Preparing Hardware for Outdoor Creative Technology Installations
I learned some harsh lessons about the challenges of outdoor installations years ago when I was starting out. I worked on an installation with several outdoor touchscreens that were in full sunlight for most of the day. It was going to be in the winter months and up north, and it would be up for a few weeks — what could possibly go wrong?
A few things, it turns out.
In the full light of the day, the screens that were chosen started to turn black no image, just black creeping up the display. Luckily, the black would dissipate and return to normal once the sun went down but would render certain screens unusable for hours in the middle of the day. On top of that, the computers in the fabricated enclosures did not have adequate ventilation. Their CPU’s started to reach unacceptable temperatures (warmer than 212ºF/100ºC+) and would start to cause issues with the software. And finally, the touchscreens performed erratically with the changing temperatures, and the thickness of the glass for them made them less effective as well. Yikes.
Luckily, this is an industry where you have to learn from your mistakes so you can improve on things in the future — and now I’d like to share some of my learnings.
Recently, I was tasked with choosing hardware for a creative technology installation that needed to live outdoors 24/7 in various climates and environments in the U.S. for a solid month. It was a fairly simple setup consisting of a screen, camera, and a computer. Having the challenges in mind from the previous project mentioned above, I knew that this would require a bit more research to do things the “right way”. If you’re just doing an installation for a day or two outdoors, you can get away with some more temporary solutions. However, longer installations need a lot of other considerations. You have to think about how you’re protecting the installation from:
- Extreme heat or cold 🥵/🥶
- Direct Sunlight 🌞
- Humidity 💦
- Precipitation: Rain/Snow 🌧/☃️
- Dust and Debris 🌪
- And the most challenging element of all: People 👹
In this article I’ll cover some research I did for outdoor installations. In general, I recommend locating some vendors who are experienced with this kind of stuff because there are a lot of mistakes to be made. I’ll briefly cover:
- Screens and Touchscreens
Let’s talk about outdoor displays first. For outdoor-capable displays, you really have two options: LED screens or commercial grade LCD screens. Projection is really not recommended for daylight, but if you just need it for nighttime you can look into outdoor projector enclosures. Unfortunately, I didn’t look into outdoor projection much, so I’m going to focus on LCD and LED this time around.
The biggest thing you’ll find is that outdoor commercial grade displays are going to be considerably more expensive than comparably sided consumer displays. Take my advice — Do not cheap out. Choosing a 65" consumer 4K LCD that costs $750 and is designed for a temperature controlled living room is not going to work well in a variable outdoor environment. You should look for commercial displays that are designed for this purpose, but you are looking at around $3000 for a 55" outdoor display. For commercial grade LCD screens, there are a few things to consider: brightness, ability to withstand the elements, orientation (landscape or portrait, and whether the screen will be in direct sunlight.
- Brightness: You’ll probably want 2500nits or more if this is in full sun. As a comparison, most consumer indoor displays are around 500nits.
- Resolution: 1080p displays are still more common, and 4K can bring prices up a bit.
- Size: the most common size will be 55" and you’ll start to max out around 85" due to manufacturing challenges. The market for smaller screens under 49" isn’t really there, and LED starts to take over at larger sizes.
- Orientation: switching from landscape to portrait isn’t always recommended and some displays are designed to be one or the other. More on this later.
- Duty cycle: Make sure that your display is spec’d to run 24/7. Some displays specify like 16 hours a day which means you’d need to have them turn themselves off overnight. Consumer displays are not designed to run 24/7 for long periods of time.
- Enclosure: Does the display need a weatherproof enclosure, or is it an all-in-one unit? Look for IP56 ratings for assurance that it can keep out water and dust. Here is a solid explanation of what the IP number system means. Ventilation also needs to be considered and whether you need an air filter. You may also want to consider displays that have impact resistant glass.
- Direct Sunlight: Some displays will specify if they can withstand direct sunlight. If this is a requirement, make sure you’re triple checking that it is supported.
