Video Messaging Systems
Sep 1, 2003 12:00 PM, Bennett Liles
The market for video messaging systems has exploded during the past decade, with this communication medium finding applications in hotels and convention centers, cable TV systems, sports stadiums, government access TV channels, universities, corporate communication, and public transportation. More than 100 companies are now involved in the narrowcasting market, and more than 30 also provide the bandwidth for content transmission. By 2006 the video messaging market is expected to be a $2 billion industry. Integrated effectively in these systems, the technologies of networking, scheduling, graphic design, and content management can act to reinforce each other to produce extremely effective narrowcasting solutions and potent targeted advertising.
The tremendous variety of situations where video messaging systems can be used often means that these systems are sold as complete units rather than as separate components. Most vendors offer the hardware and software as a package, which makes it essential to determine exactly which system will best suit your specific needs. However, there are some notable cases where a complete software-only package is available at low cost and with rather light minimum system requirements.
There are three primary components to any video messaging system. Authoring is where the multimedia displays are created, distribution involves all the elements needed to store the content and carry it to its final display locations, and display is the specific method by which the material will be shown once it reaches its intended destination. In selecting or designing a video messaging system, it is the display parameter that should be examined first. Once it has been decided exactly how the programming will be presented, the rest of the system can be assembled to achieve that aim.
STANDALONE OR DISTRIBUTED
Video messaging systems can be divided into two major types: standalone and distributed. In a standalone system, all three of the major elements (authoring, distribution, and display) exist on a single computer system. The most significant limitation of these systems is the fact that when updates are made, the process will be seen at the display output of the system. Fortunately, that isn't a problem in applications where the messaging system signal is simply inserted into a group of other signals that can be selected for system output. Such a scenario exists at a cable TV head end, where other programming can be run over the cable channel while the authoring and updates are made on the computer.
In a distributed system, separate computers are used for authoring, updating, and display. The physical distance between the computers may be anywhere from a few feet to thousands of miles, and the link can be in the form of a serial cable, a LAN, a WAN, a satellite link, an FTP, or a Web connection. Many systems also enable the user to control the authoring, distribution, and display through a Web-based link and will allow updates to be transferred from a host of data storage devices.
One of the most useful features that has come out of the video messaging boom is remote Web access for functions of updating and control. The mechanics of this feature can range from third-party remote-access software for single display systems to proprietary Internet-based access for programming and control on hundreds of displays spread over thousands of miles. The method for updating can be as simple as filling out a Web form and then transmitting it to the controlling computer. The form will then be read by a programming script, and the information will go to update the operation immediately. These updates can be stored separately, scheduled, and then implemented on manual cue, or stored as a sequence in a script so that they can be displayed at prearranged times and in a set order.
On most Webcentric systems, content can be authored and updated by many individuals while the administrators have access to all updates and the control rights to approve them for transmission. Just like the rights structure on any office computer network, useful data goes both ways. A popular feature of modern video messaging systems is their ability to generate usage and error logs and report event times. These logs can be remotely collected and sent electronically to advertisers to verify their spot run times.
The authoring options on these systems are virtually unlimited. Most offer a wide range of content creation tools including graphics manipulation with grid and layout lines, texture tools, image processing, animation with key frames, horizontal and vertical text crawl, still image and video capture, automated weather stats that display directly from weather instruments, and even spell checkers in multiple languages.
Clarity Visual Systems features a processor called the Digital Media Controller. It allows the user to author, schedule, and distribute video messaging content. Running on a Pentium processor in Windows 2000, the Digital Media Controller uses Clarity's SignSuite media management software that features ShowBuilder, a drag-and-drop authoring application allowing complete control of text, stills, video, and Web elements. ShowScheduler, another SignSuite application, gives operators command of program dates and times and can be used with ShowStation to control as many as ten Clarity digital displays. An “automatic off” feature senses the schedule's end and powers down the Clarity digital displays until the schedule is resumed.
The hardware includes a 4-channel PCI video card, 60 GB ATA/100 EIDE hard drive, floppy drive, CD-ROM, 16-bit sound card, 10/100Base-T network card, 56k v90 or faster modem, wireless keyboard and mouse, and 256 to 512 MB SDRAM. Virtually every type of still image and movie file is supported. A single video card will run as many as four displays, two video cards will control up to eight displays, and with three cards, you can manage ten. The color-coded scheduling displays are extremely user-friendly.
In addition, Clarity Visual Systems provides a full range of content-authoring services, from initial concept to final distribution. Entire marketing campaigns may be synchronized with the company's content services: custom-designed individual graphic elements, image data warehousing and archiving, content management, distribution, and reports are all possible.
Daktronics offers an array of video display and messaging products, including its ProStar VideoPlus displays, ProAd digital advertising displays, and Venus 7000 display controller. The VideoPlus display LED screens are available with a selection of pixel pitches (for various viewing distances), indoor and outdoor models, and a range of color capacities. Daktronics has deployed these products to more than 70 countries around the world. The displays are run from the Venus 7000 display controller, which can produce and control video displays, still graphics, and full-motion ads in addition to scoring, statistics, and timing for sports events. The controller is also network ready for distributed control, and the authoring function includes a sequence designer that boasts a full-featured graphics creation palette that can be used independently or in concert with third-party graphics applications. Multiple displays can be controlled, and images can be imported in more than 20 file formats.
The Quick Display feature allows each file in a presentation to be stored and shown sequentially. Scripts can be run to repeat presentations any number of times or to show them in any preset sequence. The controller can also interface with a number of timing and scoring systems as well as data delivery services. An internal diagnostics feature can spot potential display or controller problems in advance and send e-mail notification.
