Wireless Screen Sharing
What is Wireless Screen Sharing and How Does it Work?
What is wireless screen sharing?
By definition, the term wireless screen sharing describes the act of showing the contents of a PC, Tablet or Smartphone screen on another video display, without a physical connection between the two. While screen sharing has a somewhat longer history, wireless screen sharing has developed a more contemporary meaning in recent years, as wireless presentation systems have grown in popularity. And, while there may be some confusion surrounding the term’s application, it is entirely appropriate to call a wireless screen sharing device a form of wireless presentation system.
Launched initially as a means of technical support for
computer users, screen sharing was used to allow a
technician to view and in some cases control, a user’s
computer remotely. This function allowed a technician to see exactly what’s on the user’s screen, and work through any issues. Later, the screen sharing function was ported to unified communications systems, or videoconferencing applications. Skype, Zoom and Slack, for example, all contain some form of screen sharing, although in their case, it’s built into video conferencing applications, not a screen sharing device that can be installed in say, a conference room.
"Without wireless screen sharing, you're going to need a lot of display adapters!"
Wireless screen sharing as a collaboration tool.
Wireless screen sharing came about when manufacturers created products that would allow screen sharing between local devices and a display screen. The fact that there is no cable required between the devices and the screen adds the “wireless” element to wireless screen sharing. Introduction of the Apple TV introduced consumers to the idea of video streaming over the Internet, primarily allowing users to stream movies. But Apple also included screen mirroring in its Airplay protocol, which allowed for wireless screen sharing from Mac OS and iOS devices. Likewise, another well-known media streaming brand, Roku, offered their version of screen mirroring, built on the Miracast streaming video protocol.
Since these early efforts, several other brands and protocols have launched their own versions of wireless streaming and screen sharing device. Google Chromecast, Amazon’s Fire TV, and others have come to market with their own concept of a streaming media player. Designed foremost for the purpose of streaming video from their own subscription services to consumers, each have added a form of wireless screen sharing, albeit with limited to no interoperability. Even the Intel wireless display protocol, Wi-Fi Direct, and Miracast, a protocol adopted by the Wi-Fi Alliance, which were to bring an end to “walled gardens” failed to create the standardized Wi-Fi display so many envisioned.
The challenges of using consumer technology in professional environments.
As manufacturers have sought to address the need for wireless screen sharing in schools, offices and meeting spaces, they have encountered several requirements that all of the consumer solutions seemed to miss. First, while consumer systems allowed you to share your screen, there was no moderation mechanism built in. As early adopters of Apple TV and iPads into the classroom soon discovered, allowing anyone to stream video to the screen without restriction was a disaster. The same outcome has confronted schools that use Chromebooks and saw Chromecast as an inexpensive HDMI dongle that could be used as a wireless display adapter.
A second issue that surfaced stemmed from an expectation that consumer display adapters would stream full HD 1080p video flawlessly. What they didn’t appreciate was that content streamed from the Internet—which is what those devices were designed for—had the benefit of buffering. By buffering the video content, they were able to dramatically improve video quality, and the stability of video playback. That’s fine when the content viewer doesn’t see the video at its source, but a problem for a live presentation. Imagine pressing “next” to change slides, then waiting 5 seconds for it to change. Real time applications require low latency, so what happens on the big screen is in sync with what happens on the presenter’s device.
Professional solutions started to surface from manufacturers that were already serving AV markets with video projectors, signal distribution components and other AV/IT products. These manufacturers understood the professional and commercial environment, and also how to best address the needs of specific vertical markets, even though they represented a small fraction the size of the consumer market. In doing so, they have taken three different technical paths. The degree to which they have addressed the needs of these pro users has been driven as much by their engineering choices and technological platforms as it has by a clear understanding of the verticals that are aiming at.
Hardware-based wireless screen sharing systems.
