The Chalkboard Evolution


Channel players help higher-ed customers erase the past with a slew of new display options


More than ever, educationtion in a classroom environment depends largely on the ability to show information to many people at one time. It's the same premise embodied by the trusty chalkboard--except that chalkboards are losing ground to projectors and panels that allow educators and administrators to communicate with students and university workers in new ways.

So what to choose? That's the primary question facing administrators and educators. LCD panels, plasma screens and digital light processing (DLP) projectors are evolving fast. And buyers in the higher-education market can easily suffer information overload as they juggle products, features and options to best suit their classroom requirements.

"It's not just going in and selling the product," says John Roy, a sales consultant at St. Louis-based Conference Technologies. "End users are actually wanting us to educate them."

LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
In spaces such as classrooms, conference rooms and auditoriums, projectors have two primary advantages: size and accessibility. A typical projector can easily project onto a 300-inch-diagonal surface for easy viewing by any student in a large classroom. And now, with the addition of 802.11 wireless capabilities, students can use those projectors to share their own information--particularly helpful in seminar-oriented courses.

"What we're hearing is that the projector is becoming the hub of collaborative learning," says Jeff Muto, program manager of the projector business at display vendor ViewSonic. "It's becoming a much more interactive classroom. Students are becoming more engaged. They're retaining information better."

Muto says ViewSonic's Wireless G Presentation Gateway (WPG-150) is a standard device that can be combined with projectors to let users share information wirelessly. The WPG-150 supports any projector, LCD TV or large-screen display with a VGA or DVI connector. The company's ViewPen remote control allows lecturers to guide presentations hands-free.

Many new projectors can link to a network also, which means a single university employee could monitor the lamp life, maintenance requirements and general status of 50 to 100 campus projectors, says Bob Guentner, product manager for projectors at NEC, which offers a few network-capable projectors of its own.

Roy says higher-ed buyers can install a networked, remotely monitored projector in a classroom for less than $1,000, about one-third what it cost only three years ago.

Although projectors might sound a little old-fashioned, the technology does have its advantages. Matt Childs, another sales consultant at Conference Technologies, says higher-ed business is split 50-50 between LCDs and DLPs. With the latter, less maintenance is generally required and handy features continue to emerge. For example, Panasonic has a projector that automatically changes its filter, saving big hassles for end users who have to manage a large inventory.

By contrast, an LCD can fade or yellow after three or four years, Childs says, resulting in a bit of a comeback for DLPs.

But perhaps the most important factor to consider in a display purchase is the content. If computer or CAD graphics need to be displayed, an LCD tends to be the preferred solution, while lower-cost projectors might be better for PowerPoint-type presentations.

Jason Redmond, a spokesman for display technology at Samsung, says key factors for higher-ed users to consider when weighing projectors are the ambient light of the room and the size of the audience. Poor natural lighting and a large audience can require a more powerful projector, which will cost more.

Next: Beyond The Classroom

BEYOND THE CLASSROOM
Digital signage is also emerging as a key technology in the higher-ed market. The idea involves installing an electronic display instead of a traditional static sign or marquee at important, high-traffic points on a campus. At a library, bookstore or cafeteria, for example, digital signs might inform students of upcoming events, school policies and class schedules.

Display makers say schools are often turning to digital signage as a way to help students and visitors find their way around campus--as well as for retail purposes such as promoting sales at campus shops.

"They're looking for efficient and effective ways to communicate to their students," says Terry Reavis, director of public-sector sales at ViewSonic. Todd Fender, an LCD product line manager at NEC, says that, in major public areas of campuses, digital signage can present nontraditional information such as weather graphics or other messages that are useless if static.

Increasingly, product makers are offering digital-signage devices that don't require a separate co-located PC to drive them. Typical solutions include one or more LCD displays that can be networked with other systems on campus to allow remote management of the information being displayed.

In most cases, the displays are IP-addressable. They can be connected directly to a LAN or to a media player without the need for a PC at the display point, says Gene Ornstead, director of TV and digital media at ViewSonic. Content can reside on a server and then be pushed over the network to the displays.

