As a result, videowalls are being used on everything from television shows to control rooms, classrooms to shopping malls. As the technology continues to improve, it’s likely that videowall or windowing technology will appear just about everywhere a large image is needed. It sure beats television.

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