Three Main Categories of Video Wall Processors: What You Need to Know and Why You Should Care

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It used to be that a video wall required two expensive pieces of equipment. The video wall controller was in charge of splitting and outputting the images to the individual displays, and the video wall processor was in charge of receiving the various inputs or “sources” and compositing them together. Today, these two terms are used somewhat interchangeably.

Video wall processors (or video processors) are advanced signal routers that take several inputs and create a single image that can then be output to a grid of synchronized displays, (aka a video wall).  There are three main categories of video wall processors.  Let’s look at each in terms of functionality and features:

Black-Box: First, there is the “black-box” approach, a proprietary hardware device sporting a fixed number of inputs, a fixed number of outputs (e.g., 16 inputs; 16 outputs) and various ports on the back of the box you can plug cables into and some buttons. If your video wall needs are simple and rarely changing, these black boxes come preconfigured for specific use cases. However, they are typically complex, and it seems impossible to change their behavior. Additionally, the fixed number of inputs and outputs limits these video processors in the number of output displays and input sources they support. What’s more, you need to stock up on long cables of the required type and any necessary converters to ensure all the inputs and outputs can be connected to your black-box video-wall processor. Also, their controlling capabilities can be somewhat limited. Many only support displaying one source at a time, or allow very basic windowing and content switching. And most likely, they don’t support any kind of interactive capabilities or rich API that you might find in other solutions. As a result, the black-box has limited scalability and flexibility.  Should the customer want to change the number of inputs or outputs or their use case, the typical solution is to buy entirely new hardware.

Video-card: Another type of video wall processor is a PC/Server chassis equipped with dedicated video cards added to it. This approach gives you more power and flexibility in terms of maximum content resolution, and more flexibility when sizing your video wall (but the number of outputs will still be limited by the video card maker’s drivers and the number of PCI slots in the motherboard). Set-up and configuration usually requires quite a bit more know-how and trial and error as you need to match the PC and motherboard to the number of video cards required.  Additionally, unless you’ve bought a pre-packaged solution, you’ll also need to test and install and configure the software and ensure all the hardware and software you’ve bought is compatible. You’ll still need long monitor cables to string it all together, and you’ll need to locate the PC close to the video wall location. Though more flexible than the black box, because both inputs and outputs occupy PCI slots, this PC+video cards approach can still be very limited in scalability and flexibility, which limits the video wall’s future growth. The features largely depend on the software being selected. Additionally, maintaining a system like this places a very heavy labor burden as there are many moving parts (OS, drivers, video wall software, hardware devices, motherboard, etc.) all receiving updates at different times from different manufacturers.

Over IP: The third approach to video wall processors also consists of a PC/server using a standard IP network to communicate with displays (AV-over-IP). It leverages the network to deliver the content to low-cost, high-performing zero-client devices. Because outputs don’t require video cards, it can scale to 100+ displays, and it leaves all the PCI slots in your motherboard free for capture cards or offloading cards to improve system performance. Software installed in the PC converts that PC into a video wall processor, with all the processing and rendering done by the PC. This network-based approach gives high-end features like high-availability and failover, and provides the power and flexibility to support multiple simultaneous content streams with ultra-high resolutions — up to 8K in the case of Userful. What’s more, because the solution depends on the software for its functionality, customers can upgrade their system down the road just by copying the software to a newer and more powerful one.  In this case, the total number of displays is only limited by the power of the PC and the network’s bandwidth (as opposed to the physical limitations of the hardware in the other two approaches). Additionally, the interface is browser based and accessible from a smartphone.

When looking at video wall processors, it’s also worth considering which are software driven as those solutions tend to offer more advanced features as options and more intuitive interfaces.  They often come with the capabilities of a video wall controller thereby offering the option to provide more advanced video wall functionalities.  These are sometimes add-on capabilities and sometimes included, but it’s worth knowing in advance if the solution you’re considering includes video wall zones (to showcase multiple content sources simultaneously on the video wall), or non standard configurations such as display rotation or gap allowance in the video wall canvas (for artistic designs).  Software-driven video walls also tend to support a broader range of content and control options for interactivity beyond traditional touch-screen interaction (via tablets, smartphones or other connected devices in the case of Userful).

Which option is best for me?

Userful Video Wall picIf your needs are basic and never going to change, the “black-box” approach can be quick to deploy and set up, but I would avoid these if there is any chance that you may need to scale or alter your video wall in the future. Video-card-based solutions often offer more flexibility than the black-box, but be ready to spend quite a bit of time testing and configuring. And scalability will still be limited (by the PCI slots in your selected computer). As business needs change, you may be frustrated to find that the video wall processor is incapable of growing and changing with them.

The over-IP network-based approach is by far the most flexible and scalable. It addresses the fundamental challenge other processors face: lack of flexibility and the inability to change and grow with the customer. These solutions can satisfy the requirements of any type of video wall application—from DOOH advertising, to command and control centers, to retail and immersive experiences, etc.  Because these solutions use standard IT architecture – a PC and the network – upfront investment is often much lower, and customers are more likely to be familiar with the hardware required for their deployment.

About Author

AV entrepreneur and analyst Tim Griffin is the founder and CTO of Userful Corporation, an industry leading software appliance for AV & IT professionals to easily control large numbers of displays and interactive content sources from any browser.  www.userful.com 

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