Published in November 2003

Demand for Display Wall Controllers Increases
Part 1
By John Stark

This IT/AV application offers a growing opportunity for systems
integrators, ranging from traffic management to defense and
emergency response to telecommunications.

     From traffic management to defense, emergency response to telecommunications, display wall technology plays an increasingly critical role, enabling operators in command-and-control centers around the world to see and respond to routine operational problems, sudden emergencies or breaches of security. This critical technology enables AV systems to be integrated seamlessly into a customer’s control room and larger computer and communications environment, to incorporate and display inputs from a broad range of data sources, and to access and utilize this information in a consistent and intuitive way. Most important, the correct display wall controller can address each customer’s unique requirements, which can vary dramatically, even within the same industry.

CECAT (Centre de Coordinació d’Emergències de Catalunya) stands at the heart of emergency response coordination for the Barcelona area. It monitors and responds to city needs during times of crisis. CECAT selected telecommunications infrastructure and services provider Tradia to improve efficiency and reduce response times. Tradia conceived the control room, selected the display wall controller, and handled the system upgrade and installation.

     Display wall controllers create new challenges—and substantial opportunities—for the systems integrator. In this two-part article, we describe the critical role of the display wall controller in today’s control-room environment, and the factors driving the dramatic growth in demand for this technology across market segments and around the world. We’ll discuss some of the key issues an integrator must consider in implementing the most effective AV/IT integration, and address how the selection of this key system can enable the astute integrator to differentiate his expertise, experience and value proposition. Finally, we cover why it is so important that the integrator select the controller separately from the display wall, in order to provide a solution that best meets a customer’s specific needs.

Display Wall Technology Overview
     Display wall controllers enable personnel with diverse yet interconnected responsibilities to share a common view of images from a wide range of visual information sources. These sources may include remote video cameras, televisions, workstations and PCs, or the end user’s own applications. Used in conjunction with projectors, projection cubes and other such devices, the controller then displays images on a console or a large multiscreen display: a video display wall.
NASA’s Command and Control Center in Huntsville AL, completed by Evans Consoles, Calgary, Canada. Display wall systems are built expressly for control rooms, typically self-contained rooms where domain-specific experts perform the critical tasks of monitoring overall operations and maintaining the performance of a physical or logical system under their supervision. Display walls enable these operators to analyze, manage and respond to important information in a timely manner.

Market Requirements
     Control-room personnel require constant and effortless access to relevant information while keeping visual “noise” to a minimum. This means that the display wall, and consequently the controller, must be well integrated within the IT infrastructure and designed for 24/7 operation, fault tolerance, low mean time to repair (MTTR), high mean time between failures (MTBF) and be simple to upgrade as application requirements change over time. Display wall control applications must provide an intuitive interface, with tools that allow operators who have little or no training to display and manipulate visual information.
     Installations that use display wall controllers can vary significantly in each vertical market and even within a particular market segment, requiring all the skills an integrator can bring to bear. Understanding the customer’s problems and operations up front is critical, and setting customer expectations is essential to ensure an integrator’s success. Generally, customers expect that the display wall controller will enable information sharing and collaborative work, improve operations, and minimize the risk of miscommunication. Yet, specific industries have unique challenges that require forethought to implement adequately a satisfactory solution. For example:
Electric Utilities: The public utility sector is an example of a unique vertical market segment with entrenched concepts of work flow and capability. Electric utility distribution or generation control rooms often operate within an extremely collaborative environment.
Historically, electromechanical tile walls, representing a rather static view of an electrical network and its status, have been used as a collection point for collaborative work. Operators have attempted to isolate and determine the cause of power outages and initiate work orders to effect repairs by manually manipulating elements of these tile walls. When this has failed, they have literally applied sticky-note annotations directly to the walls to identify changes in the network that are not reflected there.
     Today, dynamic digital display walls based on supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) technology are used to monitor electrical distribution and generation. Operators expect the wall to play the same role as the old tile systems, but more effectively. Yet display walls provide important new capabilities for monitoring and controlling not only outages but also disparate information regarding power usage, local or regional weather, work-crew dispatch and tracking, equipment condition, feeder automation, and intelligent load management and restoration—all in real time.
     Because these companies manage electrical generation and/or distribution networks, information they track ranges from highly detailed data regarding a single customer’s transformers to system-wide outage analyses from customer calls. For instance, an individual operator may have to both trace a specific circuit and to monitor the overall system—simultaneously.
     Display walls enhance operator effectiveness in responding to problems as they arise. The critical role of the controller was underscored recently by the summer power outage in the American Northeast. In the midst of a vast regional blackout, only one electric-grid operator, PJM Interconnection LLC. in Philadelphia, was able to maintain service by vigilantly using its display wall controller.
Traffic Management: Traffic control is responsible for managing roadways and using information from a wide array of sources. Display wall controllers enable traffic operators running specialized applications to monitor integrated data from cameras placed at strategic intersections or critical roadways, other city services such as 911 and police, and weather reports from local television and cable broadcasts—all in a single, state-of-the-art traffic-management center.
     In the past, traffic simulations had to be run manually, and the results were displayed on a single small monitor. But over time, traffic control has become increasingly complex due in large part to widespread population growth. Also, data sources have become more numerous, and tracking and responding to traffic problems and emergencies has become more difficult. Today, bellwether traffic-management organizations across the country and around the world use display wall technology to centralize traffic services.
Military/Defense: Military applications for integrated command and control have expanded over the past decade with the increase in terrorism and the emergence of newer, more sophisticated technology. Traditional military operations used to function purely through a chain of command, with more data available higher up the chain. But data often was delivered by hand in nonelectronic form. Further, any available electronic data could be viewed only as a rudimentary presentation on a single 17-inch console.
     In contrast with older manual and single-display delivery, today’s military uses display wall technology, which supports the traditional chain-of-command model while simultaneously enabling decentralized display and use of information. As recent events in Afghanistan and Iraq demonstrate, this technology has transformed essential battlefield command capabilities, such as the ability to distinguish friend and foe or to coordinate an attack response. Display walls offer field commanders a quantum leap in communication, efficiency and effectiveness.

