Small Displays Compete for Big Screens’ Thunder

These days, it seems as if big screens get all the ink. From the monsters unveiled at major trade shows to the even larger plasma, LCD, and RPTV models on display at consumer electronics stores, larger-than-ever video displays seem to be all the rage. But sometimes a job calls for a small display, often one that is even smaller than most desktop monitors. Small displays are an often-overlooked product category that offers both challenges and opportunities for creativity.
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Small Displays Compete for Big Screens’ Thunder

Feb 9, 2006 8:00 AM

These days, it seems as if big screens get all the ink. From the monsters unveiled at major trade shows to the even larger plasma, LCD, and RPTV models on display at consumer electronics stores, larger-than-ever video displays seem to be all the rage.

But sometimes a job calls for a small display, often one that is even smaller than most desktop monitors. Small displays are an often-overlooked product category that offers both challenges and opportunities for creativity.

VideoSonic Systems in New York, for instance, opted for an array of small LCD panels, ranging from 3in. to 7in., diagonally, for a recent install at the Bronx Zoo. The panels were part of the “text rails” that line many of the animal cages and enclosures throughout the zoo.

Traditional uses of these text rails—aside from keeping visitors away from the animals—include text displays, graphics, and occasional artifacts. Adding the video screens, served by DVD players, means the zoo can display video of the animals in their native habitats, as well as a variety of interactive content.

VideoSonic’s Glenn Polly says the small, lightweight screens can also be easily served by video iPods, which offer long battery life. Inexpensive digital photo players are another choice: they’re light enough to be attached directly to the LCD panel. Videosonic is working on a new installation at the Cooper Hewitt Museum in New York using 5in. LCD monitors linked to a DVD player.

“Small displays are very effective when used in quantity, or standalone for delivering a one-on-one personal message to the visitor,” Polly says.

These small monitors have been repurposed—they’re the same automobile headrest displays that are used in the back seats of more and more minivans and SUVs. This kind of salvage is a common option for VideoSonic, Polly says. In the company’s own production facilities, monitors designed for headrests are serving as rack-mounted displays.

Of course, a number of vendors are serving the broadcast and high-end video markets with purpose-built small monitors, but these can carry hefty price tags. HD monitors of 6in., 8in. or 10in. can easily cost several thousand dollars. The displays specified by VideoSonic for the museum cost about $100, Polly says.

In some respects these small monitors may be caught in no-man’s land—between the apparently inexhaustible demand for tiny LCDs to be built into cell phones and PDAs, and the larger sizes desired in consumer electronics. Still, such uses as portable DVD players have fueled enough demand for 7in. and 8in. panels that their prices have been coming down strongly.

Panels that have been specifically designed for computer monitors may not be a good option for repurposing as small displays. Polly points out that privacy is often a concern for laptop computer users, which generated the creation of LCD screens designed with limited horizontal viewing angles. “Under 100 degrees horizontal will be difficult to view unless you are directly in front of the screen,” he says. “This is just the opposite of what we install the video monitors for in the first place, to make an impression.”

Because the poorest viewing angles associated with low-cost LCD monitors are from below, these displays can’t be installed much above eye level. Often, too, they come without AV inputs, but Polly says video gamers have already solved this problem with a variety of inexpensive scan converters.

Flexibility in finding sources for high-quality panels, coupled with creativity in devising new ways to use them, are helping small video displays win an ever-larger slice of the professional video market.

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