High-end applications require advanced custom design

A discussion with Alan Pritchard, Advanced Vision Technology

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A discussion with Alan Pritchard, Advanced Vision Technology

VSD:What sort of systems or services does your company provide?

Pritchard:We mainly service security, defense, and high-end commercial applications. We specialize in solutions that require a degree of customization from our customers. A large area of our business is involved in the design and manufacture of high-quality video driver cards for specific applications. For example, a customer may need to drive an LCD panel with a video image but overlay some specific real-time environmental information on the display.

We also have a high level of expertise in the design of computer cards. We design PC cards using PCI, Compact PCI, and PCI Express. At reasonable costs and short time scales we can design, develop, and produce customer-specific cards for computers. We also provide a wide range of services from specification through design and manufacture to compliance testing, debugging, installation, and commissioning.

VSD:Do you specialize in certain applications or frequently develop new ones?

Pritchard:Although our main area of work focuses on video display and real-time processing of video images, applications within this field can be very diverse. One customer’s project involved designing the electronic and system controllers for a 50-sq m outdoor LCD screen. The prototype was built and 272 FPGAs configured for image manipulation. The color pixel size was 2.5 cm, and the viewing distance of the screen was 100 m. Other projects involve specialized FPGA/DSP-based image-processing solutions for video smoke-detection systems. We pride ourselves on our flexibility and ability to find unique solutions to difficult problems.

VSD:What technologies and components do you use in these applications?

Pritchard:A typical imaging platform will consist of either a composite camera source or preferably a digital Camera Link source, as this provides a noninterlaced high-resolution image to process. There is a wide range of CPUs we use, but we usually prefer ones from Texas Instrument (Dallas, TX, USA; www.ti.com). We find that-for embedded as well as host-PC applications-removing the majority of the processing required from the system CPU, running Windows or Linux, to the DSP is very beneficial. The DSP uses all of its power doing the work rather than housekeeping the system. Most of our embedded products now come with a range of interface methods including USB and IP addressable.

At a semiconductor level, many of our products are designed with FPGAs from Xilinx (San Jose, CA, USA; www.xilinx.com). We use a wide range of Xilinx devices and choose the device most applicable to the task to be undertaken. These range from the smallest CPLD costing less than $1 up to the largest and newest technologies with device costs near $1000. Applications are written for the Xilinx programmable devices in VHDL, which gives a powerful and efficient way to describe how the devices are to operate.

VSD:In which areas do you see the most growth? What are users demanding from you in the design of new systems?

Pritchard:In the consumer markets we are seeing large growth in wireless vision technology. With high-band Bluetooth technologies being developed, most camera and display devices will become wireless and networked, requiring a lot more embedded processors for image manipulation and decompression/compression.

For the industrial markets, I believe that multiprocessor solutions will be the answer to the image processing problems of the future. Whether this is in the form of a smart camera or PCI Express card, with on-board processing for multiple channel inputs, it is the most processor efficient way to go. It seems as PCs get faster and faster, the overhead of housekeeping the OS get larger and larger, and most solutions don’t require all of the niceties offered by a large OS.

VSD:How will OEM components targeted toward machine-vision applications have to change to meet future needs?

Pritchard:They will require more specialized skills in order to integrate the usual system components with the specialised multiprocessor solutions that may be required. They also need to be daring and push the embedded solutions since this is what people want more and more. These days, if a piece of electronic kit takes more than 10 s to power then it’s obvious that the operating system is taking too much of the system resources! PCs are great-they are a fantastic tool but do not have to do everything.

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The VisionMax 1 system, developed by Advanced Vision Technology, runs number-plate recognition algorithms. The VisionMax 1 enables users to develop embedded imaging applications in a system that consist of a three-site motherboard that can accommodate up to three of the company’s AV339 image-processing modules. The modules feature a TI DM642 video DSP and a Vitrex-4 FPGA.
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VSD:Could you compare the machine-vision markets in different industry segments in the UK?

Pritchard:There are a number of key industry segments that will see future growth. Inspection has to be one of the universal areas, as this does not just cover electronic circuit inspection but can be found in all areas from pharmaceutical to food to plastic-molding industries. The key is to develop a system that can be easily adapted to each of the areas with minimal hardware changes. The other main area is security, both in the home and industrial. Usually the cost for home security has been too great for the average home, but with costs coming down this is set to soar [see figure].

VSD:How do you approach new applications?

Pritchard:If a customer approaches us with a new application then we first ensure that the customer knows what he or she requires. Nailing down that first specification and looking at the application as a whole is important as it changes the way you may deal with the individual elements. Very often in vision systems-as well as nonvision systems-the typical building blocks that make up the system can be inefficient, with processes duplicated in many different areas of the solution.

We try to ensure things are done efficiently as this can reduce the final costs and complexity of a system. Keeping up with the latest developments is also important, as devices become faster and cheaper and the solution becomes more efficient and cost-effective.

VSD:What kinds of new applications do you expect to emerge in the future?

Pritchard:As vision systems get more powerful and the cost of the equipment decreases, vision systems will greatly expand in our homes. Systems for video surveillance that are widespread in industry will become as common as house alarms are today. Solutions enabling e-mails or text messages to be sent instantly to let someone know that an area on their premises has been triggered by a person, logging close-ups of their faces, and allowing you to check your premises on the Internet are just some examples. Cars may be fitted with cameras, front and back, not necessarily to help you drive but to monitor accidents, road rage, and so forth.

I believe that security will be the largest growth area for industry. Having systems that are fast enough to log a person’s profile as they enter and leave public areas may seem daunting but will eventually become a reality. For vision systems to become portable and low cost means more and more of these systems and gadgets will move away from large-operating-system computers to embedded processors doing most, if not all, of the processing in a system.

On the design of new systems, I think we will see merging of both hardware and software. Just as VHDL and others changed the way firmware is designed in FPGAs, we will see software adapting and optimizing itself to be configurable as code or as firmware without the need for the programmer to specify.

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Alan Pritchard is director of Advanced Vision Technology (Chesham, UK; www.avtechuk.com), which he cofounded in 1998. He has a B.Eng. in electronic engineering and a Ph.D. in color image processing from the University of Reading. Editor in chief Conard Holton spoke with him about video display and real-time processing.

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