Dealing design challenges in cinematography with 3U PCI COTS -

Dealing design challenges in cinematography with 3U PCI COTS

This “Product How-To” article focuses how to use a certain product in an embedded system and is written by a company representative.

Many of the challenges faced when designing a new embedded computing system transcend the boundaries of any specific industry or application, and can be generalized into one idea.

Simply put, designers need to develop as dense and sturdy a system as possible in the most compact space, consuming the least amount of power and money, while generating as little heat as possible.

Of course, there will be specific nuances within each application, but overall, this statement pretty much sums up what embedded system designers are tasked with when putting a new system together.

Fortunately, manufacturers within the embedded space are well aware of these challenges and are constantly driving towards improvements for the industry through products that offer advanced performance such as increased bandwidth, greater processing capabilities and deceased power draw.

One segment of the embedded computing industry that has been quickly gaining ground due to its compact size and proven COTS (commercial-off-the-shelf) technologies is 3U CompactPCI (CPCI).

Newer to the 3U CPCI scene is the cinematography industry, which recently welcomed its first Intel-based digital cinema camera. Although it's an industry out of the traditional realm associated with COTS technologies (military, aerospace and industrial more readily come to mind when one thinks about embedded computing), if we examine the specific challenges the designers of this revolutionary camera faced, we see they tackled many of the issues to which most any embedded systems designer can relate.

Forging New Ground
Founded in September of 2000, NY-based Silicon Imaging specializes in the design, manufacturing and marketing of high-definition digital cameras and image processing solutions for the medical, scientific instrumentation, machine vision, entertainment and surveillance markets.

The company's focus has been to leverage the recent advancements in CMOS imagers, digital processors and gigabit connectivity interfaces to develop a new generation of high-definition products that can outperform traditional video camera and processing systems at a lower cost.

More specifically, in its relatively short existent, Silicon Imaging has made significant inroads in the cinematography industry by developing cameras that incorporate the most advanced technologies and provide more flexibility, functionality and cost-effectiveness to filmmakers.

In developing its SI-2K camera, Silicon Imaging, Inc. was looking to provide a camera that offered exceptional performance under rigorous conditions at an affordable price. By turning to an Intel-based platform in a 3U CPCI form factor, Silicon Imaging developed a camera that not only offers exceptional functionality, but costs up to 40% less than comparative models, bringing the price of a new camera into the $40,000 range.

Camera Control
The company turned to MEN Micro Inc., the first company that was offering the Intel Core 2 Duo technology on a deliverable product, the F17 3U CompactPCI single board computer (SBC).

Using this SBC as well as a unique side card for advanced audio and video capabilities and a rugged, compact enclosure, MEN Micro developed a customized embedded control system for the camera.

Before MEN Micro developed the integrated control system for the SI-2K camera, digital cinema camera systems were limited to their dedicated hardware and could not incorporate software upgrades or new connectivity options that may have become available.

But, because the new system uses a standards-based, embedded processing platform, the SI-2K can now take advantage of new technologies and upgrades. In fact, it's the first cinematography camera ever to employ this type of IT infrastructure and won the 2007 Intel' Embedded and Communications Alliance Innovate and Ignite Technology Showcase award at ESC Boston in September of 2007

The Benefits are Universal
The SI-2K camera provides significant cost-savings in two ways: at initial purchase and in long-term ROI, a concern for any embedded system developer. Because standard components are used, the camera's initial price is almost 40% less than other cameras available.

And, since the backplane architecture is field-upgradeable, modularity is now in the camera's vocabulary, so when additional functionality becomes available, users can simply remove the computing platform and install the latest technologies into the housing. No need to buy a new piece of equipment just yet—users can cost-effectively do partial system upgrades.

One of the most expensive and time-consuming elements of shooting video footage is editing and video processing. Silicon Imaging was looking for a way to decrease the amount of time and money the user needed to spend on making sure he or she “got the right shot.”

Since the same control software runs on both the camera and the laptop to which the camera is ultimately hooked up, they communicate more effectively and the time a user needs to spend syncing up the two components dramatically drops. The integration is already built into the system.

For filmmakers, this means they can shoot raw footage directly to disk at either 1920x1080P high definition or 2048×1152 cinema resolutions. This allows for on-location editing and review, enabling filmmakers to ensure they got the shot they needed, significantly reducing re-shoots and saving large amounts of time and money.

