Your typical video wall used to require special expertise, expensive hardware and complex software. It was a very involved affair that would consume many hours of planning and research. While a few installations may still require proprietary or expensive solutions, many professional results can be achieved using commercially available digital signage software.
Today, excellent results can be achieved using a multi-display capable PC and compatible commercial content management system (CMS). While Android and other alternate types of devices are becoming more common, not many can support multiple displays like PCs.
Picking the right CMS software for the job
It’s safe to say most CMS product on the market can manage and display content on single displays. Things get dicey if you start looking for multi-display capability, and even then, few can easily switch from a single piece of content shown across all displays to individual content on each display. Therefore, you should look for professional-grade software that lets you create flexible layouts with the fewest restrictions. The best products will let you design layouts so content can be assigned to any number of displays, regardless of their orientation, or resolution. You should be able to assign content that spans one or more display, and change layouts easily. Templates should not be difficult to create or update by non-technical users.
Displaying data on your video wall displays
Your CMS should support data and graphics overlays so it’s easy for you to add news feeds, weather information, sports results, financial / banking information, corporate data, production statistics, and other live data feeds. Your preferred solution should let you position any image, graphic or text element, anywhere within the multi-screen display area with as few restrictions as possible. Transparency layers should also be available on your software of choice. This lets you create professional looking content like news tickers or a clock with the current date floating on top of any media displayed on screen.
Controlling the multi-screen canvas
Many digital signage software products that run on the Windows operating system rely on the PCs video drivers to manage which signal is sent to each display. It’s imperative that your video drivers be current, as new features and bug fixes get released regularly by video card manufacturers. Once your hardware has been installed and the PC configured, you must make sure the video drivers can see every connected display. Displays must also show up in the proper order, otherwise you may see parts of the content appear on the wrong display. Microsoft Windows and video card driver software applications include features that let you check the order in which your displays are organized. If anything looks suspicious, you can swap out video cables or reorganize the displays using the video driver software until you see the results you expected.
In some cases, you may want to mix your displays orientation. Let’s say you install two displays in landscape and two displays in portrait orientation. You will need a video card with four outputs that support mixed orientations. The video drivers will need to be configured to take the dimensions of all the displays into account. Your digital signage software must also support this layout, otherwise you won’t be able to show your content properly. All the components must work together to make the content play properly.
Examples of video wall applications
- Restaurant menu boards: Many restaurants use PC based digital signage software with multi-display video cards to manage a series of displays instead of deploying one media player per screen. Using a single PC, even with a high-end video card can be less expensive than using one player per display. There are also software savings as only one player software licence is required for the entire project.
- LCD video walls: Video walls come in many configurations. Displays can be arranged in rows with matching orientations (two rows of three, three rows of four, etc.), or in mixed orientations. Displays can be grouped together to create a single viewing surface or spread out individually. The effect will change with the layout. We often find these video walls in high-end retail stores, car dealership showrooms, stadiums, banks and financial institutions, shopping malls and other areas where people want to make an impact.
- Transparent video walls: These use similar LCD display technologies but without any backlighting. Transparent displays can be mounted in windows so the viewer can see through the content being shown. You can see these in trade shows, high-end retail and other specialized applications.
- Exterior LED signage: Exterior LED boards are assembled using smaller panels. Most often, flat panels are used to cover very large areas, but you can find these panels in many shapes and sizes. Some are even curved. These products require special video processor cards that can be configured to operate in non-standard screen resolutions.
- Multi-projector installations: Projectors can be substituted for LCD displays to achieve similar effects but at a much larger size. The best projectors for these applications have features that let the installation team blend the edges of projected imaged to achieve a seamless effect over very large areas. These projectors are also capable of delivering extremely bright images and the best units have high refresh rates to reduce flickering when reproducing video content with fast moving images (sporting event content).
Advantages of a software based video wall
Video walls that are built around digital signage technologies represent significant advantages over hardware-based video wall installations.
- Reduced costs: Dedicated, hardware based video wall controllers tend to be much more expensive than digital signage based systems that use regular PCs with multi-output video cards.
- Ease of configuration and use: Traditional digital signage software can be relatively easy to use compared to the proprietary interfaces used for hardware based systems. PCs are also easier to configure and use standard components (RAM memory, hard drives, etc.). PCs don’t require specially trained personnel.
- More flexibility: Hardware based controllers are single-purpose devices so they can only be used for that specific use. PCs can be reconfigured, upgraded and redeployed very easily.
- Ease of maintenance: PC components are easy to source and less expensive to purchase. They can be repaired out in the field where most hardware controllers need to be sent to a specialized shop for repairs.
Dedicated hardware based display controllers have their purpose. They are essential when designing artistic layouts or when you need to mix displays that have different sizes and image aspects. Hardware display controllers are also extremely reliable but their high cost relegates them to very specific applications. They are rarely used for basic video wall applications anymore.
The advantages of using digital signage software and PC hardware are obvious. You can operate your video walls with hundreds of other displays and interactive kiosks using a single technology. You control individual displays, multiple video walls with different layouts, touch enabled displays and other means of content presentation using a common software product.
As PC hardware and video card technologies further evolve, we anticipate hardware based video controllers will become obsolete. It’s just a matter of time before video card manufacturers bridge the gap.
In the meanwhile, there are plenty of solutions for every project, and every budget.