Why the flashy display?

Slowly, but surely, government agencies are moving away from small, archaic

computer displays that might look at home on the set of "Apollo 13," and

are moving toward large-screen monitors that would fit in on the set of

"Star Trek."

These days, a 15-inch flat-panel monitor that might replace a conventional

17-inch CRT costs about $1,000 — three times as much as the conventional

display. But it's far less than what the flat panel cost two years ago.

Even so, an agency could put CRTs on three users' desks for the price of

just one LCD panel. That means you need a very good reason to buy the LCD — not just because it looks cool.

Of course, many federal agencies have plenty of reasons to buy flat-panel

displays. Here's how some of them are justifying the extra expense.

GSA's FTS

When the General Services Administration's Federal Technology Service

consolidated eight offices in Northern Virginia into the Willow Woods facility,

employees found that they had much less space than before. So the agency

searched for ways to use less space for equipment.

The solution, said Bob Suda, assistant commissioner for IT solutions,

was to deploy notebook computers with docking stations and 19-inch flat-panel

displays on 450 users' desktops. Because other federal agencies buy their

products through FTS, the agency also wanted its office to be a technology

showplace for them to study. "We are showing what can be done in the future,"

he said.

Aside from providing more space for employees, the large flat panels

are easier on users' eyes, Suda said. "Flat-screen monitors tend to cause

less eye strain over the course of the day," he said. Another benefit is

that the larger screens make objects more visible for aging workers.

Navy's Spawar

The pros and cons of price vs. space and power savings may be debatable

for desktop applications. But on ships, a LCD monitor actually costs about

the same as the same size CRT, once both have been ruggedized and magnetically

shielded. That makes the decision to use LCD panels pretty easy, especially

when considering space and power.

A few years ago, ruggedized flat panels were about twice as expensive

as ruggedized CRTs — but even at that premium, the flat panels were preferable

because of the space savings, said John Rath, project manager for contractor

Scientific Research Corp. Rath is currently at the Navy's Space and Naval

Warfare Systems Command in Charleston, S.C.

"Traditionally, we were burning up eight or nine rack units for the

monitor," he said. "With the flat panel, we can use that space for equipment."

That's because the flat panel is so thin that it can be mounted on the front

of the rack, rather than in it, leaving more space for computers and other

equipment in the rack.

Also, the old displays drew between three and five amps of power, while

the flat panels use only half an amp, according to Rath. That reduces the

strain on air conditioning because less power is dissipated as heat into

the room.

LCD panels have improved in image quality and range of viewing angles,

which makes them easier for sailors to use, Rath said. The earlier units

had to be viewed directly, so the contractor had to build a tilting mount

that let users angle the screen for a better view.

FAA

The Federal Aviation Administration has recently begun to look at replacing

its traditional air traffic control scopes with flat-panel displays, according

to Neville Wilkinson, president of Thin Display Technologies, Westford,

Mass. "The FAA has finally decided that flat panels have the clarity and

depth of color to be used for air traffic controls," he said. "And the FAA

has gone to color software" after years of monochrome and old green displays,

Wilkinson said.

"There is a requirement for color because it helps you focus on certain

events," said Vern Edwards, team leader of the FAA's runway incursion program.

The flat panels are helpful in the cramped control towers. "Space is

at a premium in our towers," Edwards said.

The panels are also more effective in the bright conditions of the

control tower. "There is a lot of ambient light that comes in, but having

high-bright screens makes it easier to see what is on them," he said.

FAA also uses the panels in the dim air traffic control back rooms,

where the key to using LCDs was to develop flat panels that faithfully reproduce

color, even when turned down to lower brightness. "We can now dim the light

sufficiently and not lose color," Wilkinson said. "We used contrast-enhancing

films, and we changed the backlights to bulbs that can use less voltage

but still maintain their brightness."

Air Force

The Air Force transports mobile computers around the world, where they

are used for command and control systems. In this case, flat panels have

an edge over heavy, bulky CRTs. The Air Force uses its flat-panel displays

for the graphic mapping portions of its command and control applications,

leaving the text portions to run on plain notebooks, said Jim McGovern,

staff engineer for contractor Dynamics Research Corp. at Hanscomb Air Force

Base.

"The main selling point of the flat panels was to reduce weight and

power," McGovern said. "The previous design used 11 transit cases, and now

we only use nine," he said. That's because the Air Force can back the displays

in the same cases as the computers that use them.

A problem with using flat panels in a bright outdoor environment such

as a tent is that the picture can be washed out. The Air Force uses high-bright

backlights on its displays, solving the problem, McGovern said.

But that solution introduced a new problem. "They burn out a lot faster,"

McGovern said. The latest displays will be bright enough to use without

the special bulbs, so the problem should be temporary.

—Carney is a freelance writer based in Herndon, Va.

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