If you want the Ferrari of outdoor capable LCD displays — LG-MRI is your source. They have been in the space for a very long time and they know their stuff inside and out. Chances are that if you have seen a really nice outdoor display in a major city, LG-MRI probably made it. They also supply high performance screens to the military. LG-MRI have done extensive research on how to make a display that can last for at least 10 years with very minimal maintenance. Remember how I mentioned my installation where the screens turned black? LG-MRI calls that phenomenon Solar Clearing — the liquid crystal in the display is getting so hot and essentially altering its physical structure and disrupting its ability to display an image. They also make setups that have embedded computers that they choose specifically for their ability to last forever, and they have systems for remotely updating the whole computer from the BIOS level (or something like that, it’s been a minute). In any case — if you have a super serious outdoor display need that needs to be running for years, they should be one of the first calls. (Also note, LG-MRI is actually not LG they just partner on some things.)
Keep in mind, for any high end custom display manufacturer you may be looking at long lead times (like 3–6months+), especially if you have custom needs. Most manufacturers in this space are designing for portrait-oriented screens, so asking for landscape orientation can actually add some additional engineering costs for certain projects. It’s actually not so simple to take a screen and just turn it sideways, especially when you’re working with much larger screens. You have to consider heat flow around the electronics, and the fact that liquid crystal is, well, liquid. Screens that are turned the wrong way from their designed purpose can start to develop a beer belly — where more liquid crystal pools at the bottom, and it can make the display look very unevenly lit.
One more odd quirk of outdoor displays is the stack of transparent materials between the glass outside and the LCD inside. If you want a buzzword to sound like you know what you’re talking about when speaking with a vendor, ask them if their screens are optically bonded (although it’s not always necessary). This means the glass is specially adhered to the LCD and this limits adverse effects like internal reflection between the LCD and glass and humidity getting between the layers and ruining readability.
As mentioned earlier, there are size limitations when it comes to outdoor LCD’s. In indoor environments, this is usually sidestepped by tiling multiple thin-bezel (3.5mm+) displays together. Outdoor displays typically have much thicker (25mm/1"+) bezels, so they will have huge gaps between the displays — it’s definitely not a recommended or standard usage to tile these this way.
For other sources that are more name-brand, Samsung also makes some great looking outdoor displays and commercial displays. Their 85" OH85F is a fantastic looking all-in-one option but will set you back about $40,000 (link to B&H). LG also has a great lineup of outdoor capable high brightness displays. Similar price points apply — about $4000 for the smaller screens, but $26000+ for a 75" all-in-one unit.
Other places to look at would be JCDecaux — I haven’t reached out to them before, but they have digital signs everywhere across the country and seem to have a lot of the digital solutions figured out. In NYC they have several displays that are high resolution LED displays in the 120"+ range that live in newsstand street kiosks. Outfront Media also works in this space.
If you just need a weatherproof custom enclosure for a commercial LCD display, you can look into the offerings from Armagard, but, as usual, keep several-week-long lead times in mind. If you need an AV partner to help navigate this whole landscape of commercial displays and enclosures for LCD or LED, WorldStage is a great resource as well.
As a final note on LCD’s — touchscreens are something else to consider. IR/Infrared touchframes are common for indoor displays, but they do not work in outdoor lighting. Most outdoor touchscreens are usually some form of capacitive touch (the same as in a smartphone). One small issue with capacitive touch is that it doesn’t scale to large sizes super well and it can result in a loss of precision or responsiveness. I haven’t found a lot of sources offering capacitive touch overlays at larger than 65" but there are a couple, like Displax that offer touchfoils up to 105" .
The following is a short list of other outdoor display manufacturers I came across. I can’t say one way or the other about how these stack up though, I haven’t done in-depth research on these vendors in particular. Keep in mind that some of them may be re-using components or repackaging screens from the larger display manufacturers rather than making their own display from scratch.
LED Video walls are the other main display technology to consider for outdoor displays. Outdoor LED is currently best used for much larger seamless displays that are viewed from very far away. However, you probably don’t want to consider LED if you: a) don’t have a lot of budget or b) need it to be viewed by someone closer than 15ft. At the time of this writing, Outdoor-ready LED is typically lower resolution than stuff made for indoor environments and you’ll have a hard time finding something finer than 5mm pixel pitch for outdoor LED, but there are some that are starting to get into 3mm and smaller. In comparison to LCD, a 98" 4K display has a pixel pitch of about 0.56mm compared to the 3mm of LED.
