More Than a Monitor

Smart displays remotely access applications and data on desk-bound PCs.

by / April 4, 2003
Depending on what type of hype you've been subjected to, smart display devices could either "do for monitors what cordless phones did for telephones" or represent the next "evolution of the monitor." Only time will tell if they catch on as viable tools.

It's easy to imagine circumstances in which using a smart display makes sense. The concept behind the device is straightforward: The monitor, using an 802.11b wireless LAN connection to a PC, displays the PC's applications and data or documents in those applications. Using touchscreen technology, workers can use a smart display to remotely operate their PCs and access data as they roam throughout their offices.

Going Vertical
ViewSonic released two smart displays in January: the Airpanel V110 (a 10-inch, 2.5 pound offering that sells for around $1,000) and the Airpanel V150 (a 15-inch offering that weighs less than 6 pounds and sells for around $1,300).

The company focused first on home users but plans to expand its marketing strategy, said David Feldman, senior product manager for ViewSonic's advanced technology group.

"We'll make a push into the distribution channel, which targets small- and medium-sized business, large businesses, enterprise customers, and of course, government and education customers," Feldman said.

How governments use smart displays depends on the infrastructure they have in place and the business of individual agencies, he said, noting smart displays differ enough from handheld PCs or similar mobile devices to merit attention from government buyers.

"First, the screen size is bigger," he said. "In terms of its difference from a Palm or a Pocket PC, the major benefit of an Airpanel smart display is that you're accessing up-to-date information -- information that is real time -- directly onto the display. It's always having your information with you, always having access to that information and always having the ability to pull up any or all of the applications on your PC from anywhere in the building."

The Details
Both ViewSonic displays run on lithium-based batteries -- the V110 uses a lithium-polymer battery and the V150 runs on a lithium-ion battery -- and Feldman said both run between three and three and a half hours on a fully charged battery.

Both displays are equipped with DC-in ports and an adaptor so users can charge the batteries or simply plug the monitor into the wall for juice. Though Feldman said the battery life doesn't limit the displays' usefulness, early reviews didn't support Feldman's claim.

One reviewer from the Washington Post called the battery life "atrocious," claiming that with the screen at roughly 80 percent brightness, the display's battery expired in less than three hours. Dimming the screen to 50 percent brightness added only a little more than an hour to that life span. Even with the device shut off, the battery lost about a quarter of its strength per day, the reviewer said.

The devices use touchscreen displays for data entry -- users can use an on-screen keyboard or a stylus to input data -- and both devices run on 400 MHz XScale embedded processors from Intel. Both devices run on Windows CE operating system.

These smart displays require that the PC married to the display have Windows XP. The smart displays come packaged with an upgrade version of XP.

Both displays have integrated 802.11b networking capabilities, Feldman said. Wireless connectivity is integrated into the device so users won't have to worry about additional PC card peripherals to run applications wirelessly. USB ports also are provided so users can plug a keyboard or mouse into the devices while using the displays.

Finally, ViewSonic sells optional docking stations for the smart displays, and the stations include multiple USB ports. The docking station for the V150 allows the display to function as a PC's primary monitor when plugged into the PC.

Battening the Hatches
Security is always important, especially when discussing wireless connectivity.

"If somebody walks into a room, sees a smart display sitting there and picks it up and walks out with it, they have nothing," Feldman said. "All of the information resides on a PC. It does not reside on the smart display. To access the PCs information, we have password capabilities set into the devices, such as passwords to get onto networks."

If someone was to lose an Airpanel in a building while linked to their desktop PC, or if one of the devices was stolen, the thief would only have access to the PC's data as long as they were in range of the 802.11b access point.

"If someone is going to steal your Airpanel, they're probably going to walk out of the building," he said. "Once they do that, they're not connected to the wireless infrastructure anymore. Once the connection is lost, the display reverts to its boot-up screen, which asks you for your user name and password to get back into the network."

In addition, a user can shut off the connection between the device and the PC, leaving the device in a waiting state, and reactivating the device requires a user name and password.
Shane Peterson Associate Editor