Being heavily involved in various businesses and organizations, a busy family life, and having an eye on retirement, a family approached us to help solve some serious time management demands. For years they had relied on an executive assistant to handle aligning their calendars and keeping bulletin sized whiteboards up to date in three separate locations in Vancouver. But as technology developed, they wondered about replacing that laborious system with a far more streamlined digital one.
Our minds immediately went to video wall, and went slightly beyond the basic requirement to include touch interactivity allowing the family to do a bit more than just look at it. We began researching available technology, and didn’t expect what we found.
There were three factors that came together to conspire against us, where a single platform that possessed all three was simply not yet on market. We needed a large enough video display surface to represent a full year of calendar information at a readable size – either a video wall, or a large single screen. We also needed a density of pixels or resolution that would allow us to place text at a small enough size without the pixels themselves affecting font legibility, or making it feel antiquated and low resolution. And finally, we needed touch interactivity so that the experience could allow a family member to navigate, delve deeper, update and control the experience endemically. This third requirement was also a way of introducing a great deal more value to the family than simply building in large screens, and hoping that the information that’s on them is enough at any given moment (calendar entries tend to vary greatly in form). A touchable video wall represented a platform of inherent value to us ad the family.
The greatest problem at the outset of the project was that research returned significant red lights. Firstly, video wall screens (that have no bezels and fit tightly together) were not available in a resolution that was remotely close to that of standard computer monitor. Video walls are mainly about display from distances, and not representing details up close, so fonts viewed at arm’s length on the screens would be coarse and tough on the eyes. Similarly, there was no such thing as a tile-ready touchscreen. However touch interaction could be incorporated in various ways. We decided to use a brand new new, Canadian-made technology that requires a bezel be custom mounted around the perimeter of the 6-screen assembly. In order to achieve a smooth, contiguous, easily cleanable surface, we looked to encase the screens in a large sheet of tempered glass.
Once the right hardware platform was uncovered, we began testing capabilities and identifying specific obstacles remaining. Given the space available in the install location, we were able to decided upon an arrangement of 6 screens in a 3×2 arrangement, and identified an impending challenge – the available width of the install space was marginally larger than the total width of the three screens. From that point, our challenge was two-fold: how to fit the graphic user interface into the screens, and how to fit the screens into the space.
Although development of the software platform had begun many months before, we now had real circumstances to inform more specific decisions about the features of the system. Our user interface (UI) design team established a minimum type size for the screen resolution we had, which allowed them to work out the right balance for the amount of information to represent on the screen. With 6 screens and 12 months in the year, we allocated two months on each screen, and also created a second view option with one month on each screen for a 6-month view option with greater event detail displayed. We had already undergone a process of determining how calendar information can be represented, and determined that this use case begged for a familiar arrangement, but with appointment density represented visually, so that the user could see a busy, day, week, or month organically in front of them. We arrived at a way to ensure that the visual impact of more appointments was clearly apparent even at the widest view, from across the room. We also incorporated a way to drill into shorter time periods. Drilling in conjures a week view with a great deal of event information to be brought up with the tap of a finger, and a day view naturally followed from there, displaying even more information about the day’s events. The software was built upon an existing Microsoft Exchange server with the calendar data, so the information is always accurate and up to date. This was inherent in the initial concept brought to us by the client, and entirely eliminates the problems of their past, manual methods.
The installation was a delicate process. We had incorporated the newest of the available interactive touch options – a bezel system from Christie Digital that illuminates the surface of the screen with infrared light and tracks the shadows that fingers cast within it. We needed to design a system that would allow for accurate positioning of the bezel relative to the screens, with adjustable depth. The depth of the system was crucial to the touch sensitivity, and setting at the sweet spot would need to be done after it had been hung.
We encased the screens behind a panel of tempered glass so that the finger has a firm and continuous surface to travel upon. In combination, these systems comprised a great deal of weight, so we enlisted the help of our glazing partner, Atlas Meridian Glass Works, to engineer the supports to handle the glazing and bezel, and had their staff install the hefty assembly.
The General Contractor on the wider project, Rusco Construction, is among the top class of builders in BC, with an unending patience for detail in their meticulous projects. With the help of our partners, our design team worked out tolerances for the interleaved millwork installation of the piece in sequences that involved several steps, rotation of large parts of the assembly within the existing millwork structure, and insertion into a carefully prepared cavity.
The surgical installation was entirely successful, involving two days, and about six staff at various stages throughout the process.
The beautifully integrated technology into an otherwise exceptional architectural space is something to behold. Standing in front of the calendar offers a very notable sense of control over information. The user interface is contrastingly simple to operate as well. Navigating the calendar is simple and effective, adding to the feeling that the user is in complete control over a large amount of information at once.
The family and their support staff immediately enjoyed having a dashboard with a great deal more information than the previous dry-erase posters offered.
With real calendar data in place, one can see the organically growing density of calendar appointments and events as they are planned, and like a wave they move into the future. It’s becomes readily apparent where there are logical slots to plan new events in – the least dense places. The feeling of being on top of an endlessly tight schedule is rewarding to all involved, and contemplating future plans is now done eyes wide open, with confidence that the information is accurate and up to date.
With this system in place, Xprt has ushers our client into a new era of computing, where few others have yet to venture: information density represented on large scale interactive surface. Almost nowhere in existence yet is there a wall that offers arm’s length data management, and distance viewing for a secondary purpose. As evidenced by the lack of hardware available to suit this purpose, it’s a likely future, but a rare present reality. With the inevitable onset of less costly, higher-resolution screens, and more cable video processing, we fully expect that groups will collaborate on interactive video wall systems not unlike the one that we created.
Huge Thanks to Our Partners
This immense project would not have been possible without the detailed coordination and contributions from the following partners:
- Tactual Systems – research partner
- Atlas Meridian Glass Works – glazing and fabrication
- Rusco Construction – site coordination, contractor
- Westmark Mechanical – custom vent grilles