Last week a Calgary, Alberta company called Userful, unfamiliar to me, put out a press release about launching a world’s first 4K video wall product.
Well, I thought, I’m, not sure how doing 4K is all that new in terms of resolution or running it off a network. There are some pretty good companies out there, like Hiperwall, doing software for video walls.
But rather than dismiss it, I asked some questions, and got some thorough answers back from Userful, the company behind the product.
First, here’s the release:
Userful Corporation, an industry leader in centralized, interactive display software, has launched the world’s first network video wall capable of delivering 4k, real-time content to a 25-display video wall over a standard Ethernet network. The Userful Network Video Wall is a premium solution at an affordable price that enables businesses to easily create simply stunning video walls.
Organizations are increasingly looking to video walls to deliver higher visual impact. Unfortunately, most traditional video walls are expensive and complicated, often requiring specialized video cards, or signal-splitting devices, and high-end servers.
To lower costs and simplify setup, Userful has taken a different approach to deploying video walls. Using small, industry standard network zero client devices at each display, the Userful Network Video wall runs up to 25 video wall displays from a single Core i7 PC. Displays can be placed anywhere on the network and can be arranged in any configuration and rotation, providing complete flexibility.
The Userful Network Video Wall can be configured in a single video wall or multiple, smaller video walls. The solution supports 4k video, 6k HTML5, 3D, Flash content, and even up to 32K resolution for images. The drag and drop browser configuration makes it easy for anyone to set up and manage the video wall. The display configuration options extend from standard grid formats to eye-catching artistic designs.
Userful’s video wall solution delivers extreme simplicity and scalability at an unprecedented value. It eliminates traditional costs through utilizing industry standard PC hardware with affordable zero client devices, and a single Intel Haswell Core i7 PC in order to create stunning video walls with simplicity.
“This solution packs in a lot of industry firsts,” says Tim Griffin, CTO of Userful. “It’s the first true network video wall that delivers real-time 4k resolutions over a standard Ethernet network, its the first to naturally support multiple video walls in multiple locations, and its the first that scales naturally without needing more servers, video-cards, or multi-layer splitters. This move away from expensive, specialized servers is going to open up the video wall industry in a big way.”
I traded emails with Daniel Griffin, the company’s VP Multiplied Computing, to get a rundown on what this is all about and what components are genuinely unique and new.
So what is genuinely unique about Userful’s video wall solution?
A few things. The first is truly delivering 4K video in real time through the network.
Here’s a a bit of background: for years, we’ve been a leader in simplified and lowericost virtual desktop solutions (another place where cost and complexity have been drags on adoption). There we run virtual desktops from a standard PC with zero client end points anywhere within the LAN. Performance is excellent inside the LAN, and we had partners asking about using our platform for digital signage. And that’s really the start of this.
Video walls are a fast growing opportunity, where complexity and cost are issues. We spent some time looking at some of the challenges, talking to folks in the industry and to partners, and knew we could help. We set out to make video walls less complicated and less costly. Using the network was an obvious move, and we knew it would help on both fronts.
Everyone knows video walls are about high impact, great visuals, solutions to command attention, so the need for a 4K video wall has been there for a while, and companies have been taking various approaches. What’s unique about what we do, is we do it through the network, in real-time.
Previous approaches to delivering video walls over the network have taken two general paths:
You can send the entire video to every screen, and have each screen just display part (but with 4K that’s obviously too hard on the network);
Or they split the canvas in advance (as with Sony’s Ziris), which is labour-intensive, expensive and of course prevents anything being real-time.
What we do differently is the splitting on the fly, allowing us to put a 4K video on the server and display it on one video wall (or even two video walls) anywhere on the network.
How does this differ from companies like Hiperwall, that already do software-driven video wall solutions, or hardware-driven like Matrox?
Several of the video wall solutions in the market are software for managing video wall content, and they work with some of the traditional approaches – using Matrox or Eyefinity video cards, etc. Hiperwall is a little closer in that it uses the network, but it does require a PC at every screen and according to their website, they do “1080p or higher.” Hiperwall’s architcture appears to be more parallel processing, and so while it uses the network, it’s very different from our approach.
One of the other things we do that’s unique, and mentioned in that press release as a first, is that one PC can deliver multiple video walls around the network. So you’re not limited to just one video wall, but could have two or even three (with max number of screens of 25).
This is ideal for retail locations, QSR’s, financial institutions etc that want more than one video wall at the same location. It also makes it easy to build in redundancy. A user would put a back-up server on the network able to eliminate the risk of downtime.
A key point of our solution is that the entire video wall is using the CPU and GPU of that one PC. This is important. We’ve had a lot of interest from customers who have a video wall but want to upgrade to 4K. After all, video walls are all about big impact. They’ve made a significant investment in the screens, their installation etc, but want to move to larger resolutions. Our architecture makes that easy now, but also in the future for resolutions beyond 4K.
