The Facility Technologist: Larger Than Life

By Tom Condon, RPA, FMA
Published in the March 2012 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

One of the fastest growing technologies in facilities today is large format video display screens. Used for everything from digital signage to presentations in meeting spaces, large screens are popping up everywhere

Recent reductions in cost have made it more common for technologies to drive adoption of displays as large as 80″ diagonal. So it comes as no surprise that all of this new technology adds another challenge to the plates of facility managers (fms).

The three most common types of large format displays found in facilities are projectors, flat panel displays (LCD, LED, plasma), and video cubes. Projectors are frequently found in conference rooms and can be used to project images onto screens from the front or from the rear (using a special translucent screen).

The least expensive option of the three types, projectors ranging $1200 to $1500 each provide very good picture quality on large screens, and multiple projectors can be “stitched” together to form even larger images. Projectors do not have quite as good picture quality as the other two more costly options, but they have come a long way in recent years, with contrast and brightness approaching that of flat panels or cubes. Some (very expensive) projectors have amazing brightness that allows them to be used for movie theaters, or, more recently, in a new art form that projects moving images, shapes, and video onto the sides of buildings. Check out this video of an art display and this video projected onto the new Atlantis casino in Dubai.

There are three common kinds of flat panel displays: plasma, Liquid Crystal Display using Cold Cathode Fluorescent Lamps (LCD CCFL), and Light Emitting Diode Liquid Crystal Display (LED LCD). Plasma screens are the lowest cost option of the three and have excellent picture quality and a very wide viewing angle, but they are also susceptible to “burn in,” where the screen retains a ghost image of something that has been displayed for a long time. That makes them unacceptable for displays like digital signage that maintain the same image for a long time.

LCD CCFL screens have been around for years and offer excellent quality and no burn in, but they have difficulty displaying the deep black color that plasmas can display. They also have a slightly lower viewing angle and are slightly less capable at displaying fast moving images than plasma. They are well suited to digital signage and general use in facilities.

But the clear winner today in flat panel displays is LED LCD. Using LEDs to illuminate the LCD pixels provides deeper black levels, no burn in, and a wider viewing angle than LCD CCFL; new picture processing tackles the motion issue effectively. They are great for any purpose in a facility, from digital signage to video conferencing, conference rooms, or showrooms. They cost a bit more than the other flat panels, but they are worth the extra money.

The latest iteration of LED screens is called OLED (Organic Light Emitting Diodes), and they are brighter, use less electricity, have better contrast, and are remarkably thin. But they are a new technology, and manufacturers aren’t even offering them for sale in large sizes yet (the first big rollout of OLED screens just occurred at the Consumer Electronics Show in January 2012). They are rumored to cost more than double what LED LCDs cost, so their viability in facilities will be better known down the road.

If you want to make screens interactive, there are touch sensitive models available to allow users to interact with software for directories, customer service, and other applications. If you already have screens that you want to make touch sensitive, you can use a touchscreen add on panel. Check out Elo, one provider of touch screens.

So what if you want to create a video wall much larger than 80″? You could use multiple flat panel screens assembled into a giant wall, but the frames of the flat panels would cover part of the image, creating the effect of looking through a window with many mullions. If you want a large video wall with minimal frames, you need to use video cubes. With a higher cost (around $10,000 to $15,000 for a single 67″ screen) and even better quality than LED LCDs, cubes are video “building blocks” that can be assembled into large display walls. The frame that separates one cube from the next is (in most models) about two millimeters thick, and some manufacturers have gotten this down to less than one millimeter, so the effect is very close to a single seamless video screen.

Video cubes are widely used in command and control environments, because they offer excellent quality, extreme mission critical mean time between failure (MTBF) ratings, and can be configured to the space.

After you have chosen your displays, you need a way to control what they are displaying. This will depend on your goals. For example, the systems used to control digital signage are different from those used to control a video wall in a command center. Digital signage control systems typically loop a video signal that is updated periodically and do not require the ability to display a wide variety of live feeds. Check out Scala, which makes a full suite of digital signage displays.

But command centers may need to display many different incoming video signals live, decoding dozens of streams without lag and combining them into multiple configurations on the video wall. This requires some serious software and a lot of computing horsepower, including multiple servers. Take a look at Activu for a full featured video wall control system suitable for a command and control environment.

Sometimes, you need something that really delivers the “wow” factor. If that’s the case, then check out the 360? cylindrical display offering from Dynascan, which uses a spinning LED screen that synchronizes flashing LEDs to form a seamless, high quality display.

Large format video displays, interactive kiosks, and rich media are fast becoming hallmarks of the most advanced facilities and will undoubtedly be another challenge for most fms in the future. If you haven’t already, take the time to get up to speed on this technology to be ready for the very visual future that is on the way.