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March 23, 2010
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John Rivera P1 Technology Helpdesk
with John Rivera

P1 Tech Help: The right lighting for squad computers

With your squad-mounted computer screen, too bright at night can be just as bad as not bright enough in daytime

Before I dive into this month’s Tech Help topic, I want to ask your help. Technology is constantly evolving — new software or equipment is introduced into the law enforcement market every day — and there’s just no way for me or any one person to be aware of it all. I’ve been writing Tech Help articles for PoliceOne for just over a year, covering topics like the use of flash drives, video formats, and other stuff that relates to the way technology can be (and has been) used in police work. During that time, some of you have written me asking me for further help or advice and I have tried my best to answer your questions in a timely manner.

I use technology every day at work and at home — so something that may be simple for me might have you about ready to plant a stick of dynamite in your computer. I would like to ask you, the PoliceOne readers, to help me help you. I’m asking you to e-mail me with a tech problem or topic you want me to cover. I ask this because the subject of technology is vast and ever changing, and I don’t necessarily know what you don’t know, you know?

In the meantime, I will attempt to cover topics that will hopefully help you perform better and efficiently at work and maybe take some frustration away at home. This month, let’s look at the screens on the computers and MDT or MCTs in our patrol cars. I’ll be watching out for your e-mail and thanks for reading.

Paradise by the Dashboard Lights
I know some of you can remember a time long before there was wireless Internet in a police car, when eight track cassette players were “the bee’s knees” (some you may have even played that Meatloaf song “Paradise by the Dashboard Light”). Now we can carry thousands of songs in a device that fits in your pocket. One thing that hasn’t changed though, is that those dashboard lights can diminish your night vision if you jack them up too high. Same is true on your squad’s computer.

When it comes to your notebook or squad-mounted computer screen, too bright at night can be just as bad as not bright enough in daytime. When you’re responding to a call, it’s critical to get the information you need with just a quick glance at your MDT or laptop computer mounted in your patrol car. We all know that letting your eyes linger on the computer is dangerous. I am now working nights and a bright screen is very bothersome. I typically read the dispatch and close the lid. This way I take the distraction away and I can look out the windshield much better. Also, our computer aided dispatch software allows for a Day/Night mode but it does not affect the other software I have open.

Different Approaches
We all know the screen needs to be easily readable in both daytime and nighttime conditions.  Two of the most popular manufacturers of rugged computers for the law enforcement community are Panasonic Computer Solutions Company and General Dynamics Itronix. Each company’s computers offer ways to handle the problem of screen “readability” in the tactical environment. My agency is currently using the Panasonic Toughbook and we have discovered it is very functional and user friendly. It has an internal antenna and can easily be configured for different uses by adding to or removing hardware from the modular bays.

With the Panasonic machines, cops can immediately turn off all external lights on the computer while it stays running. So if you’re on a stakeout or otherwise trying to be inconspicuous, you just hit a few keys and avoid attracting attention without shutting down. The company issued a press announcement last year that said, in part, that “Toughbook 30 and 19 mobile computers include a ‘concealed mode’ which allows users to easily turn all device lights off — screen and LEDs — using a function (Fn) key, without having to power down the machine. The feature allows users to customize which attributes get turned off when the Fn key is pressed including screen, LEDs, backlit keyboards (my favorite feature), volume, and wireless radios (Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and mobile broadband). Furthermore, users can select if they wish the screen to be turned off, or just set to the minimum brightness level. The ‘concealed mode’ feature is ideal for military and law enforcement applications and for jurisdictions requiring vehicle-mounted PCs to have their screens turned off while the vehicle is in operation.”

Brighter Isn't Necessarily Better
Many screens incorporate display technology that simply increases the display brightness — this is fine if your only problem is cranking the thing up during daylight hours — but you may also want to adjust the “contrast” of the screen to suit the lighting conditions of your shift.

Screen brightness is measured in something called NITs. General Dynamics says that NIT ratings are not an indicator of viewability, and that contrast ratio is a more appropriate measurement of outdoor performance. “High ambient contrast ratio Contrast ratio,” says the company in one of its product sheets, “provides a much clearer characterization of viewability.”

General Dynamics has developed a patent-pending display technology called “DynaVue” which creates optimum outdoor readability by reducing both “specular and diffused reflections.” The company document goes on to say that “DynaVue technology uses polarizing techniques and multi-layer indexed matched coatings to transform the frequency of the reflected light waves and eliminate reflections that make displays unreadable. With DynaVue patent-pending display technology, customers experience rich luminous colors; dark areas appear darker and fine details are more pronounced. And since DynaVue does not require additional brightness, battery life and processor performance are optimized.”

The Itronix people say this design approach helps to “increase outdoor contrast ratio to provide rich color and improve visibility of fine details in all lighting.”

Regardless of which manufacturer made your MDT or notebook, try to find out how you can adjust its brightness and contrast settings for optimal readability as the lighting conditions change throughout your shift.

Stay safe.

About the author

John Rivera is a Patrol Officer with the Bremerton Police Department. John’s career BPD started as a Volunteer Reserve Officer and while he volunteered his time as a reserve officer he work as Police Officer at Naval Base Kitsap. He was hired full time in 2006 and attended the Washington State Police Academy. While at the academy, John was selected as the class “Techy” to help with the technologically deficient class instructors. Before John’s law enforcement career, he gained his computer experience through earning a degree in Computer Programming and then working in the computer industry as a Network Administrator and Systems Engineer for several companies. Contact John Rivera

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