Discerning data display

Monitoring, controlling and overseeing today’s complex process systems, power plants, security operations and manufacturing processes are highly visual processes. Large amounts of information can be conveyed on screen, more effectively than almost any other communication method. Steve Montgomery reports on the latest developments.

Today’s modern command and control systems utilise banks of video screens, coupled with complex, highly integrated applications that deliver real time information and allow teams of operators to adjust and manipulate processes directly, or as in the case of security systems, direct remote personnel to trouble spots.

Full system integration is playing a larger part than ever before. What was once required was the ability to display a variety of fairly static desktop computer screens on a large wall, so the controller simply had to place and project the images. Nowadays, however, control software has to be capable of providing interactive access to connected sources, commonly over networks. At the same time it needs to communicate and deal with streaming video again over a network in preference to higher quality analogue video streams. Eric Hénique, Marketing and Sales Director of Eyevis, a manufacturer of control room equipment and systems: “The key features of a command and control system are that it must be extremely reliable to operate on a twenty four hour, seven day per week schedule; must present the highest possible quality images, integrate all functions, including display source selection, provide alarm facilities without the possibility of false alarms and link to external systems. And as network control becomes more ubiquitous in the industry, the system must cater for local and remote control over LANs and WANs, as well as being able to interface to network enabled devices.” Eyevis’s latest Eyecon Wall Management Software provides this range of features, along with the netpix Controller, which accepts all kind of different signals like RGB/DVI, analog video and IP video and display them in real-time. It is compatible with all common DCS and SCADA or other process control systems and external workstations, allowing visualisation of content and status information under control of a LAN based administration station. Alarms are handled through on screen presentation without the need for external software licences and integration and linked with predefined actions. Eric Hénique: “Operators work on long shifts, often through the night, and become fatigued as their shift goes on. We know that after as little as 30 minutes a large proportion of information can be missed. Dedicated alarms relieve the operator and strengthen the overall effectiveness of the control room.”

The ability to distribute information over networks also has a profound effect on the architecture of control facilities. In Scandinavia for example, small local control suites linked to larger centres are becoming more common. Daniel Borg, Sales and Marketing Manager for Electrosonic: “Norway is a mature market thanks to the oil industry, Sweden is burgeoning, with a lot of smaller control rooms with one or two operators. In these applications we install LCD panels with the smallest possible bevels because there is no room for the depth of rear projection cubes. Plasma is unsuitable because of the potential burn in and there is always a chance that a border of a window will remain long enough for this to happen. Another trend is for the deployment of satellite control rooms, linked to a larger central command centre. In Sweden’s traffic control system we have this situation with satellite offices 7 kilometres away from the centre. Information and video is relayed over a network to the satellite rooms and full control is achievable without adversely affecting the operation of the home control centre.” Web page applications are also crucial in this environment; in this case the relevant section of the web page is displayed on the wall without the irrelevant information carried on the rest of the page, navigation bars or other links that are not required. Daniel Borg: “We have the Viewport process that allows you to show just a small part of a web page, so where pertinent material is available on a web page, such as a news feed or a weather forecast, it can be sectioned and positioned on the screen.”

Mitsubishi Display Engineering is a key supplier in the command and control industry, having been involved in many large and prestigious installations. The company’s 3000 series display wall sub system provides full image processing and system control for their range of LCD and rear projection DLP cubes. David Jones, Business Manager at Mitsubishi Display Engineering: “The system includes two display wall processors to manage a display wall. The VC-X3000 offers up to 62 input channels and 64 output channels and is based around a PC architecture to provide full control of the wall, including set up, wall layout, input output and network interface, colour control and cube status and brightness to ensure a uniform and flexible display. The more powerful VC-MK3000 is a dedicated hardware based platform that offers massive data bandwidth and processing capability to add additional features such as overlay windows, video gen lock and the highest level of image quality.” The two units can be used together to provide an extensive range of inputs, outputs and processing and image display, including real time DVI/VGA capture and network data and video processing. David Jones: “Where the 3000 really scores is in applications that require the greatest video quality, such as traffic management and power plant control; the type of applications that require intricate grids and really detailed display of information. This can be achieved using the MK3000 as the graphic processor and video wall controller and the X3000 as the platform interface.”