The primary reason for this outdoor LED limitation is physics. Outdoor LED panels need to be a lot brighter (5000–6000nits) than indoor LED (1000nits) to combat the sun. This added brightness means added heat. If you have higher resolution, you are trying to pack more and more heat generating elements into a smaller surface area that ALSO has to wick away heat from direct sunlight and keep components from melting or warping. Higher resolution also sometimes means the screens are more fragile — you also need some extra affordances to keep things waterproof and able to withstand minor impacts.
You will also need a pretty hefty budget for outdoor LED installations— think in the hundreds of thousands for a purchase of a decent sized screen. As for vendors, there are a few options depending on the pixel pitch range you’re looking for — but for most creative technology companies, you are better off sourcing through an AV integrator since they are more of an end to end solution and they have more relationships with these companies that tend to be based in China, Korea and Taiwan.
Vendors — mix of indoor and outdoor, but should give you an idea of the range of products
- ROE Visual
- Opto Tech (great if you need a really custom solution — more engineering focused)
I mentioned earlier that JCDecaux has some outdoor high resolution LED video displays in some NYC kiosks and those appear to be less than 2.5mm pixel pitch. These displays are also behind a layer of glass and likely have special cooling and ventilation between them and the glass to make sure they last for a long time. That’s a solution that requires a lot of engineering thought and lead time though — I’m not aware of an off the shelf option out there, so you’ll need to research or partner with an integrator for that kind of specialized approach.
Outdoor capable computers are a a different beast. Most outdoor signage solutions need to run very simple video playback or just serve up static images. This means they do not need to be particularly beastly machines that generate a ton of heat with cutting edge graphics cards. Since you’re likely reading this as a creative technologist, you might be planning on needing a high end graphics card to render your installation. After talking with some of the digital signage experts, they really had a hard time recommending using those kinds of cards in outdoor all-weather environments. The airflow and ventilation required means you have to suck in a lot of dust and humidity — not exactly the best friend to sensitive high-performance electronics. This means you’ll have to think carefully if you plan to do some GPU-melting machine vision that needs to live outdoors and run flawlessly. I would plan a lengthy test period.
From my research — you have a couple options: industrial fanless or fanned computers, or a computer enclosure that accounts for ventilation and filtering (filters have to be replaced eventually though). I found a couple decent looking providers for fanless and more “industrial” computers. Logic Supply was very knowledgable and had a lot of good customizable options in a range from fanless and sealed computers to just more industrial options but still ventilated. They have computers that can tolerate a really wide range of temperatures as well — in the outdoor ambient temperature range of -40ºC to 70ºC, and those sometimes require specialized CPU’s and RAM that are designed to operate that way.
For one of our outdoor projects I chose a special computer from CoastiPC. They had this little guy — the Neousys 6180 that seems that it was designed to be stored in the trunk of a car for autonomous driving purposes. It is a tank of a computer enclosure, built to withstand bumps and a wide range of temperatures, and can support a GTX2080Ti graphics card. The wide-temperature CPU option isn’t quite as high end as you could get elsewhere, so keep that in mind if you need a powerful CPU. Also note that the power supplies on these computers are typically external since they generate so much heat — and they can be quite large if you’re planning for space.
I didn’t dig into these for outdoor capabilities, but have a look at Boxx — they build some quality machines for rendering and they have been used a lot in stage environments.
Armagard (mentioned above in Displays) could be an option to look at if you need an even larger enclosure for your whole computer and additional hardware. They can do active cooling and heating systems if necessary as well. You could also look into rack mounted systems and enclosures since they are designed for touring and moving around in multiple environments.
One last thing to consider for outdoor installations — internet. Many of the computers listed above have options to include 4G-LTE modems as PCI cards for the computers. I always prefer a hardline connection, but sometimes it’s not possible. Adding an LTE modem and SIM Card definitely opens up options for remote maintenance.
I’ll mostly talk about regular old full color cameras here. Specialized devices like depth cameras or thermal cameras are really in their own league and usually have some special challenges in outdoor environments anyway.
