This virtual monitor wall, which was recently completed for Lyon Video in a large truck, saved 30in of floor space and about 1000lb.
For mobile system integrators, 2004 was an exciting year. Vendors carefully tested out HD for several months. Today, many have fully embraced it. Sure, HD is still more expensive than other formats, but are there any other options in this digital age? The TV production industry's continuing migration to all digital, specifically HD, has not been lost on the remote truck business. Some would say that the industry is, in fact, being driven by this business. It's more than a trend; it's a landslide. In large-scale sports and entertainment production, HD has clearly emerged as the format of choice and a competitive necessity. If you don't have an HD unit (or several) in your fleet soon, you're going to be left behind.
The primary video flow in trucks is now purely digital. And, within the digital domain, many of today's trucks use HD as the primary signal path. They use SDI-601 mostly as a monitoring layer or, in trucks with multiple routers, to route it to the onboard SDI legacy gear.
NTSC usage in new production vehicles is dwindling rather quickly. But remote truck designers must still incorporate some NTSC into the vehicle design. For the most part, NTSC has assumed a monitoring function in today's large-scale remote vehicles. One practical application of NTSC monitoring is long-haul feeds where the cable distance within an arena may exceed the distance limitations of digital video over coax (although fiber-optic cable is also always an option). New trucks may also need NTSC video or SDI-601 digital video to provide feeds to the outside world, such as the local arena where the remote truck is parked. These signals may also serve as feeds to and from older trucks, which may need to share cameras on a multi-truck remote. This situation will probably continue for several years until all venues have upgraded to digital.
This customized tape production bench has a monitor wall that includes flat-screen and tube monitors but is still only 11in deep.
A truck operator might argue that the arenas and other trucks should have the appropriate conversion gear to use his or her pristine HD signals. But, practically speaking, the operator must provide all signals in all formats. Today, virtually all A- and B-grade production vehicles use SDI or HD signals. Like dinosaurs, analog trucks will become extinct, probably fairly soon. But, even when this occurs, NTSC in an HD truck will still find some limited utility, such as in local-area feeds as mentioned above, possibly satellite transmission, and perhaps the inevitable VHS copies of the show. The truck operator may still be called upon to provide all formats for some years to come.
Most, if not all, professional production equipment can now produce video in the majority of the various HD flavors. A discussion of these various formats is beyond the scope of this article. It's sufficient to say that it didn't take long for manufacturers to build obsolescence protection into their equipment. And, to me, it seems fairly obvious that this has been one of the driving factors in the current migration to HD production vehicles.
Intelligent terminal equipment
It would be difficult to justify a multimillion-dollar expense for a specific HD format truck if, even as it were being built, clients were demanding a different HD format for their production needs. This single difficulty was likely the reason that the last couple of years were rather sparse in large-scale remote vehicle construction. Manufacturers have responded well with multistandard equipment, enabling truck operators to put together a truck with a lifespan measured in years instead of months.
It takes little more than the flip of a switch (or the click of a mouse) to convert cameras, switchers, etc., from 1080i to 720p or to any other HD format. Manufacturers offer intelligent terminal equipment that can switch just as easily; some are even auto-sensing. Need cropped downcon-verted outputs? No problem. Just click the mouse. How about letterbox? Same answer. If you are an information junkie, your DA can now tell you every parameter of every input and output on the card. Wow! Talk about information overload.
Flat-screen implementation allowed this entire second production room to fit within the standard large-truck footprint of Mira Mobile’s recently completed unit.
Technologies like smart DAs, IP-enabled monitoring devices and networked card cages are now fully implemented in remote trucks. Couple this with the almost complete implementation of programmable production equipment, and your truck has now taken on the role of being little more than a rolling computer with chairs and the occasional human-interface device. It is technically feasible for an engineer in San Francisco to set up a truck on-site anywhere in the country — perhaps even from a laptop computer in an airport or hotel room. What is perhaps even more useful to the mobile production industry is that an engineering specialist located at a desk somewhere can dial into any part of a truck and perform advanced troubleshooting or reconfiguration in near real time.
Of course, an even more obvious benefit of this IP and computer power is the ability to virtually set up a truck simply by loading a file or a set of files from the truck's server. Now you can set up an entire show from a computer keyboard, or restore a previous show from disk, and do it in minutes instead of hours.