One of the first attempts at a wireless screen sharing system required a “transmitter” device to connect physically to the PC, and a corresponding “receiver” device to connect to the TV display. The transmitter would gather the video signal, then send it to the receiver, over its own radio signal. It may seem counter-intuitive to have to connect a hardware transmitter to the PC in order to enable wireless screen sharing, but at the time, it seemed to be the most expeditious path to a solution. The transmitter itself could connect either to the Video output jack on the PC, or in one version of the product, plug into a USB outlet. In the latter case, the transmitter appeared to the host PC as an external video card, then that signal was converted to video and sent to the receiver.
The fact that these Hardware wireless screen sharing systems switched from video to USB at the transmitter says a lot about their eventual downfall. As PCs moved from the VGA connector to DisplayPort, HDMI, Mini DisplayPort, etc., it became clear that compatibility was going to be an issue. By switching to USB it was thought, that the compatibility issue would be resolved, as all PCs had USB ports. That may have been the case for a time, but with the advent of USB-C, Tablets and Smartphones, it was clear that hardware interfaces were always going to be an obstacle to widespread uptake of wireless screen sharing products.
Software-based wireless screen sharing systems.
Another approach taken by some companies has been to use a purely software solution for wireless screen sharing. Taking the approach that has been used for remote technical support, these wireless screen sharing solutions require no hardware at the client end, just a piece of software running on their device. By eliminating the need for hardware, these screen sharing systems immediately expanded the range of compatibility from just PCs to all kinds of computing devices, including Tablets and Smartphones. Any device that had Wi-Fi capability was now able to screen share over the existing network, without added hardware.
On the receiving end of such a wireless screen sharing system, there needs to be another device, running compatible software, to receive and decode the signal, then feed it to a TV display. The most common solution is to install the software on an available PC, then use it as the “receiver” for the signal. Simple solution in some ways, but it requires dedication of a computer to this single task; wireless screen sharing. An expensive solution considering that a suitable PC may cost hundreds of dollars.
Another complication has forced the Software-based wireless screen sharing solution to take a back seat to other alternatives, performance. Since there is no control over the selection and deployment of the hardware used as the receiver, it is impossible to guarantee consistent performance. Under-powered PCs can have difficulty keeping up with the demands of wireless screen sharing, while more powerful machines can cost double or triple that of dedicated hardware. That, plus the often-convoluted software subscription models offered by their vendors, have relegated the Software-based wireless presentation system to a footnote.
Despite their shortcomings, both the Hardware and Software based wireless screen sharing systems have something to offer. In the case of the hardware system, the dedicated receiver can be optimized for both performance and cost, making it easier to deploy and more reliable than the software-based approach. Likewise, the transmitter application of the software-based screen sharing system ensures compatibility with a broad range of hardware devices, eliminates the cost of a dedicated hardware transmitter, and scales readily.
Hybrid wireless screen sharing systems.
By combining the hardware receiver with a software-based transmitter, contemporary wireless screen sharing systems have done what the purely hardware or software-based systems could not do; they have become wildly popular. Of course, they’re not without some of their own complications, but their overarching benefits of low cost and consistent performance are hard to beat by any other system type. This type of wireless screen sharing system has come to be known as a Hybrid system.
Because hybrid screen sharing systems employ software on the client device to act as a virtual transmitter, users must install an application before use. While this may be acceptable to some, it may prove difficult or impossible for others, who may be using devices that are locked from installation of third-party apps. Fortunately, Mac, iOS, Windows and Android all include a native streaming utility that can be used for wireless screen sharing, and some manufacturers of hybrid screen sharing systems can work with these utilities natively.
The other issue that hybrid screen sharing systems present to adopters is related to network configuration. Specifically, since most hybrid screen sharing systems use a technology called Network Discovery to allow users to see receivers on the network, this feature must be enabled on the network. That’s not an issue for most small businesses and residential applications, but it may require professional network configuration on corporate or education facility networks. Certain manufacturers of hybrid wireless screen sharing systems provide Wizard software applications that make installation and configuration faster and easier.
Are you ready to implement a wireless screen sharing system in your organization? Well now you’re equipped with the knowledge and background needed to make an informed decision about which type of screen sharing system is best for your needs and those of your users.
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