Key to military display technologies: System integration

3The possibilities of display technologies in military applications; the software and networking that keeps it all together.

“What is possible” in technology seems to start in the imaginations of screenwriters and science fiction stories, and then moves sooner or later into reality. We’ve all watched movies such as Elysium or Minority Report and have seen the transparent computer screens and video walls with information being moved and tossed by swipe touch gestures. As consumers, we become aware of the newest technologies as they relate to making our lives easier or increasing our level of entertainment satisfaction, such as 4K televisions, heads-up (HUD) in our cars, and gaming platforms such as Xbox Kinect air-gesture technology.

Sometimes the trickle-down effect starts in the highest levels of operation, such as the HUD in military aircraft. However, sometimes technology advances first mature in either the industrial or retail markets, achieving technological cost efficiencies before making their way into military operations.

Display innovation

Monitoring industrial and consumer display technologies is a useful way to identify innovations that can effectively meet the needs of military customers, from cockpit to below deck. Some familiar technologies are now making their way into different levels of military operations.

Ultra-high resolution

A popular one is the Apple-termed “Retina Display,” referring to ultra-high-resolution displays with 300 or more pixels per inch (PPI). In relatively recent history, maximum resolutions have progressed from FHD (1,920 by 1,080 resolution) to UHD (3,840 by 2,160), to 4k (4,096 by 2,160), 5K (5,120 by 2,880), and beyond. (See Figure 1.)

Figure 1: Used in shipboard and military environments, the 19-inch SXGA (1,280 by 1,024) rugged display is sealed against liquid penetration and can be used below-decks as well. Photo courtesy of IEE.
(Click graphic to zoom)

Today there are five-inch cellphone displays with 2,560 by 1,440 resolution, which is nearly 600 PPI. These super-high resolutions continue to develop in smaller and smaller packages as technology continuously enables higher PPI, which means more information can be displayed on smaller screen areas. Users can zoom in with much greater detail, which gives the user better accuracy in planning and execution.

Transparent displays

Typically, this technology has been used in retail digital signage such as drink coolers with ad graphics on the display door, or in-store displays that literally box the physical advertised product. These boxes have been necessary to contain and redirect light out through the front of the transparent LCD to produce viewable video on the translucent surface. In the last six to eight months, this technology has taken a leap forward with freestanding transparent displays using OLED technology and innovative backlighting solutions, thereby eliminating the need to box, contain, and redirect the light. It’s now possible to use these transparent displays as “windows,” allowing people to see each other and interact on opposite sides of the display.

Touch technology

Projected capacitive (PCAP) touch screens, used on today’s mobile devices, have set the bar for usability, with familiar multitouch gesturing. Not that long ago, the largest-size screen supported by PCAP was around 19 inches; however, this touch technology can now be seen in displays as large as 55 inches (and larger, very soon), opening the door to not only mobile apps, but also many other applications normally viewed on larger displays. Improvements are credited to advancements in coating technologies like indium tin oxide (ITO), along with additional points of connectivity on the touch panels.

In the past PCAP integration was held back in more industrial or mission-critical markets due to its lack of effectiveness when touched by operators with gloved hands. Today, more touch screens with PCAP products are able to function properly with increasingly thicker gloves. Quick sensitivity adjustments for “glove-mode operation,” higher speed controllers, and innovations like fingertip-stylus products for gloves are just a few things that are making PCAP touch a reality for military applications.

Software that detects air gestures have become popular through entertainment devices such as the Xbox Kinect, Nintendo Wii, and other gaming consoles. These devices are sensitive and fast enough to sense/detect motions. Software determines what motions are gestures and then acts appropriately when a predefined movement is captured as a defined gesture in the system.

Large-scale video walls have necessitated the development of high-speed video trunks to display ultra-high resolution content (Display Port, DVI, HDMI). Higher resolutions mean more data to move to a display. Early versions of DVI and HDMI were capable of four to five Gbits/s, which was plenty fast to drive slightly higher than 60 Hz 1080p, but not nearly fast enough to handle new higher display resolutions, thus creating the need for faster connections.

