Evolution of video monitoring displays offers more for less

The next generation of video monitoring displays promises greater performance and value.
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Video monitoring displays traditionally have been used in newsroom, production, control room, studio and field operations, and their place within these broadcast operations is one of the few aspects of their use and functionality that has changed little over the years. How they fulfill these monitoring roles, however, is another story. With the evolution of the industry from analog to digital SD and HD operations, the demand has grown for displays boasting much richer feature sets, more intelligent design, greater versatility in handling different types of inputs and increased flexibility in the way those signals are handled and analyzed.

In response to market demand, manufacturers introduced more robust systems with a higher overall standard of performance, complemented by new features that enhance everyday monitoring operations. The industry's push for broadcast solutions also has led to innovation, as manufacturers have been asked to provide broader feature sets at the same or more attractive price points. As new materials and manufacturing techniques move from limited and costly production into the realm of mainstream use, the next generation of video monitoring displays promises to provide even greater performance and value.

DTV opens the door to richer monitoring tools

The full conversion of broadcast stations to digital has opened up new possibilities and options with respect to video monitoring displays. Because the digital signal incorporates both video and audio, all on one SDI stream, it offers conveniences in distribution, routing and networking. Rather than deal with different connectors and an interim stage for handling AES, the broadcaster only needs to worry about a single stream. And because audio typically accompanies video, operators of video monitoring displays now can put on headphones, pick the audio pair they wish to hear and watch audio level meters on-screen along with video.

While these are welcome benefits, the shift to digital also has added complexity to the handling and display of video within the broadcast plant or other production environment. Over the long transition from analog to digital, broadcasters have adopted a broad variety of formats; there are 19 digital varieties as opposed to the single analog 625/525-line standard. The complexity and variety of digital signals requires more sophisticated video monitoring displays capable of accommodating multiple formats and sources, offering detailed information about the content, providing markers and other visually oriented analytical tools, supplying some routing capacity, and often giving operators the means to evaluate accompanying audio signals.

Today's video monitoring displays often accept multiple inputs, allowing operators to select and view pictures — as a single image or side by side — in color, blue-only or monochrome. Users can keep an eye on audio through an in-monitor display and listen to it through an integrated headphone jack. A variety of markers highlight the selected aspect ratio, either 16:9 or 4:3, with safe areas according to user-configurable settings (generally a percentage of the overall screen space). Also provided on-screen are key identifiers that indicate video format, source and time code. Within an in-monitor window, a waveform display of the input signal serves as a complementary monitoring tool. More recently, manufacturers also have introduced on-screen vectorscopes and even closed-captioning data.

Once relegated to a separate box in the control room, the vectorscope is now available as part of the video monitoring display. Broadcasters may not have realized it was a built-in feature they wanted, but now that they've seen it and know it's available, it has become a popular option. Along with the novel appeal of this innovation come the benefits of space savings, the elimination of a discrete hardware system, and related cost and maintenance savings.

As the demand has grown for richer feature sets at lower prices, manufacturers have built in numerous conveniences, both large and small, that address the challenges of dealing with more signals, more formats and more variations in how video is displayed.

Implications of HD for video monitoring displays

The migration of the broadcast industry to HD has introduced more stringent demands of video monitoring displays, forcing manufacturers to get onboard and design appropriately robust solutions. The move to HD fueled the addition of many of the aforementioned features and also raised the bar for image quality. As a result, the majority of video monitoring displays on the market today meet an acceptable standard with respect to monitoring features and image quality and resolution.

Another change fostered by the shift to HD is the adoption by broadcasters of 3Gb/s infrastructures and their growing interest in 3Gb/s-ready or 3Gb/s-capable devices, including audio and video monitoring systems, as a future-proof addition to their investment. Just a few years ago, a good part of the industry had no idea what 3Gb/s was. Now, many broadcasters won't order equipment that isn't 3Gb/s-compatible, even if their stations can't yet support it.

The manufacturer is not the mother of invention as far as standards, new features and manufacturing technologies are concerned. It is the market that dictates the features and capabilities of video monitoring displays. If the demands of the market are technically feasible and worth the cost of R&D and production, then manufacturers will make and offer solutions that meet those demands. Support for 3Gb/s is among those capabilities viewed as a must-have going forward, and many products today offer it right out of the gate in order to address broadcasters' concern regarding the continued increase in formats and specifications — and the demands these changes place on broadcast equipment and infrastructure.

Networked and remote monitoring capabilities

The functionality integrated into video monitoring displays has evolved to meet the demands of digital broadcasting, and now there is a more apparent need for remote monitoring capabilities. In both audio and video monitoring applications, operators want to be able to dial up remote sites via IP and tap into multiple views simultaneously.