I primarily had the following requirements when researching cameras for outdoor use:
- High Quality Image: ideally 1080p or 4K resolution — 30fps or 60fps was acceptable. We needed this because we were displaying the live feed and doing some processing as well. If we were just processing the image and displaying generative graphics, we probably could have been able to use a lower quality camera. Webcam quality images weren’t really acceptable for this
- Easy to get an image into the computer: connected via USB with standard UVC (universal camera control), or HDMI/HD-SDI into a capture card. Gig-E or NDI would probably also be fine, but we wanted to avoid dealing with any network and image compression stuff.
- Easy to control: with an outdoor all-day installation, your camera needs to have great auto adjustment features, but it should also let you easily override those and set them to be manually controlled
- Able to run 24/7 unattended: not all cameras are designed for this. DSLR’s in particular have great quality images, but often overheat when used for live feeds for extended periods of time. DSLR’s are also a bit more fragile in terms of expecting them to run in hot/cold and humid environments.
- Lensing or zoom options would be a bonus in case we had to frame a shot a certain way
I considered many options in different families of cameras.
The market for high quality webcams isn’t something that a lot of manufacturers play in these days, so the options are fairly limited. The Logitech BRIO does have 4K, a USB-C connection, and a pretty good wide angle image, but it is still a webcam and had some limitations about how easily you could manually control it. It also had some fuzziness to certain details that was probably related to some kind of onboard compression. I tried some other webcams with interchangeable lenses and things, but none of them felt sharp enough or the image colors felt too muted or oversaturated.
DSLR’s weren’t really considered because of the overheating problem mentioned above. I did look into the Black Magic Pocket Cinema camera since it seemed a bit more rugged, but their customer support couldn’t really confirm that it was designed to run 24/7 in an outdoor environment.
I considered prosumer video cameras and broadcast style cameras like the Canon XF400 since they can run for long periods and obviously have great image quality, but I was concerned about how easily their image could be controlled from the computer.
There were machine vision cameras like the Point Gray/FLIR, E-con Systems, and Ximea —The live feed needed to be gorgeous, and I just couldn’t feel confident enough that their image quality would look great coming right off the camera without buying and testing a ton of them, so I didn’t end up working with them.
GoPro’s are good for certain extreme activities, but I don’t know that I’d trust them for this. We also looked at the Stereolabs’ ZED Stereo Imaging camera since we were doing some tracking, but didn’t find the image to be useful enough for us.
This brings us to security cameras. Most of them are designed for outdoor, 24/7 use which is great, but many of them aren’t required to have really high quality images since they are usually viewed on a security monitor with 15 other cameras feeds.
I eventually landed on the Panasonic UE70 — a sort of hybrid purpose camera meant for both unmanned broadcast quality cameras and high quality security cameras. The image is 4K, you can capture it with HDMI/HD-SDI, you can control the camera settings via ethernet and a simple HTTP protocol that is well documented (!!). It can also be run 24/7 and there is an optional weatherproof enclosure you can buy that has the option for active cooling or heating. Finally, it is a PTZ (point-tilt-zoom) camera, meaning you can remotely control its position and zoom (20x optical zoom btw!) — a huge bonus if you need to adjust your image from afar without physically re-mounting it. However, this camera doesn’t come cheap — about $5500 total. Unfortunately, for a situation like this, you shouldn’t try to cut corners as it could cause an issue and end up costing more than the whole project later on.
There is a version of this camera — the Panasonic HE40 — that is 1080p, almost identical in features in image quality, and closer to $3300 if you need a cost savings option.
The Panasonic performed well overall, and the ability to reposition it and override automatic settings over the network was a great feature.
Really the last part of all of this is bringing all of these elements together into a well designed enclosure that has great ventilation (but not too much for dust and humidity!), is super secure but still easy to access for maintenance, and can stand up to bright sunlight and a wide range of environments. Finding a good fabrication partner that understands all of these pieces and can help you solve various issues is really important. I also suggest doing some trial runs for several weeks prior to launching for real, just in case you need to plan for other things.
Thanks for reading — please let me know if you have other vendors or war stories I could add to this so it’s more useful for everyone.
Also check out my other writing! If you found this helpful, this article about keeping software running forever would be a great companion: How to Keep an Installation up 4evr (Mac OS)cr
Advice for Creative Technologists
Survey of Alternative Displays
Experiential Activations and AI
History of Creative Coding
Guide to Projectors for Interactive Installations
Guide to Cameras for Interactive Installations
How to do projection in full daylight