Whether it be bringing powerful visualization to the classroom or research facility, creating a powerful impactful impression on students or donors, or keeping all members of the campus informed and engaged, 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 students' artworks and/or accomplishments. 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.
Choosing and Implementing a Video Wall
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 does someone manage the process, and what are the key considerations when thinking about leveraging this technology at their own institutions?
There are many variables 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, an 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 insight into what video wall solution should be acquired.
Setup, Calibration, and Maintenance
Key aspects to consider, though often overlooked, are the setup, calibration and maintenance of the video wall solution. These can all be laborious processes, although they don't have to be. Video walls require a variety of components-including displays, media players, cabling, display mounts, etc.-that need to be properly installed; otherwise they 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 have very standardized systems in place when it comes to infrastructure, IT and administration. For video walls in a classroom setting, heat, noise and theft can be a 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 that can run on existing PCs. A solution that is flexible enough that can be customized to a specific need goes a long way. For example, when not used in a classroom setting, a video wall display can be used for signage.
Different Operating Systems for Different Tasks
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 provides an added value.
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 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 switch between tasks easily, from displaying information to interactive desktop environments, 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, campus or department-wide events and programming. Administrators can easily embed video content, web streams, slideshows and other content sources that the video wall supports.
The Problem with Do-It-Yourself Solutions
Academic institutions can sometimes be tempted-by their readily available and inexpensive student labor 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; it is an expensive and embarrassing situation to have a video wall that isn't functional. With some of the new controller solutions on the market, often the cost of the displays themselves is many times more expensive than 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. In 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. A 55" HD TV costing around $500 vs. $2500 for commercial displays (which on a 25" screen wall this can save you over $50,000). However, 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 (as consumer TVs only allow landscape or portrait orientations); they are also needed in environmentally challenged locations-with high cold/heat, grease, dust, vibration or corrosion.
Video Wall Controllers and Matrix Scalers
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 matrix scalers are lower cost but 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; 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. Even so, there are still substantial savings to be had from trying to standardize 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 that 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.
-- founder and CTO of Userful (www.userful.com) -- is a true entrepreneur, having previously founded and led consulting, research, and design companies. He holds a Masters Degree in Product Design from the University of Calgary, with a focus on human computer interaction.