Case Study: Big Splash


The screens, LCD4000s from NEC-Mitsubishi Electronics Display of America, make waiting on line bearable. Images of everything from frolicking sea lions to skulking sharks bleed seamlessly from one screen to the next, creating a sensation similar to watching an Imax screen, only a bit smaller. What's more, by the time visitors are ready to purchase their tickets, they've already had a hearty dose of the aquarium's message of environmental conservation. "Pardon the pun, but we wanted to make a 'big splash' with these screens right as people walk in," says Paul Cain, senior electronic imaging and audio technician at the facility. "First impressions are everything, and we wanted to make a good one."

Today, with the help of digital integrator VMI, Sunnyvale, Calif., there are 11 screens identical to the ones in the lobby peppered throughout the facility. They serve both as stand-alone signage and high-definition-quality video monitors. And they're about to get some company: In the past two months, aquarium officials have signed on for 42 more, bringing the grand total to 63 screens by the end of 2005. "This is a technology they are embracing wholeheartedly," says Cindy Podgurski, vice president of outside sales at VMI, about the aquarium. "When you look at how the screens have worked for them so far, it's really no surprise at all."

Monterey Bay's quest for high-definition-quality screens began last year after a study on exhibit media indicated that visitors were most interested in exhibits with interactive video components. Administrators set aside roughly $1 million for video implementations, and Cain and his colleagues set out to find a technology. After meeting with a variety of digital integrators, the team selected VMI to do the job.

When VMI visited for the first time, Cain was convinced the aquarium needed plasma displays. Over the next few weeks, however, Podgurski moved him away from plasma and toward NEC-Mitsubishi's LCDs. For Podgurski, plasma simply didn't make sense--the 40-inch screens were upward of $10,000 a pop and frequently suffered from "burn-in," where a static image can actually burn into the screen itself. LCDs, on the other hand, cost less, live longer and still manage to provide quality images. "They wanted something that could capture fluidity, yet something that was relatively inexpensive and wouldn't need to be replaced every couple of years. The thing about water is that fish are never still," she says now, looking back.

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In the end, Cain chose LCDs and paid about $5,600 per display. VMI technicians installed the screens and helped Cain and colleagues set up a network system. The screens run off a standard VGA computer signal so that aquarium employees can feed data to them without losing any resolution, straight from their computers over standard CAT 5 cable.

This system, which tacked on an additional $800 per screen, works with the help of an encoder box at the server and decoder boxes back at each screen. VMI's system includes Omnivex's content management software, scheduling programs from BSS Sound, Peerless wall mounts, JBL speakers, Extron Electronics CAT 5 wiring and Denon's dual minidisc audio system. When an aquarium engineer decides which digital video file he wants to play, the engineer simply queues the file to the server, which encodes it and sends it over the CAT 5, where the decoder receives it, decodes it, and passes it along to the screen. "What's amazing to me is how high the resolution is on these systems," Cain marvels. "You really can plug a computer right into these screens--something you can't think of doing with plasma."

With this kind of realtime computer-driven functionality, the LCD4000 screens aren't only good for aquariums. Todd Fender, product line manager for specialty marketing at NEC-Mitsubishi, Itasca, Ill., says the products also have become popular at airports, which have implemented the screens as schedule boards that can be changed on the fly, as soon as planes arrive and depart. Minetta International Airport in San Jose, Calif., for example, recently purchased 500 screens, Fender says. Other airports in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York also have signed on.

NEC-Mitsubishi draws a significant audience from home users as well. When the vendor first introduced the LCD3000 line in 2002, there was considerable interest from high-end computer gamers looking to enhance their overall experience. Today, that interest has grown. "Frequently, these guys are looking for the largest-size video screen they can have," Fender says. "We don't necessarily market to this demographic for these reasons, but these guys have independently determined that our product is the best in the market for helping them do what it is they want to do."

Podgurski is also finding LCDs hold traction in a number of other applications. First, she says, for those customers who want elaborate home theaters, the screens are cheaper than overhead projector screens, frequently a top seller among homeowners interested in retaining a digital integrator for some sort of pet project. Secondly, she adds, the LCD screens are more practical than plasmas, which need more general maintenance down the road.

Back in Monterey, aquarium officials aren't wasting any more time talking about their new screens--there's work to be done. With the help of a team from VMI, installation on the next batch of LCD screens has already begun, with another six or seven expected to be installed by winter. VMI also is helping Cain and his colleagues install dozens of small-format and touch-screen LCDs over the next few months to accompany sedentary fish exhibits and grab the attention of children and keep them involved. "Eventually, these LCDs will be everywhere," Cain says. "Right now, though, we're in what I'd call the transitional phase."

Yet that phase will be short-lived. Cain says the facility has roughly 20 more 40-inch LCD4000 models on the way for its "Outer Bay" exhibit. While many of the screens won't be ready for implementation before the second half of next year, VMI received some of them early, and technicians are installing them now. The screens, much like those in the front vestibule, will let visitors drill even more deeply into the marine environment as time goes on.

"This whole thing is about showing kids and grownups how much more fun learning can be when you're a part of it," Cain says. "If you can't use technology to do that, what good is it for anyway?"