Commanding presence.

Command and control facilities directly influence the safety and security of the general public. InAVate examines the trends in AV technology use in this key sector.

One of the winners in the rapid growth of computer processing power and advances in display technology is the AV sector, where both of these technologies come together. We’ve all observed the encroachment of fairly standard PCs into all areas of application so that it is now possible to manipulate and present extremely sophisticated images and functionality at a very high level of quality and resolution. This has had a profound effect on the command and control industry where until recently the expense and complication involved in managing and displaying vast amounts of data in control rooms was the domain of a limited number of highly-specialised suppliers, affordable by just a few of the world’s larger organisations.

Today however, it is becoming increasingly common to find command and control systems in many, more varied applications. Although command and control system integration is still a specialist sector served, on the whole by organisations applying technology and techniques developed over many years. Jamie Farmer, Products Director at Electrosonic explains: “A complete control room solution involves the integration of a wide array of disparate sources; analogue and digital surveillance and sensor inputs, computers and dedicated controllers as well as information from networks and servers. There may be a mixture of new and legacy systems and all these have to be integrated and linked to the display system.”

A range of display devices and technologies has developed alongside the wide variety of applications. It is not unusual to encounter several types of display in a single command and control location; including solitary TFT and plasma screens and walls, CRT and rear projection cubes and projection systems. As a result many of the ‘big name’ display and video processing manufacturers, such as RGB spectrum, Planar, Mitsubishi and Barco are involved in the manufacture of command and control display equipment, alongside specialist manufacturers like Electrosonic, Jupiter, Eyevis and Lanetco.

By far the most common technology used is the display wall cube, manufactured in volume as single units, capable of being stacked horizontally and vertically to form display walls of unlimited size. Barco’s range of DLP-based cubes ranges from a diagonal size 50 inches to 80 inches, each cube containing a rear-projection screen and dual-lamp source of 1024 x 768 (SXGA) or 1400 x 1050 (SXGA+) pixels resolution. Planar offers sizes up to 84 inches at a similar resolution and also a1920 x 1080 cube in 16:9 format. Many manufacturers produce cubes up to 67 to 70 inches. David Jones, Business Manager at Mitsubishi Electric explains: “The optimum size of a display wall for an SXGA+ cube is 67 inches. Any larger and the pixels become apparent to the viewer, smaller and the resolution for normal viewing distances is higher than it needs to be. However larger and smaller sizes are often of use as each installation is unique, having its own space any viewing characteristics.”

Thickness of the cubes is an issue in space-limited control room environments where it is necessary to install close to a wall in order to accommodate as many operators and as much other equipment as necessary. CRT cubes were obviously at a disadvantage, which stimulated the initial take up of rear projection devices. Unlike plasma and LCD screens, rear projection cubes can be mounted close together to form continuous surfaces without mullions or bezels. Consequently they are ideal for large screen situations where the content is not limited by the screens used. Jamie Farmer: “Most control room set ups are built around a ‘big canvas’ with a huge pixel matrix formed from discrete panels. It is the display processor’s job to manage and manipulate images onto the canvas, resizing and scaling as necessary. So whilst the pixel density of an individual screen is not the major importance having a range of sizes available with which to fit a specific space is. Planar’s 16:9 screen is extremely useful for the European market; the wide walls, low ceilings found in many installations lend themselves to screens formed from wide screen cubes, even though the high resolution of the screen itself is not critical.”

Direct view screens are not currently used to any extent within the command and control environment. Plasma is totally unsuited due to its propensity to screen burn. LCD is an option, particularly with its lower thickness advantage over rear projection however until bezel-less screens become available this type of technology will not make significant inroads into the market. Cost of ownership is weighed slightly in favour of LCD compared with DLP cubes; the later requiring a higher capital cost but incurring lower operating costs, requiring a regular lamp change and occasional colour wheel change. The lower initial cost but limited lifetime of LCD necessitates complete replacement of all screens. Lamps in DLP cubes have a lifetime of nine to twelve months and can be replaced in two minutes, thus not really causing a disruption in operation. It is yet to be seen how long LCD lasts, but a prediction of 5-6 years might entail two complete changes of screen in the predicted lifetime of a typical control room display. One company that has had some success in the manufacture of LCD arrays is the Korean-based Elport, whose DZ-Wall has been installed in the new Metropolitan Police command centre. Caroline Edwards, Marketing Manager at Elport comments: “We have seen a significant rise in the level of interest in LCD arrays for command centres, culminating in several new installations. The cost and ease of installation provides advantages for LCD over cubes that will ensure that it becomes more common over the next two to three years once the bezels have been removed and this is something that Elport is focusing on and investing heavily in development”.

The other area where state-of-the-art technology is important is in the display wall controller. Ideally a controller should be capable of receiving and manipulating a number of simultaneous input screens and displaying them as a single image with no restrictions across the screen. This means receiving typically six to eight real time video and graphics streams, scaling up or down, mixing and/or overlaying them, then outputting a single image to tiled display devices, each representing a single block of the screen. The inputs themselves may be many and varied, ranging from single discrete analogue levels, through all PC data formats to low and high definition TV images. On top of all this it requires a simple user interface for set up and control locally or over a network link. In the industrial environment where size and cost restraints dominate this level of video manipulation and flexibility presents a significant challenge and one that borders on the techniques found in the high definition video processing broadcast world. This type of processing is not a simple task that can be achieved with a small software package on a desktop PC. Most manufacturers prefer to build dedicated, usually modular equipment to satisfy this requirement.