These features are powerful. But along with such power comes some risk. Make sure that your IP-enabled truck is secure from the sinister forces that seem to lurk around every corner in the Internet universe. It is entirely possible for the casual tourist to hack into your truck and, for example, start switching cameras for his or her own amusement, right in the middle of a show. The system operator would be well-advised to keep all critical IP communications that exist within the truck inside the truck. Even so, don't overlook the various sources of possible trouble presumed to be on the safe side of your firewall. Theoretically, someone could insert an infected switcher, DVE or Chyron disk and either unknowingly or maliciously unleash any sort of horror that can plague any computer system. Careful network security design is crucial in today's facilities. Make sure to restrict the outside world's access to the truck's critical network paths.
Trucks are enjoying (perhaps, more accurately, have enjoyed) a migration from tube monitors to various forms of flat-panel monitors. The two flat-panel types most commonly used in trucks today are LCD and plasma panels. Recent design advances in flat-panel technology have all but eliminated the need for tube monitors (with the possible exception of the video operator position and, in some cases, the EIC).
This video shading area uses a multi-display rasterizer for video QC monitoring.
Future generations of flat-panel displays will doubtless improve enough to eliminate these last few holdouts. Several recent truck designs employ LCD monitors for video shading, with good results. Flat panels still can't quite match a tube monitor's colorimetry accuracy, so a truck may need at least one tube monitor. But, as the flat panels improve further, the QC station tube monitor will likely fade into history. And, before too long, home viewers will all be watching shows on the same flat panels that now serve in trucks.
The maturity of multi-screen display engines, combined with advances in large flat-panel display technology, has enabled completely virtual monitor walls in today's remote units. A monitor wall consisting of multiple 50in plasma or LCD panels and a screen-splitting system is an impressive sight. It also saves approximately 1000lb and up to 4ft of floor space compared to the same size wall built with discrete tube monitors. One recently completed large truck project took full advantage of this space savings. The designers incorporated an entire second production room into the truck with no apparent loss of floor space. This raises many interesting possibilities for the future of truck design.
The virtual wall introduces a further benefit: All tally and operator information can be on-screen. Want UMD displays? No problem. It's all virtual; just type and click it into existence. Resize your monitors at will, with or without tally and UMD for each virtual screen. Mix 16:9 with 4:3 images. Dedicate one entire 50in monitor to program video. As the saying goes, “Have it your way.”
You can also display clocks, countdown and even audio levels in one or multiple locations on your virtual monitor wall. And you can save your show setup on disk for the next time. Have a few default-monitor setups ready for your most anticipated monitor layouts, and you'll have the truck up and running at a remote location in no time. Setting up the production room becomes as easy as a couple of computer clicks.
Traditional tube-type monitoring for waveform and vector display is also giving way to flat-panel technology. The new display device may take the form of a traditional instrument that looks like a waveform monitor but replaces the tube with a built-in flat-panel display. Or it may take the form of a rack-mount box of electronics coupled with a display device, generally an LCD monitor. Packaging this instrument to fit in a traditional waveform slot allows a more traditional approach to waveform monitoring while taking full advantage of the benefits of flat-panel displays.
Scopes versus rasterizers
As flat panels become the accepted standard for QC stations such as video and transmission, the standalone rasterizer coupled to a 15in, 17in or larger LCD or plasma display will become a powerful tool. The video monitor may also be the waveform monitor, and the display could be placed anywhere in the monitor screen. Where space is a critical concern, you can locate the rasterizer's electronics off-axis from your viewing area (or anywhere in the truck, depending on the operator's need for access to the display controls). Actually, because the rasterizer is an IP-enabled device, it offers numerous remote-control options.
The operational requirements will dictate how designers engineer these devices into a particular truck. Having worked as a video engineer, I like the concept of the waveform monitor integrated directly into the shading monitor. With this configuration, the operator need not take his eyes off the show to see the waveform displays. This same technology can apply to the audio system for monitoring purposes. The main program video monitor in the audio room can be a flat-panel LCD with a rasterizer display of truly bewildering capability.
The remote broadcast industry finally is seeing the benefits of recent technical advances. Technical solutions that have been in the works for several months have produced many exciting implementations this year. The promises of yesterday are rapidly becoming the realities of today.
An interesting future
It's safe to say that the new generation of large-scale remote trucks will continue to evolve as the technology improves. But, eventually, someone must pay for all these new toys. Fortunately, the price of this equipment is dropping. We seem to have reached a point at which the truck operator can justify the additional expense of the new technology. The future will be interesting, indeed.
Barry Bennett is a truck system integrator at Bennett Systems in Sunbury, OH.