The Sextant Group has been specifying direct-view LED systems for nearly a decade. These large displays have been particularly useful in sports venues, providing huge canvases for graphics, scoring information and video that is visible from most of the seats in any given venue. Generally high cost items, they were available with pixel pitches in the 15-16mm range – limited by the technology available at the time. Advances in the manufacturing process and technology enable making increasingly smaller LED elements, allowing manufacturers the ability to build panels with a pixel pitch as small as .7mm for indoor displays. This is being driven by:

  • Newer technology and manufacturing process that is progressively more efficient
  • Many more manufacturers in the industry, including a large number based in China and Korea
  • Owners can consider the smaller pixel pitch not only for “wow” spaces but also for large sports venues

As a result, a race soon developed: who can have a scoreboard with the highest pixel count? So, wouldn’t a smaller pixel pitch be better all the time?

Having a smaller pixel pitch does help the image, but there is still a cost. Not only in the cost of the display, but also in the increased electrical and heat loads that are required.

Is this race causing a misallocation of dollars? How do owners evaluate the point of diminishing returns? Where does the consultant’s responsibility lie to be good stewards and advisors? Even as the costs continue to come down dramatically, the recent drive for ultra-high resolution may not always be in the client’s best interest.

While higher pixel density delivers improved visual quality, it is not the ideal option for every situation. Additional pixel density is intended for a closer viewing distance. If you have multiple scoreboards with different pixel pitches side by side, some people will be able to discern the difference among them; however, that is not the practical experience. Just entering a stadium with a high-rez LED board across the field, most people’s memory is not precise enough to discern how much better one looks vs another, and the investment will not be fully appreciated if the screen is not seen from a sufficiently close enough distance.

Think of premium wire from esoteric cable manufacturers. Suggested retail price for certain speaker cables can be  $28,500 for a 2-meter pair, and $22,000 for each consecutive meter. Is it worth it, especially if you’re using an MP3 player as your audio source? There’s always someone willing to charge you more for increased quality, even if it’s imperceptible. When addressing the issue, it’s important to consider

  • How close the spectators are to the videoboards
  • What is the content (Video? Aspect ratios? Graphics? Plain text?)
  • What size will the character be on the videoboard
  • While new designs are lighter and more energy efficient, there are still weight and power considerations
  • Increased cost of processing power necessary to drive these elaborate displays (not an insignificant concern)
  • Increased effort to create content at higher resolutions

Guidance for picking the correct pixel pitch viewing distance varies from manufacturer to manufacturer, ranging from PixelFLEX’s claim that it is roughly 3 feet per 1mm, to as high as Daktronics and Mitsubishi’s 10 feet per 1mm rule. For sports venues, The Sextant Group has traditionally used Daktronics rule of thumb.

The content that is being displayed is also critical in determining the overall size of the board. If the owner or venue hosts many individual events or text-heavy information (i.e., a track or swim meet with multiple lanes), it’s important to determine the size of the character needed for the farthest viewer. Daktronics uses 50 feet for every one inch of character height as a general point of reference. A 10” character is good up to 500 feet, but if the event warrants 12 lines of information, the board will require 12-13 feet in height just for the scoring information, including spacing between the lines. If you add a 9’ high video component on top of that, the videoboard is now over 20’ high. Selecting a smaller pixel pitch at this size is exponentially more expensive and may not be the best bang for the buck.

Recommendations:
• While rules of thumb are a valuable tool, often there is no absolute answer in determining viewing distance — just merely a compromise. The final size and resolution is ultimately whatever the owner of the display finds comfortable and is within their budget.
• The value of bragging rights for larger/higher resolution videoboards is important, but owners need to also appreciate the pace of improvements in LED technology will result in any new purchase being surpassed very quickly.
• Critical to the success of the project is to manage expectations and start the conversation with the owner as early as possible.