IT trends impacting IP video: The ultimate video monitors

Thanks to megapixel and standards-based HDTV network cameras, the language used by security professionals has undergone a major change. Instead of scan lines, we talk about resolution and pixels per inch to define the image quality needed for a particular scene. And the vocabulary we use for resolution has changed from CIF, 4CIF and D1 to 720p and 1080p. Instead of volts peak-to-peak, we talk about the advanced compression, processing power and frames per second capabilities of the cameras. But what we often overlook in this image-quality conversation is an equally crucial element of surveillance: the video monitor. If the resolution of the display doesn't match the high-quality of the video being streamed, it affects how operators perceive the area under surveillance and could negatively impact their ability to respond.

Fueled by demand for better image quality, the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMTPE) developed the High Definition Television Standard, or HDTV, which the consumer market has overwhelmingly embraced. Over the past two years, the security industry has followed suit, particularly with regards to HDTV network security cameras. Today, video is typically used as a reactive tool. But as users shift emphasis to more proactive risk deterrence, display technologies under development both in the consumer electronics field and through joint development projects between the Department of Defense and academia will most likely come into play.

OLED Displays
Over the past decade, television manufactures have been trying to one-up each other to produce displays with ever larger footprints. Dimensions currently top out at 152 inches (it's a plasma TV from Panasonic), but there doesn't seem to be an end in sight as manufacturers continue to push the envelope. There is, however, another battle for supremacy -- one that is focused on image quality and defined in terms like broader range of color, faster response time, increased brightness, and broader fields of view.

Today's HDTV displays are typically manufactured with a 16:9 aspect ratio, and it is an ideal format for large flat-screen video monitors because it coincides with the new wider format streaming from more advanced HDTV-quality cameras. The higher resolution standard delivers the image clarity critical to real-time surveillance and critical for using archived video as an investigative tool or in a criminal prosecution. Furthermore, since these HD displays are now standard, off-the-shelf equipment, security professionals gain the benefit from commodity pricing.

HDTV display technology falls into three categories: Liquid Crystal Display (LCD), Light Emitting Diode (LED), and Plasma, each with its own pros and cons:

  • LCD -- Pros: Higher resolution than plasma, no danger of burn-in. Cons: Cannot achieve true black, narrow viewing angle, brightness and color shift when viewed away from screen's sweet spot.
  • LED -- Pros: Excellent black levels, low heat emission, substantial energy savings, long lifespan, slim and lightweight design. Cons: Relatively narrow viewing angle.
  • Plasma -- Pros: Wide viewing angle, excellent black levels, great for viewing moving images, lower cost. Cons: Potential image burn-in if scene remains static for hours at a time or there is fixed text in the viewing window, brightness fades over time.

But moving forward, one of the most interesting technologies gaining traction is Organic Light Emitting Diode (OLED) which, as its name implies, uses organic compounds sandwiched between two layers of transparent plastic that emit light when an electrical charge is passed through them. In addition to amazingly crisp image quality, OLED displays consume considerably less energy when rendering multi-color images, which greatly reduces their environmental impact. For the security industry, the benefit of OLED displays is similar to that of higher resolution cameras -- namely, clarity. The better the image quality rendered on the display, the more likely it will result in actionable information.

The major challenges for OLED displays primarily center on leveraging economies of scale. Although, the energy savings mean they are less expensive to operate, OLED displays currently represent a significant capital cost upfront. While some companies have already proven that they can produce OLED displays up to 50 inches, the vast majority of OLED displays are being used in mobile phones, e-book readers, and smaller handheld devices such as those used for video monitoring in the field. But until manufactures can mass produce larger form factors, OLED displays will remain prohibitively expensive for use as security operations center control room displays.

Touch Screens
The first commercial use of touch screen displays dates back to 1975. But it was the launch of the Apple iPhone almost 30 years later that really ignited the possibilities for this intuitive user interface. Though manufacturers have developed a variety of competing technologies to enable a touch screen to recognize the physical interaction between operator and application, they all hold one thing in common: They all force program developers to simplify the user interface due to the limited data entry options. This simplification reduces the learning curve for new users, necessitates smaller, more manageable applications for support, and -- most importantly -- increases the likelihood that operators will find value from the technology in their daily activities and actually use it.

As a case in point, if you look at all the features of a modern network video recorder, chances are that only a small percentage of its capabilities are actually being used because users get frustrated at having to wade through multiple layers of instructions. With touch screens, programmers are more likely to offer the same functionality by creating several smaller applications that can be run simultaneously, giving an operator an easy interface that pertains to a specific area of interest at a particular moment -- such as intrusion detection, video monitoring or building automation.

In the physical security arena, applications developed for touch screens are more portable than systems requiring a mouse and keyboard or other external input device. By design, most devices that incorporate touch screens are specifically manufactured for the mobile environment, which makes them even more useful for those security professionals typically on the move such as law enforcement, loss prevention specialists and compliance personnel.

Similar to the trend in HDTV for home entertainment, touch screen displays have witnessed explosive growth in the consumer electronics market, particularly in tablet computing and mobile phones. The only thing holding back the deployment of this technology in the security market is the rate at which software developers are adding support for video, access control and intrusion detection applications. I expect a number of manufacturers will be showcasing this technology at tradeshows within the next two years.

Flexible Displays
The most delicate part of a mobile phone or tablet PC is the display. If you drop your Apple iPhone or Motorola Droid, you risk cracking that beautiful touch screen display and rendering it less than effective or completely useless. Despite this vulnerability, the simplicity of touch screens applications continues to appeal to a variety of markets. The U.S. military, for instance, saw the potential early on and immediately began to ruggedize their tablet PCs. In 2004 they took it a step further and jointly opened the Flexible Display Center (FDC) with Arizona State University to address the fragility issue. What came out of that collaboration is a flexible display that incorporates OLED and touch screen technologies. The display is slightly thicker than a piece of paper and flexible enough to be rolled up for storage.

Hewlett Packard is also working with the military to develop the next generation of smart watches -- combining flexible displays with solar panels to create a timepiece that can be sewn into a soldier's uniform. In addition to telling time, these devices include interfaces for displaying maps and enabling communications between military personnel. Prototypes of these new "watches" are set to be introduced into service sometime in 2011.

Parallels can be drawn between the needs of a soldier on patrol to a security guard touring a museum after hours. Both could benefit from real-time information regarding their areas of operations. The security guard could receive real-time alerts from intrusion detection sensors coupled with live video of the event in progress on a flexible display attached to his wrist. For those who remember Dick Tracy's watch from the Sunday comics, it seems real-world inventors might finally one-up the cartoonist's imagination.

Keeping a sharper eye
Vision is the single most important sense used by security professionals in their daily activities. We use it to determine if the man loitering near a doorway is a potential burglar or an employee smoking in an area they shouldn't. We use visual cues to verify whether the car parked outside matches the description provided by an Amber Alert or not. The number of potential threats that need to be visually inspected and identified is practically limitless. With so many exciting display technologies on the horizon, security professionals will soon have once-futuristic tools to see those threats more clearly.

About the author: James Marcella has been a technologist in the security and IT industries for more than 17 years. He is currently the Director of Technical Services for Axis Communications.