Widescreen Annotation: 3 Failures and a Success

A client recently asked me to specify an annotation system for their presentation system. "Make it easy to use, but with lots of functions. Make it high quality, with maximum flexibility, but it needs to be small. It needs to handle any possible input source: dedicated PC, user-provided laptop of any native resolution including DVI-D, VCR/DVD player, document camera, digital camera, camcorder, codec. Insert thoughtful pause here. "But not too expensive. Oh! And make it widescreen-capable."

My "Wider Perspective" column in this month's Campus Technology touches on the rapid changes happening in the digital display realm, both in terms of widescreen and in terms of the new signals campus technologists are being asked to integrate (DVI-I, DVI-D, HDMI).

This case study should serve as both a cautionary tale and as a hopeful one. Every manufacturer and manufacturer's representative we have said something like this: "Hmm -I don't know. Let us know what you find out."

Plan A was to look at the usual suspects in the annotation monitor realm. Products such as the Smart Technologies Sympodium ID250 and DT770 offer a wealth of features handy for educators, especially those concerned with recording annotation information for sharing over a network and distance learning applications. Unfortunately, a site visit at a Sympodium-equipped site yielded the same result that a call to tech support confirmed--that when my 1440x900 native resolution Dell widescreen laptop was plugged into the presentation system connected to the Sympodium, the Sympodium blanked out. All the other monitors in the room displayed the widescreen image, but the Sympodium did not.

A further note on Smart Technologies: while they may be behind the curve on wide screen, they are doing some very interesting things with room control. Higher education technologists and control system manufacturers take note: when a user can control their room's AV system by triggering events directly through the Smart Technologies' software, using a Smart Board or Sympodium interface, and can monitor AV system status over the network, then the higher education user no longer needs an expensive AMX, Crestron, or Extron system whose only function is monitoring and control.

We did not look at other software-driven products from other manufacturers for two reasons: first, many use SXGA 17-inch and 19-inch monitors that are not widescreen-capable, and second, the wide variety of possible sources, signal types and aspect ratios meant that simplicity and flexibility-the two most important goals-were not likely to be achieved.

Plan B was to look at Crestron's UPX-2 solution. At a list price of $19,600 for the top-of-the-line UPX-2+ with 18-inch dual-touch monitor, it threatened to break the budget. But, with the capability of using the annotation panel both as a control touch screen and an annotation preview, with multiple source preview windows, and the word "Universal" is right there in the title… surely this must be silver bullet?

To Crestron's credit, they admitted upfront that widescreen images do not look good on their system. Back to the drawing board…

Plan C was a desperation play. Scale and trans-scale everything to one resolution/aspect ratio, one easily handled by the UPX-2+ and its monitor, then trans-scale everything back to the native resolution and aspect ratio of the displays. My forehead bumped against my keyboard as I imagined both the price tag and the resulting quality of the system. Plan C was the shortest-lived plan.

What we needed was something with multiple signal inputs, that didn't require dedicated software to be running on each source brought into the room, something that can annotate over a variety of aspect ratios and not distort or trans-scale while doing so.

And we found it…

Granted, our solution for this client d'es not address many of the needs of the typical higher education client. For those who want PC control, or recording of annotation on a PC for future retrieval, this d'esn't have it. And, we are "cheating" a little bit on the resolution due to the current lack of touch-sensitive wide-aspect monitors in the 15-inch-17-inch range.

Plan D is to use a B'eckeler Pointmaker PVI-83 (www.pointmaker.com), in conjunction with an AMX/Crestron control system (either one will work), an Extron scaler, and a TTX 17-inch wide-aspect LCD monitor with touch screen option.

The PVI-83 will annotate over virtually anything you put into it-conventional or wide-aspect computer graphics up to 1600x1200, composite video, Y/C video, with SDTV and HDTV up to 1080i. Whatever comes in, the same signal format/resolution comes out. At a list price of around $3,600, it meets the affordability target for special projects like this one.

The annotation monitor is limited to its 1280x768 native resolution. Fortunately, the new version of a venerable Extron scaler, the DVS-304, trans-scales between RGB resolutions. While it isn't perfect in the sense that large widescreen displays (monitors and projectors) are 1365x768, the amount of screen area that is 'lost' is minimal. We also used an Extron DVI-RGB100 to convert DVI-D to VGA, so there are two available user laptop input cables coming up through the Cable-Nook-type box: VGA and DVI-D.

Registration was the next hurdle to overcome. The edges of various sources with dissimilar aspect ratios will appear in physically different locations on the monitors. How the annotation device lines up the serial/USB signal of the touch screen monitor is critically important in terms of ease-of-use. You don't want the instructor to have to calibrate the system every time they switch inputs. This is where the integrated control system (AMX or Crestron) contributes. When a source is selected through the control system, the control system automatically tells the Pointmaker which registration preset to use, based on careful setup of each fixed device during installation and configuration of the system. For laptops with goofy resolutions, a representative sample of common configurations is selectable.

So, in the end, the client gets most of what they wanted-ease of use for the end-user, flexibility of sources/signals/resolutions/aspect ratios, at a price well under that of plan "B". They did not get the recording ability or PC control that a Smart Technologies, Hitachi StarBoard, or GTCO CalComp InterWrite iPanel would have provided. The resulting output is limited through trans-scaling to 1280x768 on 1365x768 widescreen display devices, leaving a little black area on each side of the image.

When a client wants to be on the bleeding edge, in this case, annotation over a variety of conventional and wide-screen aspect ratios, they should expect some measure of imperfection. Determining where the imperfections are, how they can be fixed, and whether those that can't be fixed can be lived with (and successfully communicating all of this with the person who is funding the project) is the challenge of the designer.

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