Think small in big control rooms

Some clients are increasing the amount of small displays in their control rooms. Tim Kridel investigates why – and the design implications. This article was first featured in Twentyfourseven, a magazine focused on control room environments from the InAVate team.

Bigger is better, right? Not always, at least when it comes to control rooms, where some clients don’t want or simply can’t afford a video wall as big as a helicopter landing pad.
But are control rooms using more small displays than in the past? And if there are more and smaller displays at each workstation, are clients spending less on video walls? The answers depend on whom you ask and the client.
For example, some say that the up front and ongoing costs – such as replacement lamps, in the case of projection cubes – have clients rethinking the size and type of displays. 
“In the heady days of the late ’90s early 2000s, it was a bit of a kudos for having the biggest wall,” says says Jonathan Cooper, who spent 15 years at Barco before going into business development at NEC Display Solutions. “There’s a lot more thought going into to, ‘How big a wall do we really need?’ which is partly cost-driven.”
But others say they still see strong demand for large video walls.
“We actually do not experience this trend towards multiple small displays,” says Quirin Stamminger, who handles international relations and marketing for HETEC Datensysteme GmbH. “We experience exactly the other direction: reduce [the number of] little displays on workstations and have one large-screen display wall with all central information.
“So it’s less and less small displays and one large display (video wall). Usually customers have their old control positions designed with many little displays which is absolutely un-user-friendly. And this is what we re-design, with one large screen video wall for all operators and only a [few] displays on the operator desks.
The mix of small and large displays varies by vertical market. 
“Utilising ‘small’ displays in the security market has always been popular and is not considered a new trend by our group,” says Carlos Lerma, control room group design engineer at AVI-SPL, a U.S.-based integrator that also targets EMEA through partners and a Dubai office. “Instead, with the release of large-format LCD panels, we have seen a  shift away from this practice in recent years.  
“We now encounter security operations centres using larger single or tiled displays – 46 inch to 65 inch – and even video walls to allow more camera feeds to be viewed at the same time. These environments provide operators with situational awareness and include the ability to bring the video from these overview displays to the local small monitors to interact with the system.”
Depending on the installation, the addition of small displays doesn’t necessarily displace video walls, some say.
“If you ever enter a power transmission or distribution control room, you will be hard pressed to say that small displays are taking over the market,” Lerma says. “We are seeing larger and larger video walls being installed in these environments. Each operator may have between four and eight small displays at their desk in these environments, but due to ergonomic considerations, they are all only one level high.”
When a control does have a significant amount of small displays, they often are purchased through IT rather than AV channels.
“A lot of companies are using HP or Dell monitors, which are driven by the very low prices they get through their IT contracts,” says NEC’s Cooper.
Planar sees the same thing.
“We’ve had big control rooms where we’ve done both, but we have many where we do the video wall but they get the desktops from their IT supplier,” says Steve Seminario, senior director of product marketing for Planar’s control room and digital signage business.

Information overload

If bigger isn’t always better, then more isn’t always better, either. Case in point: Workstations can appear cluttered when there are a half-dozen or even dozen displays, especially if they are – and look – just thrown together.
“A lot of companies maybe haven’t invested in top-quality professional displays like NEC can offer,” Cooper says. “But they’re all looking for a neater solution. Some of the control rooms I’ve been in look a bit scruffy because they’ve just got them stacked up.” 
For many installations, such as telecom network operations centres, the root cause of display proliferation is information. For example, over the past decade, the cost of sensors – such as those installed on everything from utility meters to truck engines – has declined, and so have the cost of wired and wireless connectivity. All of that makes it increasingly affordable for enterprises to collect enormous volumes of information. 
“The thinking is, ‘Let’s show that to the operators so they’ll see what’s going on,’” says Guy Van Wijmeersch, Barco’s director of design for control room visualisation. “But it will not help him because at a certain point, it will be overload.”
This trend is now playing out in more areas, such as surveillance, where cheap cameras and cheap IP back haul mean more video feeds coming into the control room.
“We’ve done installations where thousands of cameras are coming into the control room,” Van Wijmeersch says. “But after a certain point, people can’t deal with this amount of data any more. So adding screens is not the smartest way to deal with this.”
A more efficient alternative is to identify which video feeds and other information are must-haves for operators to do their jobs and which can be made available only upon the operator’s request. For example, in a telecom network, multiple alarms on multiple pieces of equipment might go off before the problem cascades to the point that it triggers a high-level alarm, which indicates that there’s now an outage. 
Instead of having the workstation displays show every alarm, they could have only the high-level ones, with operators given the option of clicking on them if they need to drill down to the other, low-level ones. Besides reducing information overload, this design also can minimise clutter and cost because fewer displays are required.
But this design requires working closely with the client to identify the various levels of information prioritisation – a challenge or a market-differentiation opportunity, depending on the integrator’s knowledge of that particular vertical. The good news is that some industries have standards that integrators can use to identify when, where and how to display certain information. 
“There are some guidelines, especially in process control environments, where they talk about Level 1, Level 2, Level 3 types of information,” Van Wijmeersch says. “Control room designers have to take that into consideration.”
Who’s in control?

