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Show Review
Switcher NT
Off-Topic Rambles from IBC

By Robert Lamm

Plugging In

Last month, I went to IBC, the NAB of Europe. Except for the fact that most of the gear on display is PAL, it's a nice show to go to because it's much smaller and less crowded than NAB. Everybody you'd ever want to talk to goes there, maybe because they all want to check out that Amsterdam pot.

What really impressed me at this show was how the plug-in design philosophy is making for some spectacularly capable products...

For those who don't know what a plug-in is, it's a supplemental piece of software that's accessible from the main application that allows you to do more. A good example is Boris Effects, a 3D DVE software application (made by a Boston company) that you can add to Premiere, Avid MCXpress, D-Vision and some other nonlinear editing systems to give you TV-style DVE effects.

Nonlinear system plug-ins like Boris and the Inscriber character generator that comes with most PC-based systems are the plug-ins most of us are likely to be familar with. But the richest selection of plug-ins is probably in the 3D animation field, where man's efforts to create the real (and unreal) world in the computer has presented a virtually unlimited array of opportunities for plug-in developers: At IBC, I was blown away by some of the spectacular modules that have been created for 3D Studio Max, a very popular 3D animation package:

For example, MetaReyes (a small company in Spain) makes a plug-in that models cloth very realistically. All you have to do is to design a dress, place it on the model of the (not neccessarily female) person wearing it, and the dress will move natually as you animate the person. It not only reacts to the person's movements, but also to gravity, wind, and the turbulence ot its own movements. This same plug-in will allow you to take a cloth and twist it realistically into a wrung-out rag: It wraps around itself realistically, just like the dishrag on the sink. This is virtually impossible to do with other systems, because of the neccessary calculations to keep the rag from self-intersecting itself as it wraps.

MetaReyes also makes a plug-in that takes a 3D model and 'dirties' it up based on the inaccessibility of the various niches in the model. This fixes one of the biggest shortcomings of computer-generated models: They're unrealistically clean and pristine. The footage I saw of 'dirtied' F-16's over Manhattan was so realistically patinated that I thought that the planes were actually real.

Opening Up

What makes all these plug-ins possible is the new concept of 'open systems'. This is when a computer-software developer makes it possible for additional software to be invoked from within the original application and for it to manipulate the 3D model, timeline, etc. The payoff is that the original software application may be enhanced way beyond the capabilities of the original package, possibly beyond whatever the original author had ever imagined...

To give you an idea of the scale of these things, there are over 100 3D-Studio Max plugins: They do things like model gravity, create lens flares, do architectural cutaways, automatically create models of humans according to the physical attributes of various sociological groups, model the physical dynamics of soft objects, provide special tools for the facial animation of characters, make them walk up steps by just placing the footprints, model the muscular deformations as they move, etc...

Plug-ins have made 3D Studio MAX so powerful that the its manufacturer has decided to include a complete Software Developers' Kit with every copy of the upcoming Version 2.0, complete with Visual C++ source code for almost half of 3D Studio MAX itself. This to encourage as many people as possible to write plug-ins for this package.

Not all applications are going quite as far as this, but virtually all video devices are working frantically to become as 'open' as they can. At minimum, this means giving them the ability to import/export the widest possible array of computer filetypes. More ambitious ones can cut-and-paste or call each other.

And we're not just talking animation and nonlinear editing gear here, the new Sony DV camcorders come with a firewire connection that allows them to dump their digital off-tape signal directly to your computer's hard drive for editing...

Distributed Functionality

The open-system plug-in phenomenon is something of an outgrowth of the computer-philosophy of putting all functionality as far down near the operating-system level as possible. This is in opposition to the usual video approach to make a tool as self-contained and independent as possible. So a video-oriented nonlinear editor would normally come with a complete set of digitizing/playback tools, media management, and effects functionality in a single box. (As in fact, the first ones did.) A more computer-literate approach would be to have the media-handling (capture/playback) done by the operating system and the database management by calling another application. (Which is the way the newer products are doing things.)

The computer-based approach is harder and requires more cooperation between all the parties involved, but has some advantages:

1) Once a certain level of functionality is embedded into the operating system, it's available to all applications. For example, a word-processor that has speech-recognition in it allows dictation to take place, but speech-recognition built into the operating system makes it possible to talk to all the applications running on the computer.

2) Developers can build on this common functionality and concentrate on their value-added functionality rather than duplicating basic functionality all over again.