If on-location editing is not needed, the camera can be brought right into the editing room where the raw footage is easily accessed and manipulated, again providing time and cost savings.

Most computing applications place heavy emphasis on data processing requirements. Cinematography is no different, the shift is continually towards high-definition (HD) video processing since higher resolutions make for better quality images.

The data, whether it be raw footage for a film, high computing and graphics for quality control in steel roller mills or intense data sets for a power generation applications, is paramount, and maintaining data integrity can equal system success or failure.

Current-generation HD cameras destructively process and compress imagery with custom ASICs and FPGA, degrading the initial quality of the data captured in the form of raw footage. Silicon Imaging wanted its camera to sustain the image quality, but this high-volume computing would demand exceptional data transfer capabilities.

The Intel Core 2 Duo processor incorporates Gigabit Ethernet, so the SI-2K can stream raw “digital negative” images over gigabit Ethernet at rates up to 100 MB/sec, directly to the embedded controller.

When shooting video footage, the wider the latitude, the closer the footage will be to the original image giving the cinematographer more flexibility to manipulate the images and produce a high-quality finished film. The functionality of the processor enables the non-destructively capture and processing of the images for real-time display and color visualization using pipelined pixel shaders on the GMA graphics processor.

Operator safety and comfort spawned a different set of design challenges. In addition to the data integrity issues that needed to be addressed, the SI-2K had specific parameters it needed to meet in order to allow the users to use the camera effectively.

On the Move
Mobility was a large factor in the system's design. The camera needed to withstand some pretty harried environments, while remaining small enough to easily transport, since it is carried around on one's shoulder during filming as well as carted from location to location.

The embedded control system needed exceptional shock and vibration resistance to ensure that image quality was not compromised during filming when the user or mounting station may be on the move.

MEN Micro's experience in designing systems for harsh, rugged environments throughout the industrial, aerospace and test and transportation industries enabled the company to properly construct the control system, so the camera could endure the jostling and juggling it would face on the set.

As noted above, the camera is carried on the shoulder, right next to the ear, so low heat generation was paramount in the camera's development. If the system becomes too hot, the operator would not be able to keep the camera up on the shoulder for extended periods of time or risk burns. Low power also extends the life of the system's battery, providing a longer service period during a shoot. The total power consumption of the camera is in the range of 50W.

The system's design enables the camera to withstand a wide range of rigorous and diverse environments from the hot, dry desert to the extremely cold arctic region in addition to the daily wear and tear to which a portable device is subjected. And, the camera's overall small size is testament to the control system's compact 3U form factor.

Ari Presler, founder and CEO of Silicon Imaging, noted, “Data acquisition in HD video stresses all components within the camera simultaneously: peripherals, memory buses, the processor. We needed a powerful, yet compact, platform that would withstand the environmental and computing demands. MEN Micro was the first company to offer the Intel' Core2 Duo in a 3U CompactPCI format.”

More specifically, the F17 SBC controlling the camera includes an Intel' Core2 Duo processor T7600 running at 2.33 GHz, used by the SI-2K for simultaneous encoding of data, and an Intel Graphics Media Accelerator 950 (Intel GMA 950) for image graphics processing, colorization and visualization at full resolution.

The F17 is equipped with 2 GB fast DDR2 DRAM and a hard disk on a removable slot, and also incorporates two Intel' 10 Gigabit Ethernet PHYs, which transfer data from the camera head to the camera control unit as well as to other standard IP hardware.

The custom side card enables the connection of a high-definition multimedia interface (HDMI), headphones and balanced analog input and output ports for professional audio signals.

Presler continued, “Although this SBC was originally developed for use in industrial control applications such as test and measurement, medical engineering and shipbuilding, MEN Micro was able to customize its standard product to develop a system that fit our specific requirements.

For example, we needed to increase the board's chip speed to 2.33 GHz from the F17's typical 2.16 GHz and the side card incorporates some very specific functionality for use in the cinematography industry. “

The F17 is part of MEN Micro's family of intercompatible CompactPCI/-Express SBCs. This family also includes the newly released F18, which incorporates the advanced T7500, which contains an Intel Core 2 Duo Processor, combined with the Mobile Intel 965 GMA Express Chipset.

The F18 is 100% compatible with the F17 and can be incorporated into Silicon Imaging's next generation of SI-2K cameras in a version with an Intel' T7600 running at 2.6 GHz, providing a significant increase in graphics performance.

Stephen Cunha is Vice President at MEN Micro, Inc.

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