Moving and storing increasingly larger amounts of video data has been a big contributor to the need for faster transports. All of the following are examples of high-speed serial interfaces currently being used:

  • USB (1.1 to now 3.0) for external data
  • HDMI (1.4 to 2) and Display Port (1.0 to 1.3) for video-to-display data
  • Ethernet (10baseT to 1000baseT, and now 10GbaseT) for networking
  • High-Speed Serial (copper or fiber): HD-SDI (SMPTE-292) and ARINC-818

Ultra-narrow-bezel video walls continue to narrow image-to-image gaps, improving the seamless continuity of images across the LCD wall. When the image-to-image gap in tiled displays was around 12 mm, the information presentation lent itself to errors in interpretations. Thus, it was risky to rely on video walls in mission-critical situations. Today’s large-format displays have closed the image-to-image gap to 5.5 mm and are moving to even smaller gaps, around 3.5 mm. At the same time, displays sizes are becoming larger and – importantly – thinner, allowing deployment in situations where depth is critical. (See Figure 2.)

Figure 2: This close-up of transparent displays and opposing banks of operator consoles was made possible by ultra-narrow monitors and robust networking technology. Diagram courtesy of IEE.
(Click graphic to zoom by 1.9x)

Usability defined

The definition of usability, as defined by ISO 9241-11, is “The extent to which a product can be used by specified users to achieve specified goals with effectiveness, efficiency and satisfaction in a specified context of use.” In short, usability means making products and systems easier to use, while matching them more closely to user needs and requirements. In order to create the next generation of operator-display consoles, makers need to step back and look at the human interaction factors and address the points of effectiveness, efficiency, and satisfaction.


Usability goes hand in hand with collaboration. Today’s command-and control rooms still don’t address one of the most obvious issues of encouraging collaboration among operators. That aspect is line-of-sight communications.

Displays are typically positioned upright in the visual path of the user, inhibiting direct eye contact with others. Many command rooms’ designs have operators positioned against the walls in isolated silos of physical space. Operators have to turn and get up in order to communicate with other team members. Such a setup is inefficient and not conducive to communication.

With increased effectiveness and efficiency, users experience a greater level of satisfaction as their tasks become easier to execute; with this feeling of satisfaction, productivity levels increase. Decreased levels of frustration are more likely as the products support the task that the user actually needs to do.

Enabling efficiency in future military displays

Today’s designs attempt to address ergonomic issues for operators with adjustable tabletops and correct viewing angles. However, the majority of console layouts are still focused on the individual operator’s personal space and continue to promote a feeling of isolation. Effectivness and efficiency can be achieved by meeting the goal of providing the open physical environment for group collaboration, while also keeping the operator immersed in the tasks at hand.

Based on the endgame of increasing overall efficiency among colleagues and effectively sharing the workload by creating a more physically open workspace, a centralized control bridge would be an effective solution. In this configuration, operators are seated around this central area, next to and across from other operators. The display panel at each seat is transparent, enabling operators to drop their screen data and have an unobstructed line of vision to other team members. Information can be sent to the reverse side of the transparent display, enabling others on the opposite side to view it, or it can be sent directly over by various touch options.

The walls of the next-generation control room will hold ultra-narrow-bezel LCD video walls with 80- to 100-inch 4k or higher displays. Critical information such as moving weather maps, threat environments, surveillance data, warning data from systems sensors, and the like is in constant display, increasing situational awareness. From each operator’s station, information can be pushed up to the video-wall display by a simple hand swipe or air gesture. These connected, high-resolution displays can present more information, and can also be organized and enlarged for detail.

The glue that holds all of these technologies together is advanced software and robust networking technology. The future demands that display companies get beyond merely the display and become true system integrators. The control-room vision described above is already a reality in some industrial network operations centers. Usability is reaching new heights; once these technologies are employed in military applications, it will be difficult to imagine how they operated without them.

Tom Whinfrey is president and CEO of IEE, which makes enhanced displays for military and industrial markets. Prior to IEE, Tom served as president and CEO of Orion Defense Systems; he has also held senior-management positions at AiTech Space Systems and Northrop Aircraft. As an entrepreneur, Tom founded Orion Aviation, specializing in unmanned helicopters. You can reach Tom at

IEE Inc.

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