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Picture This: Display at NSCA 2006

May 1, 2006 12:00 PM, By Jeff Sauer

Digital signage went smaller-scale and even higher-profile.


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For video and display system contractors, there's probably no bigger carrot dangling out there in the marketplace than digital signage. As overhyped as it might have been over the last few years (and perhaps still is), digital signage presents a huge potential new business opportunity for those who understand it and can explain the options and benefits to potential clients.

It's not surprising, then, that for the third year in a row, NSCA cordoned off a noteworthy section of the show floor for a digital signage pavilion. Naturally, the digital signage pavilion wasn't the only space on the NSCA Expo floor to find digital video and display products, but it was the right place to start for those looking to understand this enticing new business sector.

This year's digital signage pavilion was slightly larger than last year's, but with some noteworthy omissions from last year — including Mercury Online, WebPavement, and last year's major sponsor, ActiveLight, which was recently acquired by Electrograph. On the other hand, large-scale digital signage software vendors Scala and Omnivex were in attendance.

The trend in the digital signage products, however, is enabling technologies for smaller-scale digital signage installations. And that's ultimately an important step toward broader market opportunities. Sports arenas and airports make great flagship projects, but the majority of installation business is likely to come from smaller retail establishments, hospitals, business lobbies, and educational campuses that might not need the elaborate scheduling, logging, and administrative oversight that Scala and Omnivex enable.

AT THE PAVILION

That's where products like Electrosonic's new HD FrEND Plus, Canopus' MediaEdge3, Chyron's ChyTV Plus, and Avocent's Emerge Wireless Media Streamer come in. The new “Plus” version of HD FrEND has all the same capabilities of the original HD FrEND MPEG video appliance introduced last year, but adds component HD-DVI support and a simple-to-use front-panel LCD interface that allows direct local access to stored video material, playlists, and configuration options. Canopus' MediaEdge3 now supports high-definition video playback, as well as MPEG-2, MPEG-1, and MPEG-4. Leveraging its built-in server functionality and Canopus' proprietary MPEG-encoding technology, MediaEdge3 can also distribute live HDV streams played directly from a camcorder.

ChyTV is a slightly different hardware device in that it doesn't store video, but rather allows the user to overlay graphics and text onto a live video source. In the new ChyTV Plus, Chyron has added professional BNC component video jacks to the ChyTV unit, as well as several software and programming improvements to make digital signage easy and affordable. Avocent's Emerge Wireless Media Streamer can eliminate the physical cable tether between source and display monitor by sending high-quality MPEG-2 video wirelessly over 802.11a up to 1,000ft. All four companies displayed previous versions of the current products last year at NSCA.

Going beyond digital signage appliances, ViewSonic introduced a new initiative of “Network Displays.” The first two are 42in. and 50in. plasmas that include built-in wired and wireless Ethernet, and can display content without a dedicated PC attached. Like the Samsung 460pn LCD panel that I reviewed in the January issue, Viewsonic's Network Displays have an operating system and a built-in 40GB hard drive for storing and playing back a variety of content types. Most appropriate for digital signage, the panels can play MPEG video, Windows Media, Flash, and HTML content.

More interestingly, Viewsonic was demonstrating HTML and Flash content at fullscreen, taking over the display's entire real estate with no window bars or menus showing. For digital signage, that avails the repurposing of existing web content, potentially avoiding any dedicated digital signage authoring tools. Viewsonic has more work to do in the realm of content scheduling, but the concept could be a boon for smaller organizations that already have a webmaster. Viewsonic also introduced a free-standing box version of the Network Display technology to attach to older displays.

Another way to avoid the complexity of oversight of dedicated digital signage software is using a service like StrandVision. A straightforward password-protected web interface to StrandVision servers allows you to set up and schedule your own personal digital signage content, which is then streamed from StrandVision's servers to your display via IP. StrandVision's online design interface tools include sample layout templates, text scrolls/crawls, and direct links to popular tickers (like weather, stock quotes, clocks, etc.) and support Flash, streaming video, and image files. With little more than an Internet connection and a display, a business as small as a gas station or convenience store can create and operate digital signage.

BEYOND DIGITAL SIGNAGE

Not all display products that manufacturers introduced at NSCA are related to digital signage. Extron announced the new MGP 464 multi-graphics processor. With still-store capabilities and 19 (15 virtual) routable video inputs (plus optional DVI), the MGP 464 allows for four active, simultaneous picture-in-picture video windows over either a graphic or video background, with complete control over positioning and size. It's a single rackmount-sized device that can make any large screen a command-and-control center display or multi-party videoconferencing screen.

Sampo launched a series of new professional plasma and LCD panels ranging in size from 26in. to 50in. These include Sampo's DisplayNet functionality. DisplayNet allows a remote administrator to monitor, schedule, and control an entire installation of multiple networked displays from a single location.

At the Consumer Electronics Show in January, Sharp let on that it would be releasing a pro AV version of its 65in. LCD TV, but NSCA was the real coming-out for the PN-655. Sporting a more understated black bezel — as well as DVI, RGB, and other pro AV connections (although surprisingly not Ethernet) — the PN-655 features the same high 1920×1080 native resolution, ASV image enhancement technology, and four-wavelength CCFL backlight as the consumer TV. Pricing won't be available until closer to the June ship date. The PN-655 will join the 45in. PN-455 (also 1920×1080), which is available now for $9,595.

Magenta's new Mondo Matrix can be configured as anything from 16×16 to 256×256, but with RJ45 connectors instead of BNCs. Mondo Matrix leverages, and is fully compatible with, Magenta's MultiView RGB-over-twisted pair technology for long RGB and HDTV cable runs. Since the RJ45 connectors effectively replace five (or more) physical connectors, the Mondo Matrix can dramatically reduce rack space. It's as small as one-tenth the size of traditional matrix switch platforms. Costs vary dramatically based on configuration, but start at $10,250 for a 16×16 matrix.

And for all those following the trend to RGB over Cat-5/5e/6 twisted-pair cable, Hall Research has yet another indispensable little gadget: the SKU-RGB ($295 list), an RGB and component video skew corrector. Those increasingly long cable runs over inevitably unevenly twisted cables can mean that red, green, and blue signals arrive at the monitor at slightly different times. The result is colors that don't line up exactly and an image that looks soft or out of focus. Hall's little palm-sized device has a 15-pin in and out and can work with anyone's analog-over-twisted pair solution. It can be connected at either end of the run and has just a couple of simple buttons for selecting which color to adjust (delay), and by how much. Basically, you just tap them until your image is perfect again.



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