Diversity is the Word for Video Systems

Sept. 8, 2006

By Dan Daley

From digital signage in airports and retail to monster video screens that function as both billboards and load-bearing walls, the moving image is now part of the architectural package.

But putting the picture into the package takes some doing. Video displays must be easily seen but not obtrusive; they increasingly must be plugged into network servers for updating messaging and for maintenance; and changes in wireless technology and content distribution will impact how video is integrated into structures.

Monitoring The Monitors
As video becomes more ubiquitous, a much larger number of screens must be tracked not only to monitor content but also for maintenance.

John Glad, a product manager for Hitachi, says he’s seeing the demand for that kind of functionality on the rise. “I remember what made me realize this,” Glad says. “There was a facility manager for a school who was getting constant complaints from a teacher that the lamp in her projector kept burning out. He checked and found that she was never shutting the projector down, so it would run constantly, in use or not. No wonder the lamps were burning out quickly! But simply telling someone to do something doesn’t always work - it’s hard to change ingrained habits. So we developed software for him that enables him to check the status of the projector using an RJ45 port and home run between his office and the media room. He could turn it off himself from his office if he needed to.”

That story foretells what Glad and others think will be a network of maintenance and command/control feeds throughout buildings as video proliferates. It will be driven by budget as much as by anything else - monitor maintenance in large buildings will be as tricky as checking for leaky faucets - but not as hard.

As architects plan for wiring, the need for video control will become critical. In fact, architects could become heroes by showing how planning for additional cabling can save money long-term, not only in terms of burnt-out bulbs but by patching that information into an accounting program that can track billable hours for media equipment. Hotels and convention centers would jump at the chance to itemize AV equipment on that basis.

Wired installs will continue giving way to wireless networks (though not completely, at least until some reliable content data encryption schemes are adopted). Getting video signal to remote screens throughout a facility is possible now, but barely worth it over long throws. That will change as the next iteration of wireless standard, in the form of 802.11(n), becomes widely adopted, bringing with it wider bandwidth and longer reach with a usable-power signal strength. This might create an interesting conflict between technologists who want fewer walls in the ways of their signals, made from more electronically porous materials, and architects who are skittish about messing with the physics of gravity.

How to best design structures so that video signals can be wirelessly distributed most effectively and efficiently will be a priority sooner than later. Line-of-sight designs and video server positioning are some of the concepts being explored. But one current new technology might offer some other answers. Ever since Apple’s iPod got video capability, it’s created the potential for an ad hoc wireless network of personal video devices that can be plugged into wall receptacles. A few nightclubs in New York and elsewhere have experimented with the concept using iPod audio files. Video content is probably not far off.

(There’s an interesting side note to integrating video into digital server networks: While a CCTV system is putatively a closed system, once the video data is sent over a LAN or a WAN, the signals are potentially available to other network users and even to people on the Internet. This could raise legal issues. If you can be sued for simply owning a computer that someone else used to illicitly download a song, the potential for liability could extend to integrators, designers, and architects. A “content” indemnification clause in the work contract might not be a bad idea.)

Developing building designs that allow for such diversity of video distribution is going to be one of the cooler challenges that architects will face.

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