The information shown on small displays increasingly needs to be shared, whether it’s with someone in an adjacent room – such as a supervisor – or with other people in the control room. 
“There’s more of a dynamic nature between what happens on someone’s desktop and what happens on the wall,” says Planar’s Seminario. “Those two worlds used to be pretty separate.” 
This trend increases demand for content management platforms that let operators to move content between small displays and video walls. 
“Moving content from operator desktops to the large overview displays is a practice that is found in military command and control environments,” says AVI-SPL’s Lerma. “In today’s market we typically see content flowing in the opposite direction. 
“In a NOC, you would find network topology maps and other monitoring tools in the overview mode on the video wall. If an alarm is triggered, the operator will open an instance of the monitoring application and drill down at the desktop to fix/repair/acknowledge the alarm.”  
Regardless of the vertical, there are two common requirements: First, the content management platform has to be intuitive to the point that moving content is as easy as moving windows around on a regular PC desktop.
“We’re certainly seeing the likes of the video wall controller companies in terms of linking up with the big screens,” says NEC’s Cooper. “What they want to do is reduce the number of mouse clicks to get one bit of content over there or into another room. They really want the simplest, cleanest user interface they can find to move the content, and resize it without any worries about bezels and all of the rest of it.”
A second common requirement is that there should be some form of user rights management.
“You can’t have 10 operators in a room and just willy-nilly throw stuff up on the wall when you’re monitoring some critical process,” says Planar’s Seminario. “So in the control systems, they’re now having to design more intelligence that says, ‘This operator has access to this section of the wall under these conditions.’ It’s more distributed control, which requires a greater level of user rights management.”
Finding the Right Resolution

That in turn requires an understanding up front about how the room’s occupants will interact so the design can facilitate those exchanges, as well as the number and size of the small displays.
“You see sometimes a kind of evolution where they’re just adding PCs, which is not always necessary because technology now allows to have specific applications that are shared on the overview display,” says Barco’s Van Wijmeersch. “The front-end design and staffing analysis is very important as to how define the amount of screens.”
NEC’s Cooper adds: “You probably won’t get above a 30 inch for a single display. What you will see is these structures where you might have say, six screens with one table mount.” 
Another consideration is resolution: Should it be highest on the large displays? Just the small ones? Or both? Again, the answer is, it depends. For example, one factor is the distance between the operators and the large displays.
“The total amount of pixels, together with how far people are sitting from that video wall, is defining the legibility of the content,” Van Wijmeersch says.
Another factor is the content itself.
“As a rule of thumb, motion video applications (i.e., IP video) are best viewed on displays with lower resolution, while computer video applications (i.e., CAD) are better viewed in higher resolution monitors,” says AVI-SPL’s Lerma.  
More often than not, the client looks to the integrator for help choosing the resolution, as well the placement of displays.
“Things customers usually have no clue about [are] different resolutions for video wall displays and workstation displays depending on positions and distances between wall and operator desks, supported viewing angles of different displays [and] color and contrast differences,” says HETEC’s Stamminger. 
The upside to all of these variables? In the eyes of prospective clients, they highlight the value of working with an integrator.
“It is impossible to plan a control room without professionals,” Stamminger says.

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