Trade shows are where people get to see cutting-edge AV technologies in action, and that was the case at last year’s InfoComm Show, in Orlando, where display manufacturer Planar teamed up with interactive design, software, and user experience (UX) developer IdentityMine to show how large-scale, interactive digital signage can be made accessible to human-sized hands.
Visitors to Planar’s booth were greeted by the company’s Planar Mosaic architectural video wall product, which consists of five square Planar Salvador video tiles, eight 46-inch Planar Pablo tiles, and two 55-inch Planar Vincent panels. The Planar Mosaic array measured 16 feet across and towered well over 9 feet high, fairly massive even within the context of the capacious Orlando convention center. But that very scale was what this particular installation intended to conquer. As impressive as a large video wall can be, its sheer size can render it unapproachable—interactivity isn’t a concept that seems to natively couple with outsized displays. But, Planar’s intent at InfoComm, working with IdentityMine, was to show that even the largest screens can be made accessible to interactivity.
“In our product line-up, we typically add interactive capabilities with the addition of a touchscreen sensor,” comments Peter Lawrence, Planar project manager, as he recalled some of the challenges his team faced in producing such a large installation. “But many of the panels in this particular Planar Mosaic design couldn’t be reached, and being that close to the wall ruined some of the sculptural effect for which we were striving. We had to do something different.”
Connecting Big To Small
The solution, devised by IdentityMine, was to couple the large video wall with a 27-inch Planar Helium display as a touch-control kiosk, on which the media content of the wall was replicated. This touch screen would allow multiple users to engage with the interactive content of the large display. Its 1080p resolution would offer users a reasonably precise level of control over the virtual objects on the big screen, providing something close to a tactile experience. This touchscreen display was large enough for multiple users to gather around and watch one another manipulate the interface, without distracting from or blocking the focal point of the Mosaic wall.
There are many applications for this sort of technology. For instance, shoppers in a retail store could pick and pair favorite fashions onto a video sculpture hanging above the dressing room. Designers in a furniture showroom could create a real three-dimensional room with furnishings and accessories using the same interface.
At the Infocomm show, the Mosaic application was designed around a water-themed amusement park, referencing the trade show’s Orlando location. The user could select “Exhibits,” “Attractions,” and “Dining” verticals to access corresponding sets of visual assets. Those images, including silhouettes and video clips, could then be manipulated on the control screen with the touch of a finger. The result was that those touch points were simultaneously brought to life on the video wall. If a user moved a fish icon to the right, it was moved on the wall. If a user rearranged the order of the roller coaster movies to design their own ride, the wall would reflect those choices.
In development, the objects had been laid out using Planar’s Mosaic Project Designer software package, which uses a .png mask file of the desired design. This mask allows content developers to create and preview content exactly how it will appear on the wall. IdentityMine relied heavily on the mask as they built the application. The resulting application allows users to toggle the mask on or off, revealing the shape of the wall design on the control monitor.
How To Choose Graphical Content
Javier Roca, creative director at IdentityMine, says the objects used as the installation’s interactive component in the InfoComm demonstration were chosen based on the show’s location. “But what we did realize was that as simple as these objects were, they still needed to be within a basic, nondistracting screen environment,” he says. “We tried things like adding waves to the backgrounds but they were just too distracting. It needed to be simple to be effective.”
Evan Lang, research director at IdentityMine and the lead developer on the Planar collaboration, agrees, pointing out that the cleverness of content’s nature can detract from the usefulness of the information it’s intended to convey. “When you’re brainstorming it’s easy to get grand visions of cool stuff but in practice it can overly complicated [for the end user],” he says.
One technical point that was also kept purposely simple was the processing engine behind the screens. The Planar Mosaic array at InfoComm was made up of multiple panels across a wide span but the entire wall was fed with a single DisplayPort, daisy-chained between the displays on the wall, and powered with two external power supply units. Low-voltage power was chained between the displays on the wall, as well. This structure minimizes the end-to-end runs, while continuing to keep sources of heat, weight, noise, and failure, like power supplies and media players or PCs, off the wall and in an easy to maintain location.
Joel Day, lead UX developer for IdentityMine, says the idea of using accessible displays to let consumers control larger ones has tremendous potential for a number of types of users. The technology exists, it’s affordable and, based on the experience at InfoComm, people seem to enjoy being able to move big things with small hands. His main cautions are philosophical but fundamental. “It’s important to set expectations early in the process,” he says. “Do you want the installation to be more decorative or more utilitarian? And when you’re making an investment in all this interactive capability, it’s easy to feel that if you’re not maxing out the interactive capability you’re not using it to its maximum effect. That’s not the case.” Instead, he says, make sure users can actually achieve what it is they want to on an interactive display, whether it’s to get information or to feel like they won a competition. “Installations like this light up the game-playing part of the brain,” he says. “But you have to let them win.”