As these systems have evolved over the years the attitude of end users has also changed in form. Along with the capital cost of the equipment, cost of ownership is also more of a consideration than it was a few years ago. David Griffiths, of Christie Digital Systems explains: Many audiovisual systems are becoming commoditised, with supply becoming a box shifting exercise. However in control rooms there is considerably more complexity and this is not an option. David Griffiths, Market Development Manager of Christie Digital Systems: “A control room is a solution to a requirement and it is our job to work with the client to work out what their specific needs are; to work through a needs analysis to design and implement a complete solution. The need for customer attention is high. Christie provides this service and are prepared to develop bespoke systems and, in some cases,special products to suit a specific installation. There have been instances where we have supplied non-standard sizes of display cubes to customers where the standard ones do not quite fit. Another element that is crucial is the ability to minimise the size of equipment to fit as many operators in a room as are needed. Our new sliding rail system assists with this, it allows the display wall to be moved forward for maintenance access, whilst maximising the floor space when in use.” As these systems have evolved over the years the attitude of end users has also changed. Along with the capital cost of the equipment, cost of ownership is also more of a consideration than it was a few years ago, David Griffiths: “Capital cost is important, but clients are becoming more aware of the overall cost of ownership; expected maintenance overheads, failure and replacement rates, etc over a five to ten year period. We offer full and extended warranty programmes over these periods so that they know exactly where they stand and can plan their maintenance budgets accordingly.”

Jupiter Systems, an American manufacturer of display wall technology has recently introduced PixelNet as a complementary product to their Fusion processors and ControlPoint control software. John Stark, VP of Marketing describes the product: “PixelNet is a revolutionary new way to capture, distribute, control and display digital and analogue information sources found in a control room environment. Based on a switched, proprietary network, PixelNet consists of input nodes and output nodes, which connect through a PixelSwitch which can be up to 100m away. At the heart of a PixelNet network is one or more Fusion display wall processors, all connected together via standard CAT5e/6 network cabling. PixelNet makes creating complex topologies of inputs, outputs and Fusion display walls simple, inexpensive and future proof. It captures a wide variety of source signals found within a control room, and displays them simultaneously on a display wall, on ancillary displays, or even across multiple rooms or buildings.” Many control rooms provide supplementary displays in incident rooms or dedicated control sections, which are separate to the main display wall. One of the major features of the Fusion processors is the ability to control these as part of the overall system, integrating them with the main wall whilst maintaining coherent control and supervision of the full system.

Barco has been involved in the design and manufacture of large-scale presentation systems for many years. The company’s latest product offering for control rooms is the Transform range of multi-screen video wall controllers, capable of integrating any type of video and data source on any display configuration. Ranging from compact systems for general application in a broad range of markets capable of supporting walls with up to 44 WUXGA video displays and capable of receiving analogue, digital and network streaming sources; to a high performance processor with up to 68 sources and movable windows on the display wall. The Transform processors include OmniScalar technology, which provides digital scaling of each input source, allowing it to be freely resized and repositioned on the display and providing the highest level of image quality. The Transform processors complement Barco’s full range of rear projection cubes, ranging from 50” to 80”, and now incorporating Sense6, image management technology providing unattended monitoring of each cube to maintain consistent colour uniformity across the cube and between cubes, operating over time as the lamp’s light level decreases. Sense6 operates in the background, communicating information between cubes and automatically matches brightness of full white, full black and all grey levels in between, as well as the colours of all display modules. It operates across lamp changes to maintain uniformity at all times. Mathieu Massart, Director Product Management at Barco’s Security & Monitoring Division: “Sense6 gives operators a sense of perfection with an image accuracy and uniformity that is second to none. Barco’s proprietary Sense6 technology continuously measures brightness and colour characteristics and adjusts the colour space to provide an image that is most convenient for the human eye. No distracting luminance or colour differences. No frequent maintenance or manual adjustments. No impact on the wall content whatsoever.”

Faced with the enormous capability of electronic systems and powerful integration concepts, the key issue is no longer how much information can be displayed; rather, it is the ability to present it in a meaningful way, where only important information is presented to the operators. At the same time critical and error conditions can be displayed through the sensitive handling of alarms so that immediate action can be taken to prevent dangerous situations. Clearly, the primary consideration with a command and control system is to present clear, concise and accurate information to operators, allowing them to carry out their tasks in the most efficient manner and ensuring that crucial information, whether expected or otherwise, is delivered in a way that it can not go unnoticed. Manufacturers are responding to the demands of these applications with products that deliver on all fronts, as well as adding features that provide ease and flexibility in set up and operation and help maintain consistent image quality throughout the lifetime of the system.

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