ViewSonic media-player "dashboard" software that can be bundled with the displays allows users to control what content goes to which display. Additionally, some manufacturers are working with touch-panel companies in an effort to embed touch functionality into displays, allowing end users to interact with digital displays to find the content they want.

A standard product offered by ViewSonic is its ND4210W, a high-definition network display that features an integrated media player, Flash-enabled Web browser, standalone Flash player, high-definition video player and 40-GB hard drive that lets users stream standard or high-definition video for digital signage applications. Meanwhile, one of the company's core IP-enabled Network Media Player devices, the NMP-530, connects to any existing display through HDMI, S-video, component or composite inputs to create an instant digital-signage display. The device also can accommodate a 4-GB compact flash card.

Dan Smith, director of sales and marketing for large-format projector and audiovisual solutions at Samsung, says higher ed stands to become an even bigger user of new display technologies as the products offer larger, more vibrant images at a lower cost. As university users become educated on options, and as prices drop, more will adopt LCDs for myriad applications. Smith says functionality is only going to increase as companies such as Samsung, a maker of PCs, continues to put computing power inside LCD enclosures to create one integrated display-and-computing device.

Although the entry point to digital signage can be high (often hitting $3,000 or more per display installation), NEC's Fender says universities can get creative. For instance, schools could sell advertising space to third parties eager to reach the 18-to-24-year-old demographic, for example.

And while LCDs can range in size from 32 inches to 57 inches, those dimensions don't limit the size of the sign. Fender says higher-ed users can work with solution providers to "tile" displays, creating a video wall for a digital sign or an in-classroom instructional display. A panel wall could show different information in each square--say, feeds from TV news networks--or serve as a single mega-display.

Steven Garcia, vice president of reseller OmniPro, acknowledges that displays are breaking free of the classroom. "Digital signage is certainly a space where we're going to get more active," he says, as the traditional hurdles of networking, IP issues, deployment challenges and changing content become less of an issue.

LCD technology offers an attractive alternative to plasma displays for this purpose, given image-sticking and image-burning issues that plague plasma technology. Also, glass for plasma screens can be tricky to handle. LCDs are a more rugged solution.

That said, plasma still serves a purpose in higher ed. Keith Yanke, senior product line manager for projectors at NEC, says the company recommends LCDs for static graphics and plasma for video.

Samsung's Redmond agrees that plasma is ideal for video/motion displays, but he adds that the price/quality gap between LCDs and plasma screens is closing. A new LCD panel being released by Samsung, for example, offers more brightness and contrast over previous company products and has a 178-degree viewing angle, he says. LCDs, therefore, are becoming viable options for a wider variety of uses.

Next: What To Consider

WHAT TO CONSIDER
Although price can be a short-term decision-making factor for the higher-ed market, features are ultimately what resellers need to zero in on when pitching products to universities, says Garcia, explaining that users often aren't aware of all the time-saving benefits that new display technologies can bring.

"They want stability and a product that will have a long life cycle and be easy to maintain," Garcia says, adding that display makers have been getting more aggressive with their pricing since late 2006.

"The things that come up more than anything--they can even trump price--are functionality and consistency," Childs says.

Often, users want to standardize their technology because that makes it easy to stock accessories such as lamps and filters that can fit several devices rather than just one. So the focus is on determining the ultimate best value, not just the best up-front price, Roy says.

There's one particular challenge that resellers face: regional product bias. For whatever reason, products from certain vendors get footholds in various regions. For example, Epson products tend to be popular in the Memphis area, Childs says. "That product got embedded in that [region and] they tended to stay with the product once it served them well," Roy says. But one brand might not address needs on all fronts for higher-ed users. "We can give [them] more of a clear look," Childs says.

In the end, the reseller really needs to be educated and stay in tune with the market by doing product research and attending trade shows and conferences--because the higher-ed buyers are educated about products, according to Roy. "You really have to stay on top of the technology," he says. "Some resellers take it for granted."

And with higher-ed buyers going into meetings armed with lots of information already, the solution provider can't afford to underestimate the buyer.

"The end user knows more about the product [than ever before]," Childs says. And that means they're looking for more than just a product-oriented presentation from the reseller. "They're eager for the education." n

L. Scott Tillett is a freelance writer based in Arlington, Va. He can be reached at LSTillett@att.net.