Barco provides complete display wall systems comprising DLP cubes and the TransForm range of modular control processors. Each channel input to the TransForm controller is individually digitised and scaled to maximise image quality and definition through the system. A wide range of input formats allows input of all common types of signal encountered in the real world, whether analogue or digital in nature, including compressed video formats such as MPEG-2, MPEG-4 and VisioWave. Adding individual processing cards enables an almost unlimited number of channels to be processed through the system. Mixing, overlay, genlocking and synchronizing of images is undertaken as a separate function within dedicated processing cards across the system backplane. It is this flexibility and total capability that ensures Barco can address the whole market for control systems ranging through broadcast, defence, utilities, oil and gas, telecom and traffic management.

Similarly, Eyevis manufactures integrated control room systems with rear projection cubes and the Netpix modular controller range. They too cover a vast range of application markets and have an impressive client list throughout Europe, including many of the major car manufacturers, telecommunication companies and utilities providers. Eric Henique “The control room sector is not a standard solution market. Control room applications vary with regard to the customers’ individual requirements. An installation on an off-shore gas or oil platform will not look the same as a control room in a power plant. Some customers are especially dependent on the system and need special redundant solutions that guarantee the availability of the system. It is only in the energy sector where standard systems are still installed, these control rooms mostly need a simple solution to display their SCADA and DCS systems. For telecommunication companies, data centres and security centres the requirements are in general more sophisticated. For manufacturers and integrators this divided range of applications is a challenge. Of course it is impossible to design a customised solution for each and every application. Therefore it is important to be able to provide modular and flexible products that can be fitted to any demands.”

One of the major advantages of a control room display wall is that it enables operators to obtain a view of the complete system whilst still concentrating on their own particular section. This is invaluable in process control and utilities where an understanding of what is happening down the line gives the operator the chance to react before an issue is encountered. David Jones explains the benefits: “A display wall offers a logical approach to the communication of information which is particularly important in large systems. Although it is sometimes seen as such, the wall is not generally used as a giant monitor replacing a set of control stations, rather it provides a snapshot of a specific process in relation to the whole story. So it is important to design a user interface so that operators can easily understand the overall situation and how it relates to what they are doing at that moment. Of course it will provide a manager with the overall view of the full system and if the controller is configured correctly, a segment of the wall can be replicated on a secondary display for emergency and crisis operations when necessary. To facilitate this activity, Mitsubishi is just about to launch a 56 inch High Definition LCD screen with a 3840 x 2160 pixel display (equivalent to four HD displays). This will enable supervisory management away from the main wall and is a cost-effective way of displaying a lot of information on a smaller screen that is detailed and large enough for a few operators to use”.

With the amount of information and the way in which the operator interface is created, display wall management becomes an important issue. Jupiter Systems places a lot of emphasis on providing ease-of-use in their display wall controllers. ControlPoint, their proprietary software package provides a simple method of managing a controller, offering network access to select and manipulate image windows as well as logging and managing inputs with alarms for failed components. The company is also addressing the need for IP-based data delivery to the wall which it has identified as a major market requirement. John Stark, Jupiter’s Director of Marketing explains the driving forces: “Security and all forms of surveillance are burgeoning and creating new levels of demand over and above the normal 8 to 10 year cycle. We are experiencing a massive demand to handle real time video from cameras as well as data from other sensing devices as the worlds of control and AV converge. This has stimulated the development of systems that can distribute heavily compressed video, all forms of MPEG, H.264 etc. over TCP/IP transport mechanisms. Our Fusion 900 series of controllers is well established in the market and we will shortly be introducing the PixelNet distribution network to augment it. PixelNet provides conversion of data at the source that will utilise standard Ethernet switches and Cat5 cabling on a parallel network to deliver data to the Fusion controller. It will provide a highly economical way of data transfer over long distances that can cope with all forms of real time video, including full HD images.”

A theme followed by RGB Spectrum follows the widespread adoption of DVI in the industry. To manage the plethora of digital signals output by control PCs and other devices, a new 8 x 8 DVI router will be launched next month. This will allow input signals to be received, switched and routed around the control room into multiple screens and controllers. Michael Callahan, Product Marketing Director: “Sixty percent of our market is military, forty is industrial/commercial, in both fields DVI is the emerging connection between devices throughout the control room. The Linx DVI Switcher provides a complete routing facility and includes unique bit and pixel reclocking to eliminate jitter and signal distortion, built-in cable equalization to extend cable lengths without extra amplifiers and pass through EDID control.”

With a reasonably short lifecycle between refits, transition to digital formats and an above average demand for command and control rooms in security and surveillance, the opportunity for manufacturers and integrators providing AV services in the command and control sector is expanding rapidly. The level and adaptability of AV technology is adding to the effectiveness of communication within control rooms that will undoubtedly result in greater safety and savings across the industry.

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