User requirements for graphics systems

Nothing will get a piece of equipment expelled from the post environment like unstable software.

A mismatch between the job you need to do and the equipment you buy could mean living with functionality that does not suit your tasks.

In the close-to-air environment, the graphics workstation should get out of the way of the operator and let him get on with his job.

If you are looking at purchasing or upgrading your graphics systems, the first question to ask is how you are going to use the equipment. A mismatch between the job you need to do and the equipment you buy could mean that you spend more than you need to (or less), and that you have to live with functionality that does not suit your tasks.

Graphics user requirements can be divided into several categories, but perhaps not the way you might first think. User requirement categories can be divided into close-to-air, non-close-to-air and post production. (Thirty minutes before air is a good dividing line between close-to-air and non-close-to-air/desktop.) Table 1 on page 42 shows how different applications fit into these categories.

While some areas might overlap, there is a clear differentiation. This differentiation impacts user requirements for equipment performance, reliability, price and so on.

The close-to-air environment is full of high-pressure situations. Breaking news, live events and weather graphics are examples of applications in this area. Operators look for tools and techniques that reduce workload and speed in the production process. Templates and pre-defined formats are used to shorten the design process. The non-close-to-air environment is usually much less stressful. Here is where the graphic design work is done, and where rough drafts are kicked around. This is where the creative process starts once it has moved from yellow tablets, bar napkins and ideas thought of in the middle of the night. The post production process also is less stressful from a time standpoint, although anyone who has been in a production session with a demanding client can tell you that things can get very stressful indeed. In this environment, operators, clients and producers work with a critical eye to get exactly the look they want. Attention to technical detail of the finished product is high. User requirements for these different areas are driven by the applications. Let's start with the close-to-air application.

User requirements for the close-to-air application include 1) excellent ergonomics 2) sufficient tool set 3) real-time feedback 4) robust design 5) rapid fault recovery. Time constraints and the high-pressure environment drive all of these requirements. In this environment, the graphics workstation should get out of the way of the operator and let him get on with his job. This is not the place for splashy screens, complicated menus or fancy interfaces. The tool set provided should be sufficient for the operator to do his job, but it should not be overly complicated. Manufacturers should take the time to carefully think through the tools required in this environment.

Real-time feedback is critical. An artist must be able to see what he is doing as he is doing it. If he is making a mistake, he must know about it now, not later. A robust design also is required. The hardware must be physically strong, made to accept the rigors of traveling in a truck. The live sports/live event environment is brutal. Finally, rapid fault recovery is a must, and is closely associated with a robust design. The equipment must be able to quickly recover from power glitches and software errors. The artist's work and machine state should be preserved if at all possible. Reboot times must be minimized. Remember that in some cases, these systems are not just close-to-air, they are on-air.

Next, let's look at requirements in the non-close-to-air or desktop environment. Systems in this environment must be 1) lower in price 2) available on the desktop using conventional processing power 3) user friendly 4) connected with high-end systems 5) Internet aware. One factor that enters into almost every purchase decision in the “desktop graphics” or non-close-to-air application is price. Most users have combined the requirements for items one and two above, asking for advanced functionality at a reduced price (yes, users want to have their cake and eat it too). For many years, users were not offered that alternative. However, with the declining price of MACs and PCs and the corresponding leaps in processing power, it is now possible to do some really amazing graphics work with a MAC or Intel platform. Prices for well-equipped graphics systems have continued to fall while functionality has increased. Along with this comes the power of the consumer market, driving down prices for things like large monitors and high-speed networks, all part of a high-performance desktop graphics system.

While close-to-air systems require very streamlined user interfaces, the requirements for the desktop environment are different. Desktop systems should have menus that are intuitive and easy to navigate. They should be self-explanatory for the first-time user while not being too cumbersome for power users. This may result in user interfaces that are less streamlined than the close-to-air systems. User interface design is always a trade off between efficiency and ease of operation.

The output from desktop systems is frequently used as input to more expensive systems. It is important to consider the level of interoperability offered. Interoperability exists at a number of different levels from simple file exchange using TIFF, BMP, PostScript, etc. to systems which can “look into each other” to borrow effects, browse file systems and more.

It is becoming increasingly important that graphics systems be Internet aware, capable of creating images that are scaled and purposed for the Internet. Graphics have been an important part of the Internet since the invention of Web browsers. As images become more complex, and as artists move more to creating material to be used for on-air and Internet, this requirement will become more important.

The requirements of the post-production environment also are demanding. In the high-end post environment, users demand: 1) uncompromised image quality 2) very complete tool sets 3) intuitive user interfaces 4) stable software 5) the ability to render very complex graphics and effects 6) lower cost.

In the post production environment, users have the time and the tools to examine the output of graphics systems with a very critical eye. Most post graphics suites are designed so that the artist can look at very high resolution viewing devices alongside conventional NTSC or PAL monitors. Artists and designers frequently magnify sections of the image to adjust individual pixel characteristics. In such an environment, problems with image quality are quickly noticed. Equipment designers must go to extreme lengths to be sure that the quality of the output of their machines is as high as possible.

Creative people in the post environment are always pushing the limits of the hardware and software. That is what they are paid to do. In the words of one artist the author worked with, “If I can think it, I should be able to do it.” He was always figuring out ways to push the limits of any machine he used. The tool sets of graphics systems used for post production should be cutting-edge. Most graphics companies devote their best people to working on new effects and new functionality. You may have noticed that there is very little dust settled on most graphics equipment in post facilities. That is because equipment is frequently replaced or upgraded as new functionality becomes available.

Users in the post environment are very demanding. User interfaces should be clean, well thought out and intuitive. While streamlining is not required, as it is in the close-to-air environment, operators become annoyed with functionality that is difficult to use because of poorly planned user interfaces. There also is a difference in the level of familiarity and training of post graphics users. Most users are highly trained and do not require the simpler interfaces of the non-close-to-air systems.

Nothing will get a piece of equipment expelled from the post environment like unstable software. It is not hard to imagine that a customer who is paying a lot of money for the privilege of sitting next to a graphic artist will get upset if lockups and reboots are the order of the day. If you have ever experienced the frustration of losing your work in the desktop environment, imagine what that is like when you have a paying customer sitting next to you watching the last three hours go down the drain. Needless to say, stable software is good.

The ability to render complex graphics and effects goes hand-in-hand with the requirement for complete tool sets. The important thing to note is that rendering time may be allowed in the post environment. It is virtually banned from the close-to-air environment.

Summary of User Requirements for Graphics Systems Close-to-air Non-close-to-air Post production Excellent ergonomics Lower price Uncompromised image quality Sufficient tool set Desktop platform Very complete tool set Real-time feedback User friendly Intuitive user interface Robust design Connectivity Stable software Rapid fault recovery Internet aware Complex rendering Lower cost Table 1. Close-to-air, non-close-to-air and post production applications in graphic production. Operators working on breaking news demand different functionality from their graphic systems than graphic artists in a post production environment.

Finally, as with desktop systems, users demand all of the above at a reduced cost. They see the increasing power and functionality of desktop systems available at a falling price and expect the same from their high-end systems. This may not be realistic. Stable software costs money. Well-developed user interfaces require programming time (more money). There is no doubt that some users will replace low-end post systems with desktop systems as their functionality improves. However, there will be a market for high-end systems for the demanding post environment for some time to come.

Brad Gilmer is president of Gilmer & Associates, executive director of the AAF Association and technical facilitator of the Video Services Forum.

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