DRS-Digitrax offers an exclusively software-based video messaging solution with its DeBoard advertising/broadcast digital signage system. This software solution can provide as many as four independent, simultaneous displays, all running different program sequences. Transitions can be programmed with wipes, splits, fades, or page flips, and the software can display probe-interfaced temperature readings. Other features include transparent titles, antialiased text, variable speed scroll and crawl, three controllable image boxes, date and time display, and a Windows Style Script Editor.
For all this action, the software is amazingly light on system requirements. For multiple-monitor display, DeBoard needs only a basic Pentium 150 MHz processor with 32 MB RAM, a 2 MB 64-bit video card, a VGA-to-NTSC converter, and a Windows 2000 operating system. For a live video window, the requirements escalate somewhat, with DirectX DirectShow 8 or above, a DV capture input device, a Pentium III 450 MHz CPU, and 64 to 128 MB RAM. The package includes a file transfer utility for sending the data to a remote computer. The graphical interface is quite user-friendly; it consists of simple commands, short labels, and intuitive icons. Play times, speed delays of various objects, transition speeds, and frame sizes are easily adjustable using the graphical sliders. The DeBoard system from DRS-Digitrax is an extremely capable and versatile software video messaging solution.
FrameRate is a major player in the video messaging field, offering both a distributed and a fully upgradeable standalone system. The system consists of a Page Editor that allows easy positioning of graphical elements and text, creation of multiple object animation paths, sound attachment to any page, images in 16 million colors, file import from multiple sources, and an image library.
The completed pages are dragged and dropped into the Magazine Editor along with video, Web content, and event triggers to build magazine programs. Among other control parameters are page cues for date and time, page display duration, more than 100 predesigned page transitions, VCR control by clickable icon, and program preview.
The Media Scheduler can automatically control playback of magazine programs and programmable events along with running peripheral devices and performing automated real-time data retrieval using FrameRate's NetLink connectivity application. This scripting software can acquire continuous information streams from multiple external sources such as news feeds, weather data, and financial market updates with scrolling text and graphical displays. In the area of distribution control, FrameRate has the MediaTrak application for publishing and managing the content to one computer or to simultaneous displays. When media files are changed, MediaTrak detects the changes, updates all of the displays, and generates system event logs and diagnostic data. For interfacing external devices, GP-Link has control capability for VCRs, video switchers, routers, and other devices by serial, parallel, or network protocols. The company offers DialLink interactive bulletin board software; Weather Engine, a local weather display application; and WebLink, a server-based application allowing Web-based browser-oriented control across an Intranet or the Internet.
Keywest Technology offers the MediaXtreme multimedia video messaging system. The creative center of the system is the MediaCreator graphic CG program that runs on any Windows OS (from 95 on up) and features tabbed selection of all creative functions. The application is capable of importing graphics from virtually any source, including a selection of 600 preassembled backgrounds and images from Digital Juice, a provider of royalty-free material for video editors, presenters, and print designers.
System requirements are modest. A 150 MHz Pentium processor, 32 MB RAM, 160 MB minimum hard drive space for the application, a graphics card with 800-by-600 resolution and 24-bit color, and a modem or network connection for remote operation are all you need. The unit is TCP/IP, RS-232, and modem accessible; logos can be inserted; and among the optional extras are picture-in-picture, weather display, external device control, and the ability to key graphics over live video.
The InfoChannel 3 line of applications is Scala's flagship product for video messaging and digital signage. For authoring, InfoChannel Designer offers an intuitive graphical user interface with multilevel undo, spell check in nine languages, wide screen and portrait mode content creation, logging, scheduling, and publishing to the distribution network, CD, HTML, or video. Scala includes support for TrueType and ScalaType fonts MPEG I and II, AVI, and QuickTime 3 video, and a wide range of graphic, animation, and sound formats. Recently added features for creative authoring include new wipes and 3-D transitions, drawing and texture tiling tools, alpha transparency and opacity, as well as text crawls fed from files or scripts.
These advanced features will require a somewhat robust hardware component. The system requirements include a minimum Pentium III or Celeron 633 CPU, 256 MB RAM, at least 1 GB of free hard-disk space, Windows 2000 Service Pack 2, Internet Explorer 5, DirectX 8a or better, an SVGA card with 16 MB of video memory, DirectX support with WHQL certified drivers, a DirectSound supported sound card with WHQL supported drivers, and a CD-ROM drive. For distribution the system is InfoChannel Network Manager 3, which includes complete broadcasting features independent of authoring, the ability for multiple designers to work independently on the same project, communication with players through FTP or UNC, and remote player administration of files, clock, reboot, and other parameters.
On the Enterprise edition, control can be assigned just like any other computer network is administered, with varying levels of authority and access for various operators, including separate user accounts and passwords. The operation of all InfoChannel players can be checked through network status displays. The InfoChannel Player has full-screen transitions, layering of graphics, and sound or video files. Most important, it allows the user to update without interruption of on-air service. Event scheduling and logging join an impressive array of additional features, some of which require additional hardware. Rounding out the InfoChannel product suite are InfoChannel 3 Broadcast Server 3 for multicast support and InfoChannel Reporter 3 for local programming insertion.
These are but a few of the systems available for authoring, distribution, and playback of video messaging in what has become a very competitive market. Careful planning and analysis of one's specific application and a thorough survey of the vendors' offerings can ensure a successful and cost-effective video messaging solution.
Bennett Lilesis a freelance television production engineer and audiovisual technician in the Atlanta area. He specializes in government video production, distance learning, and videoconferencing.
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