The ability to network video monitoring displays is a new requirement that brings much improved convenience to engineering staff. With the option of performing monitoring from an off-site location, engineers can check in on signals at any time of the day or night, from anywhere. Likewise, video and audio from an unattended site can be monitored from a central site, or even from the engineer's home. In any case, remote monitoring allows the broadcast station or group to call on its high-level engineering staff to look at one or more channels — without calling staff into the station. In addition to providing greater convenience, remote monitoring of video enables more effective leveraging of valuable technical staff in ensuring video quality around the clock.

Because the remote monitoring model relies on a separate IP address for each monitor, the implementation of this model is driven largely by contributions from the IT department, as opposed to broadcast engineers. As with many other areas of today's broadcast operations, remote monitoring is both driven and permitted by the station's reliance on IT-based systems and network infrastructure.

OLEDs enter the mainstream

In introducing new materials and display types, manufacturers of video monitoring displays are at the mercy of a limited number of suppliers who make the glass and screens. As these suppliers begin to develop new technologies that offer requested functionality at a price point the market will bear, manufacturers begin to bring to market new systems incorporating these innovations. The development of monitors based on OLEDs is an exciting advance in the industry.

OLEDs feature a light-emitting layer that incorporates a polymer base with organic compounds essentially printed in a matrix of pixels capable of emitting light in different colors. One significant reason that OLED technology is so appealing is that it offers a better contrast ratio than any other type of screen now on the market. This is because, unlike LCDs, the OLED does not require a backlight in order to function. An “off” OLED element produces no light and consumes no power.

The low power requirements of OLEDs make them ideal for any cost-conscious broadcast facility, and this factor, combined with their light weight and much thinner design, is especially appealing for the mobile market. As the mobile production trucks move toward smaller multiscreen video monitoring units rather than larger monitors, OLEDs are a natural choice. When dealing with the space constraints of a 16m expando trailer, and with heat and weight issues always a factor, engineers have a good deal to look forward to with OLED technology.

By emitting light directly, OLEDs enable a greater range of colors, gamut, brightness, contrast and viewing angles than do LCDs. So, in addition to being incredibly sharp, the OLED provides colors that zoom out at the viewer. The difference is clear to the professional and to the untrained eye. Because the display's pixel colors appear unshifted, even a person lying on the floor could look at the screen and still see the picture. The response time for OLEDs also is significantly better than that of standard LCD and plasma monitors.

Until recently, the shorter usable life of OLED materials limited their use, but advances in manufacturing have brought their life expectancy into the same range of many more conventional displays. The manufacture of large OLEDs also proved a challenge until recently, leading to their initial use only in smaller display applications. However, sizes for OLED HD screens now exceed 100cm, making their use in broadcast facilities for video monitoring applications a far more feasible proposal.

The possibility of printing OLEDs onto thin, flexible surfaces opens opportunities for more novel display applications. (Imagine a roll-up screen, for example.) But in the broadcast realm, the flexibility, quality and efficiency afforded by this technology offers real cost savings and practical benefits. Furthermore, as a growing number of broadcasters look to incorporate “green” technologies into their operations, whether for the sake of the environment or their bottom line, OLEDs serve as a green solution for video monitoring.

Final considerations for today's displays

When asked what they'd like to see in a video monitoring display, engineers will respond — only half-joking — that they'd like it to power up and show a good picture consistently. Indeed, the life of the screen is a real concern. While video monitoring displays provide a host of on-screen tools for image analysis, the systems' fundamental utility and value depend on their reliability and their life expectancy. Two different products may look identical and offer the same feature set, but the life of the glass will determine just how long each will be of use to the broadcaster. Because there is no bad monitor on the market today, it's more important than ever that broadcasters examine the quality and long-term performance of new video monitoring displays.

While common video monitoring displays have, across the board, improved in value and functionality, the industry also has seen improvements in higher-end evaluation-grade monitors. Whereas 6-bit and 8-bit systems were the standard, new Grade 1 systems feature support for more than 1 billion colors and 10-bit drivers that introduce even more accurate colorimetry and picture quality. These more expensive reference monitors are required only for select applications, numbering only a few in a facility boasting thousands of monitors. All the same, these video monitoring displays also provide broadcasters with unprecedented quality and capabilities.

Summary

When compared with the video monitoring displays of just two years ago, today's monitors and their wide array of features are downright amazing. Manufacturers (and their suppliers) have responded to broadcasters' demands for improved quality and functionality, all for less. Bringing innovation to market, introducing efficiencies that enable greener and more cost-effective operations, taking advantage of IT-based broadcast systems and infrastructure, and adding convenience to day-to-day monitoring work, manufacturers have made it much easier for broadcasters to adapt their monitoring activities to the overall demands of their business model.

Kim Templeman-Holmes is vice president of global sales and marketing at Wohler Technologies.