Because the power of both GPU and CPU are accelerating so quickly (look at the difference in power between the GPU in Ivy Bridge and in Haswell and then what’s coming with Broadwell) this means, in the future when 8K is becoming popular. Once CPU and GPU power are there, with the Userful solution, customers will only have to invest in a new PC … not new screens or other infrastructure. Because all processing is centralized on one PC (with the possibility of a back-up on the network), it’s a solution with real longevity. On the other hand, if you’re relying on the computing power of the processors that are being built into displays today, that’s going to be a limiting factor on the life of those displays – as customers’ resolution expectations continue to grow.
Is the playback device a specialty unit, or will typical digital sign players (or even BrightSign 4K players) support this?
It’s not a specialty unit. We just use off the shelf core i7 PC’s. So any computer would do so. The BrightSign 4k player might well work, but the key thing is that we harness the GPU ,as well as the CPU. So to ensure this all works out of the box, we’ve focused on using the onboard GPU of the Intel chip, the GPU that comes along with the Haswell family of processors. So that’s what’s really required and as you know core i7 or i5’s come in all shapes and sizes and configurations. Any will work.
What is a network zero client?
In terms of what a network zero client is, it’s essentially a video card with a USB hub that’s out on the network. It’s got no processor, no memory, no moving parts which obviously keeps costs down. It connects via LAN to the PC/Server. That’s actually what allows us to deliver 4k over the network and keep screens in sync – because all processing is done on the PC, it’s essentially just pushing out pixels across the network – there’s no encoding and decoding going on.
In terms of costs, the zero clients are under $200 and then our server software has two different models and two different prices depending on number of screens and feature set. It’s certainly highly cost competitive compared with anything comparable out on the market.
Can you give me a price based on a scenario – something common like a 4 by 3 video wall, broken down by software, PC and client hardware nodes
I’m sorry I didn’t answer that question so well. Because we sell through the channel, we aren’t publishing the price online at this time. However, for a 9-screen (e.g., 3×3, 1×9, etc.) 4K network video wall, zero clients, server-hardware, Userful software and support (everything but the displays) our price is 1/4 to 1/8th the price of comparable solutions.
Does the software come with scheduling and management capabilities, including remote device management?
It does come with scheduling and management capabilities. The software includes basic play list support and then for more advanced content scheduling we can integrate with CMS’s. The first we integrated with (which comes free with the system) is Rise Vision – a cloud-based, full featured CMS. So customers get a free CMS (Rise Vision) included. In terms of remote device management, through the control center you can do many things with each zero client and each display, color calibration, health monitoring, set resolution etc.
Drafting off that, do you still need Rise or another CMS or is everything you need available?
If you want to play video only, or html5 only, no CMS needed. You can also just put a desktop on the video wall–so lots of things you can do without a CMS, but because a CMS is included we’ve got just about every option covered.
How large is Useful and is all the staff in Calgary?
We’ve got a staff of 40 and in terms of size, here’s a good anecdote: Userful is the software company behind the world’s largest virtual desktop deployment (with the Government of Brazil, in schools across the country). We’re partnered with various companies from ViewSonic to Acer.
My impression of the marketplace is that video wall software is not understood by the majority of potential users, who tend to think one player can output a signal that will fill a video wall matrix. How do you get the market understanding the need for your solution?
Good point. I think one problem has been the lack of a really flexible and simple and cost effective solution. I know that sounds self-serving for me to say, but look at all those video wall solutions out there. They’re not easy to set up, they’re super expensive … astronomical in some cases.
Obviously some of the cost is installation and displays but even if you isolate the video wall software products, they’re hugely expensive. And so people are left with two options. Struggle with a do it yourself solution where you get extra video cards, try and sort out a way to make the displays and ensure the cards and the PC all work together, and then try to get content on it. That’s a home-made, slap it together solution that no one’s going to be happy with.
Or you’ve got software products that work great but cost a fortune.
Userful’s solution is the happy medium. Cost effective, simple, ideal for SMB, for retail, for public display, for the services sector, for education all those places that are now committed to digital signage but have limited themselves to single displays because of the cost and complexity of traditional video walls.
People are turning to video walls because there are so many screens out there vying for attention that a single screen even if 55 inches doesn’t command attention in a large space anymore. People have 55 inch screens at home for watching sports. So for those that wonder if they really need the software, fair question but once you’ve invested in the displays and the time to install it you’re going to decide it’s worth getting hardware and software that will support 4K in order to be sure you’ve got a high impact end product.
Add up all those costs and suddenly having a software company that pulls it all together and stands behind and supports the product is going to be an easy decision to make–as long as they know the software comes at reasonable cost.
Userful is running a series of intro webinars tomorrow. Go here to sign up.