Apple's soon-to-be-released Quicktime 3.0, the new video plug-in for Macs and PC's, promises radical new enhancements in what we think of as digital media. They're expanded the MOV file format to cover more than just the usual codecs plus what had previously been separate file formats like AVI, WAV, AIFF, FLC, MPEG, etc.: Quicktime will now include any time-based media, including text, time code, MIDI, DV video, 3D and virtual reality.

Quicktime 3.0 will also allow movies to reference each other, as well as define transitions/effects (which they call 'sprites'). The advantage here is that media can be digitized, edited, composited and played back by separate applications all from the original media without having to render out a separate file with the complete program, even if they have some special effects. (Assuming your hardware can handle it.)

The Future is Closer Than You Think

Echolab (The switcher manufacturer in Burlington MA) has just come out with a CCIR-601 digital switcher that goes beyond just mere video switching: It has an NT-based engine that can communicate with other computer-based applications like the Image North Video Carte stillstore, the Chyron Winfinit! character generator, and MJPEG-compressed video from a nonlinear system. Using standard computer networking protocols, it can call up a particular still on the videocarte, credit on the Chyron, or clip from the nonlinear editor.

Thus, it's getting to the point where the most computer-resistant part of our industry, live air-switching, is beginning to surrender to the computer revolution.

And what do you call such a device? A computerized switcher? A video router? At IBC, one of the editors of the trade magazines christened it 'Switcher NT'.

I'm betting that a lot of our gear starts saying 'NT' in the future. (Well, some might say 'JAVA' on them). And a lot of facilities are going to rethink their designs away from proprietary point-to-point video routing to hub-and-spoke wide-bandwidth computer networking. Mercury Computers (Chelmsford, MA), is already selling a networking system optimized for video. (It prioritizes streams so that digitizing and print-to-tape are interrrupted by file transfers, etc.)

Why you should computerize your facility

Some of the merits are obvious: flexibility, economy and scaleability. Flexibility because computer-based communication is data-type insensitive: It'll carry text, images, EDL's, video, audio and even e-mail on a single pipleline. Economy because off-the-shelf computer gear is very inexpensive. And scaleability because most computer media files don't lock you into fixed resolutions, data rates, etc., so one can produce for multimedia, video, film and even print with the same equipment.

But the other, less-evident, advantages are the ability to work collaboratively, the elimination of lots of traffic management and the unification/standardization of the user interface.

Workflow collaboration means that all the tools and media are accessible to everyone across a facility-wide network. Thus, a person doing graphics can grab stills from the nonlinear system, the nonlinear system operator can use a copy of Photoshop to color-correct a still that doesn't quite match the rest of the footage, etc.

Networked systems like these also cut down on huge amounts of traffic management. A considerable amount of time at a traditional production facility is taken up with dubbing tapes for use in the neighboring room, etc. With centralized media storage and cross-application compatibility, most of this dubbing is eliminated and the number of decks required is reduced to those needed for digitizing and final mastering.

But perhaps the greatest contribution the computer geeks have made to our industry has been the unification of all the user-interfaces under the standard Windows model that everyone is familar with. In other words, all the functionality contained in those weird Chyron menus, CMX screens and DVE panels has been brought under a consistent system of pull-down menus and click boxes. And once a basic functionality model has been established (for example, a nonlinear editor or 3D animation system), plug-ins can piggy-back onto the user interface to add their functionality.

It used to take a video expert months to get proficient with a particular room, now a high-school kid can start using its computer-equivalent in a few hours. This development alone has made it possible for the production process to move from an industry dominated by a technical elite to one run by creative types who really have content to contribute.

Who let those folks in?

We now live in an era where kids want P2/233 computers for Christmas (at least I do.) And they not only want to produce video, they're doing it! This is the new, democratic generation growing up in the industry, and they're starting to come to NAB and IBC to shop for gear.

In some respects they know more about our industry than we do, since they were weaned on the Internet at the breakfast table. Many of them are quite network literate, you'd be surprised how many of them have played with Premiere and video streaming applications. Although hardware limits have kept much of this functionality from being applied to broadcast TV, this is beginning to change. And the masses are begining to demand the same conveniences and features that they've grown used to having on their PC.

I think I'm going to learn Visual C++...

Bob Lamm teaches the video technology classes at the Boston Film/Video Foundation and works for CYNC Corp., a video/multimedia equipment dealership. He can be reached at (617) 277-4317, lamm@cync.com. He claims he didn't smoke any pot while he was in Amsterdam.

Posted: October 1997
Bob Lamm, SMPTE/New England Newsletter/Web Page Editor
blamm@cync.com