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Not Just a Videowall

These days it's amazing what creative AV designers and integrators can make out of display technology. With the right software, content, and planning, videowalls become works of art.


McCann Systems used Christie MicroTiles for a pair of 3x10 videowalls the company rented to Versace during Fashion Week in New York. The tall, vertically aligned walls required a custom mounting solution, as well as custom façades to surround the screens.

McCann Systems used Christie MicroTiles for a pair of 3x10 videowalls the company rented to Versace during Fashion Week in New York. The tall, vertically aligned walls required a custom mounting solution, as well as custom fa§ades to surround the screens.

These days, the technology for creating videowalls runs the gamut from thin-bezel flat-panel LCD screens to modular LED projection tiles, traditional cubes and rear-projection screens to new laser phosphor display solutions. There are a host of video switchers, scalers, and processors that ensure the correct content goes to the correct part of the videowall at the correct time.

Mechdyne Corp., which has made a reputation out of building large, multiwindow projection walls for command and control, engineering, and other visualization applications, sees information overload as a primary driver of the projects it works on. "Our typical customer has one or two applications that could take up the entire display wall," says Kurt Hoffmeister, MechDyne's vice president of research and development. "But in terms of windows, there might be videoconferencing, data from a variety of sources, and smaller applications that might not be as graphics-intensive." Getting all that on a single wall can require a lot of pixels.

Mechdyne did a 37-by-13-foot wall for the U.S. military's Joint Intelligence Laboratory in Norfolk, Va., that uses eight Sony SXRD projectors to generate 53 million pixels. Two of the 4K projectors are installed as a stereoscopic pair, which means part of the massive videowall is in 3D. "Just the 2D part is 24 channels of HD resolution," Hoffmeister says.

Unlike most traditional AV systems, the modern videowall is as much about the software that runs it and the content it displays as it is about the part of the system everybody seesthe display.

"You don't typically just take an HD feed and plug it into a videowall," McCann's Fusaro says. "It's not going to look good."

For HP's headquarters, Three Byte developed custom software to run the rotating videowall. The company's principals once worked for integrators Electrosonic and Scharff Weisberg, so they had extensive experience with show controls and video installations. They considered using Dataton's Watchout show control software to drive the wall, but because of the wall's unique design, they discovered something unusual. "This was a weird situation where we said we could write custom software for less than an off-the-shelf solution," Rossi says.

Part of this decision was driven by contraints put on Three Byte by the site itself. Out of the box, Watchout would have required 36 computers to run HP's 36-monitor videowall, according to Keitel, but the back-end system could only include nine PCs, in part because the equipment room was no bigger than a single AV rack.

Moreover, Three Byte wasn't sure off-the-shelf software could handle the video mapping that was necessary to address HP's and Tronic's vision for the wall. "Being able to spin the monitors around and have that taken into account by the video would have been very difficult with Watchout," Rossi says.

The finished system, dubbed HP Manifold, can decode eight simultaneous 1080p, 30-frames-per-second MPEG-2 files per computer and render 74 megapixels across a videowall whose resolution is 32,498x3972, after taking into account mullions and other spacing between the screens. And Three Byte also wrote a custom content management system tailored to the HP lobby space with a previsualization mode that allows the client to see how the video will look before it runs. "The CMS allows a user to stretch and position videos on the wall, specify transparent overlay and underlay images, and build synchronous playlists for multiple videos running on different parts of the wall," Rossi says.

Some sacrifices had to be made in the installation. The HP LD4700 47-inch LCD monitors don't exactly have thin bezels, which in recent years has become a key feature of flat-panel displays used in videowall installations. Between dropping panel prices, ever-thinner bezels, and innovative mounting solutions, LCDs have become an attractive solution for larger, more cost-effective videowall installations. But at HP, even if the preferred displays did have narrow bezels, it wouldn't have a made a big difference in the look of the finished videowall.

Because the ability to rotate the displays was central to the designer's vision, the backs of the columns couldn't be an eyesore. They were therefore fabricated with a sculptural fiberglass shell on the back that would catch the eye even if the screens were turned to face the auditorium. When everything was attached to the poles and the poles installed in the floor, the AV team had to ensure that each pair of monitors with their sculpted shells could still spin freely. "Even if the monitor had no bezel, there had to be a physical gap in order for the monitors to turn," Keitel says.

For now, the monitors must be rotated by hand. A plan to motorize the system so the panels in the wall could turn programmatically was dropped from the initial budget but is tentatively scheduled for a second project phase in 2011. Three Byte continues to monitor the videowall to ensure its installation decisions are holding up. For instance, the firm had to route high-resolution cables from the equipment room, under the floor, and up through poles to the displays, which would turn throughout the day, "Now you've got physical issues because the cable needs to rotate and the power has to be done right so you're not breaking connectors and losing your video signal all the time," Keitel says.

Three Byte ran 200-foot fiber-optic DVI cables from the equipment room to a trench that runs behind the monitors (the trench also houses nine Tannoy speakers and three subwoofers to provide audio). "The cables are then panelized and there are small HDMI cables that run up the columns and into the monitors," Rossi explains. "So if we ever do break an HDMI cable, which we haven't so far, we don't destroy the very expensive fiber cable that's running back to the control room."

Also, there's no switching system. Everything is handled in software. Motion sensors detect a visitor in the lobby and can trigger specific content, much of which is tailored to the HP Manifold. "Only a custom solution could meet the needs of this installation," Keitel says.

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