Sign of the times

Published: MEA

Sign of the times

The ability to create a screen of virtually any size or shape will give designers and architects the freedom to put video displays in previously unusable spaces. Christie MicroTiles is doing just this

In the A/V market, one of the common questions for manufacturers is ‘what do we do next?’ The need to innovate and offer customers something new is what drives companies forward, so it should come as no surprise that this is exactly the conversation that Christie CTO Bob Rushby and senior product developer Mike Perkins were having while relaxing in a Tokyo hotel bar on a business trip some four years ago.

 ‘They were throwing ideas around such as ‘what if we didn’t have to worry about size and we could make things a flexible as we wanted? What if resolution wasn’t an issue and we could have as much resolution as we wanted? And ‘what if we could have any shape we wanted?’,’ says Joe Graziano, EMEA market development manager for MicroTiles. From this conversation the concept of Christie MicroTiles was born.

 MicroTiles are modular digital display tiles that can be stacked and clustered like building blocks to create display walls of any shape or scale. The impetus for the product came from a gap Christie could see in the market. The consumer market had driven a desire for flat-panel technology in the business environment, but traditional video walls are relatively deep. Companies were looking at alternative methods of having a large array but without the loss of real estate. ‘If you go down the projection route, you still need the real estate if it’s rear projected. If you front project, you have to factor in ambient light and sight lines. As good as it is, in some environments projection isn’t always the right option,’ explains Mr Graziano.

Understandably, the initial development to take MicroTiles from an idea into a product was very secretive. ‘It was very much a project that was working behind the scenes,’ says Mr Graziano. ‘It was a very closely guarded project right from the word go and there were only a few key stake-holders that knew anything about it.’ 

Talking tech

The technology behind them is actually a combination of tried-and-tested techniques. ‘We have taken a DLP engine, and rather than using a lamping technology, we’ve coupled it with LED,’ explains Mr Graziano. ‘We’ve gone for longevity and resilience as far as the light source is concerned, and the best kind of projection engine.’ The company claims this combination offers up to 65,000 hours for the LEDs to half brightness, which equates to over seven years of constant use.

 Alongside the DLP engine and LEDs, each tile uses an acrylic screen with a Fresnel lens and diffuser to ensure that each area of the screen has an even spread of light rather than a hotspot. The processing part is handled by the external control unit (ECU). This is the signal distribution element of the MicroTile. Each MicroTile is fitted with multiple IR receivers and signals. The ones configured to the points of a compass in the vertical plane of the display enable each MicroTile to send a signal and receive a signal from the tiles above, below and to the left and right of it. In turn adjacent MicroTiles capture the same data, and when sending the data indicate not only their own placement, but how many more MicroTiles have also confirmed their place in the line. Using this data, each unit not only knows how many MicroTiles are connected and the total size of the displayable canvas, but its own position within that canvas.

 In addition to this data about the size of the display configuration and the location of each MicroTile display, additional data relating to brightness, colour and temperature can also be captured and in turn instructions sent to balance these levels across the entire display configuration.

‘When you build a MicroTile array, each of the individual tiles will send a message to the ECU to say where it is situated in the array and the colour co-ordinates that it can manage,’ says Mr Graziano. ‘The ECU takes this information then sends a message back to all the MicroTiles to set the level they can all operate at collectively.’ By doing this, the ECU manages the brightness and colour spread throughout the entire array continuously.

Image quality, clarity and colour have been some of the key features for MicroTiles. ‘For colour, we are achieving 150 per cent of the original 1953 NTSC colour space, which is greater than any other technology on the market. In terms of its colour spectrum, it goes way beyond anything else.’

A lack of pixilation even at short distances has helped with the image clarity. To achieve this, each ECU is capable of taking a signal of 1920x1200 pixels – the maximum that can be achieved at 165MHz. ‘The resolution that we are using is 800x600. We overscan and geometrically adjust the image, so we lose 20 per cent of the pixels, making the actual on-screen resolution 720x540. If you have a 3x2 MicroTile array, you haven’t got 720x540 anymore; you’ve got 2100x1080,’ explains Mr Graziano. ‘Because each of the tiles is talking to one another, the image the ECU is sending displayed across them all. And because the tiles are so tightly packed and each resolution is blended into the next, the overall resolution on screen is much higher.’

Ease of maintenance has been a big issue for the design of MicroTiles. The panels are accessed from the front to make any repairs a quick and simple task. The tethered screen can be removed with a suction pad, when this has been removed the power supply, electronics, fans and light engine can all be accessed. ‘The most time-consuming part of the MicroTile to replace is the light engine, and that takes 10-to-15 minutes worth of work,’ says Mr Graziano. Further to this, repairs can be made while the wall is still live. The ECU will still be sending the image to the whole structure, but the panel under maintenance will not show it.

Of course, prior to any problem being fixed, the ECU will take the data from the under-performing tile and match the rest of the display to it. This ensures that the uniformity of the image will be maintained. 

Target markets 

The product is aimed at a number of different sectors. One obvious target is the traditional pro A/V channel – ‘they know us, we know them, they understand Christie products so the comfort factor of dealing with the manufacturer is already there,’ explains Mr Graziano. A second area is the rental staging market. Here MicroTiles has generated significant interest. ‘The reasons they are taking MicroTiles to heart is because they can get very creative with what they do.’ Christie is also targeting creative designers, digital signage companies, content creators, architects and consultants. ‘Collectively it’s a very intelligent box, but it really does open up avenues for people. You can start to look at digitising areas where you wouldn’t normally think about putting some sort of digital solution in. You are only limited by your own imagination.’

Mr Graziano believes the reception the product has received since its launch has been ‘phenomenal’. ‘In terms of enquiries turning into business, that is starting to come through. I expect several hundred tiles to be going out the door over the coming months.’ The speed of the take-up from some markets has surprised Mr Graziano: ‘The rental staging market is known to be quite cautious, but they have absolutely seen the value of this straight away. They’ve seen how it can be used to give them an edge and they are using that to their advantage.’

One region that has really taken to the concept has been the Middle East. ‘We knew it would be big here as they like novel ideas, and they like to set themselves apart. We have an office in the region as well as local partners, and these guys have really taken it on board and are bringing us real life opportunities.’ This level of interest has also turned into sales with the first confirmed order in the region.

As with any new product, there are limitations to MicroTiles. As they are essentially rectangular at this stage you will not be able to get a full curve, the product will curve round, but it would be a faceted curve. ‘In terms of the shapes, that’s one of the few limitations it’s got,’ says Mr Graziano.

As the product has only recently launched, Christie is understandably focusing on developing and realising the current opportunities rather than making enhancements to the system. To this end, future development of the product should be centred on its experiences and feedback from the market.

Christie has successfully found a hole in the market for a new type of A/V product that could revolutionise the way space is used for digital signage. While it is still early days, the reception MicroTiles has received so far would suggest that there is a strong desire for this kind of product, and a MicroTile display could soon become a very familiar sight.

Published in PAME May-June 2010