Emerging PC standards herald new imaging systems

Although several manufacturers have introduced new board-level PC-based frame grabbers and image processors over the last two years, there has been a noticeable lack of innovation in developing new camera-interface standards or novel processing capability or in addressing PCI-based processor bandwidth restrictions.

Mar 1st, 2000

Although several manufacturers have introduced new board-level PC-based frame grabbers and image processors over the last two years, there has been a noticeable lack of innovation in developing new camera-interface standards or novel processing capability or in addressing PCI-based processor bandwidth restrictions. Many frame-grabber vendors still support antiquated analog RS-170-like interfaces that are replete with problems of noise and stability. And to perform image processing, many suppliers have used off-the-shelf processors never intended for industrial image processing. All the while, the bandwidth problems of the PC and the PCI bus remain.

Later this year, thanks to a number of converging factors, PC-based imaging is about to get a shot in the arm. The key factor will be the increased bandwidth of 64-bit systems, based on a high-performance addition to the PCI local bus specification, the PCI-X v1.0.

Industry standard

Announced late last year by the Peripheral Component Interconnect Special Interest Group (PCI-SIG; Hillsboro, OR), PCI-X is the first industry standard to break the 1-Gbyte/s barrier in sustainable bandwidth. Providing a backward-compatible high-performance extension to the PCI local bus, PCI-X will tackle the increased requirements for high-bandwidth applications such as image processing, gigabit Ethernet, and Fibre Channel networking and Ultra3 SCSI high-speed storage. Supporting 32- and 64-bit operations at frequencies up to 133 MHz, PCI-X will allow systems to be developed with more than 1-Gbyte/s data throughput.

Realizing the impact of this increased bandwidth, camera vendors will abandon legacy broadcast-type camera interfaces in favor of digital interfaces. Already, Basler Vision Technologies (Exton, PA) and Pulnix America (Sunnyvale, CA) have joined forces to promote a common digital-camera interface based on Channel Link technology (see Vision Systems Design, Dec. 1999, p. 10). According to Chris Seymour, Basler's product-development manager, such interfaces provide a high-bandwidth link and low-cost cabling and reduce the complexity and cost of imaging systems.

With such elements in place, image-processing board vendors should take up the PCI-X challenge. And it seems certain that by fall of this year a number of 64-bit PCI frame grabbers and image processors will become available for high-performance applications. Although these products will not fall in the less-than-$1000 category, it is likely they will support multiple high-speed digital area- and linescan cameras and some form of on-board processing and Windows NT or real-time operating system, although likely as not, no on-board display. Display control, in high-speed imaging systems, will finally be relegated to the 64-bit Itanium host.

When combined with off-the-shelf gigabit-Ethernet cards and disk-controller cards, such frame grabbers and image-processing boards coupled with the next generation of 1-GHz host processors will provide systems integrators with major opportunities to develop next-generation PC-based systems. Industrial PC web-inspection systems will be capable of supporting and processing data from multiple high-speed linescan cameras, dramatically reducing the cost of end-user systems. Medical-imaging workstations will capture, compress, and decompress 1k x 1k medical images while displaying the results of image processing in real time.

Open-architecture systems based around the PC will become the dominant force. Systems developers who have opted for expensive proprietary closed systems may be left behind.

Andy WilsonEditor at Large
andyw@pennwell.com

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