Growing Market Demand
     Worldwide demand for display wall controllers has increased steadily in the last several years. Three major trends drive this increase.
• Display devices are significantly cheaper, more reliable and easier to use now. A display device that cost $45,000 in 1996, for example, might sell today for $15,000—an affordable price for a small police department.
• High-speed networks now transmit vast amounts of information more easily, rapidly and economically than ever before.
• Key market segments have come to recognize the value of command-and-control technology for managing ever-increasing amounts of data. As a result, display wall technology now enables diverse customers, from the boardroom to the battlefield, to display and control more information from more sources in more meaningful ways.
     During the last few years in the US, controller vendors have experienced enormous demand for their applications, particularly in response to the events of September 11, 2001. Seizing this opportunity, systems integrators have installed sophisticated solutions for utilities such as the Tennessee Valley Authority, Con Edison and the Lower Colorado River Authority; for telecommunications companies such as AT&T, Cingular Wireless, Sprint and Southwestern Bell; for the US government, including the CIA, IRS and the Departments of Defense, State, Homeland Security, and Health and Human Services; for traffic management agencies such as those in the cities of Nashville, Salt Lake City and Chandler AZ, and in the counties of Seminole and Orlando FL; for the transit authorities of Boston, Chicago and Washington DC; for the armed services, including the US Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force and National Guard; for Central Command installations in Tampa, Kuwait and Qatar; and for numerous companies in finance, insurance, aeronautics, security, process control, education and entertainment.

International Use
     Outside the US, similarly explosive growth has occurred. In China, local integrators have implemented large-scale display wall applications to support modernization of the country’s developing infrastructure—its roads, telecommunications, and gas, electric and water utilities. Integrators have sold display wall systems to police agencies in Finland, Poland and Sweden; to the Warsaw stock exchange and the Polish legislature; to telephone utilities in Sweden, Hungary and Germany; and to traffic-management agencies in Stockholm and Barcelona. Even in seemingly remote locations such as Egypt, Peru or the Fiji Islands, integrators have implemented display wall technology as a critical element in command-and-control installations.
     From traffic management to defense, emergency response to telecommunications, display wall controllers play a critically important role in enabling operators in command-and-control centers to see and respond to operational problems as they occur. The choice and integration of display wall controllers, coupled with the appropriate projection technology, create enormous opportunities for the systems integrator and some substantial challenges.
     In the conclusion of this two-part article, we will examine some of the key technical issues an integrator must consider in implementing the most effective AV/IT integration. These include the integration of PC-based MS Windows and Unix-based X Window applications, how to integrate information from legacy systems, how to consider specific customer requirements for computation, visual display or user interaction performance. We’ll also discuss different types of display wall controllers, the strengths and limitations of each, why it is so important to chose the controller for the specific application and,l finally, the critical role the systems integrator plays.

Conclusion (January 2004)

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