NAB Wrapup/Panel Discussion

The CD-ROM Doesn't Work!

By Robert Lamm

The freebie CD-ROM with manufacturers' spec sheets that was handed out at NAB froze up a lot of our Distinguished Panel of Experts' machines. Audience member Mike Bove (MIT Media Lab) reported that it immediately proceeded to overwrite several of his Windows files and stopped his other applications from working. Panel Moderator Phil Ozek (TASC) reported the same problem and complained about the lack of a Mac version... (huh?)

The Direction We're Headed...

Our distinguished panel of experts from broadcasting, the media press, consulting and equipment sales all agreed that this yearís NAB documented the continuing computerization of our field. Even Sony's on the bandwagon: Their TV station system virtually duplicates (local company) Avidís highly-computerized media server concept. And Avid and Ikegami have even developed portable video-on-a-hard-drive ENG recorders that can then plug directly into nonlinear systems.

Windows seems to be the platform with the most activity: Lots of new graphics programs, nonlinear systems (including one from Avid), and even an IBM Video Toaster (finally!). Two, actually: some Newtek people broke off and came up with their own toaster-on-an-IBM, the Play Trinity. Windows NT and PCI bus machines seem to have a rosy video future: D/Vision was showing a Windows-based nonlinear system that had better than AVR-27 playback, achieved entirely under Windows on a PCI bus machine with 'open system' off-the shelf video cards.

The 'open system' concept of unbundling hardware from software met with wide approval from our panel: It allows users to mix and match hardware and software, freeing them from dependence on any single vendor. A special group has gathered to formalize a Windows standard, their first formal get-together at NAB was hailed by panelist Bob Doyle (columnist at New Media magazine) as an historic moment. (Sidebar on Open Systems.)

What about traditional gear?

There wasn't much new in cameras, but tape formats keep on evolving: Panasonic and JVC introduced separate versions of what amounts to Digital Betacam on smaller cassettes. Both companies have taken lessons from Sony: Panasonic is trying to emulate the success of Hi-8 by making an ultra-compact format, JVC is battling the Betacam/Digital Betacam compatibility issue by making their format compatible with the popular S-VHS industrial format. Sidebar on these formats.)

There was some disappointment among the panelists that the new formats don't go far enough: They're still video formats. One panelist felt that any new digital tape format should be a file-oriented format, with resolution/compression factors embedded in file headers instead of hardware. That way new compression algorithms could be easily adopted without obsoleting the format, and the compressed video downloaded at high speed into nonlinear systems without decompression/recompression artifacts.

Whither HDTV?

Several panelists felt that the FCC isnít providing the neccessary leadership. With future policy and technical standards still up in the air, most felt itís too early to make committments. Panelist Bob Hess, Chief Engineer at WBZ-TV, explained that although he wants all his new purchases to be HDTV-compatible, he's waiting to see how everything shakes out before spending any big bucks on HDTV hardware.

He further explained that transmission facilities will need upgrading before any HDTV can be broadcast. Several stations' antennas currently coexist on WBZ's tower, and it doesn't look like all of them will continue to fit if they all convert to HDTV. Bob thinks that they might need to explore antenna sharing if everyone wants to stay on that tower.

Audience member Mike Keller (New England Cable News) mentioned that he saw a very nice HDTV camera in the JVC booth. It uses a Panasonic megapixel chip with 1000-line resolution and only costs $80,000.

Where do we go from here?

Panelist Bob Paulsen, consultant and author, feels that the PCI bus, Windows NT and fiber communication have brought us to a performance level beyond which further image qulity improvements won't be very noticeable. Bob Doyle foresees development efforts shifting towards eliminating rendering: In fact, a company named Plum is coming out with a card that allows Adobe Premiere for Windows to play back from the timeline without rendering at all!

And virtually all the panelists commented on how quickly prices are tumbling. Bob Hess saw a morphing/warping package from a company called Elastic Reality that he really liked. Cost? A few hundred dollars. Bob Doyle priced out the Trinity IBM-Video Toaster: 8x8 D-1 capable router with 2 TBC'd inputs, 2-channel DVE with warping and recursive effects, animateable paint, and ability to support nonlinear options for about $6000! But a lot of products (including the Trinity) were incomplete or total vaporware. This applies to the more established companies too: Sony's intergrated newsroom was reported to be pretty conceptual. And Panasonic's DVCPro format is also mostly vaporistic: The only product coming out anytime soon is the editing deck.

Because of this, panelist Marty Polon, columnist and author, warned against investing in new technologies too prematurely. If they don't catch on or the companies don't have the resources to develop them to completion, pioneer users could get stuck with the mess.

Another way to avoid unpleasant surprises is to try out new technologies in a small way before making heavy investments. This gradualistic apporoach seemed to be pretty popular with our panel: Most had very nice things to say about the Tektronix Profile, which pretty much emulates a VTR and can slip right into an existing facility without having to rebuild the whole place for the new technology.

Final Picks

Bob Doyle thinks this year's NAB will be remembered for the Play Trinity. He very much likes its modular design and the track record of the Newtek exiles who designed it.

Bob Hess and Bob Paulson chose the new Avid/Ikegami disk recorders as their picks of the show. Bob thinks he might be buying some soon... (Any salesmen out there?)

Marty Polon picked the Sony HR-MP5 audio processor, which he felt was a very inexpensive unit (only $700 list) that delivered a lot of bang for the buck.

I liked the new D-Vision nonlinear editing system, which dramatically demonstrated the promise that open systems offer.

And Phil Ozek picked the Flying-Cam, a camera in a mini-helicopter designed for inexpensive aerial shots. (Wonder who carries their liability insurance?)

If you want to go next time:

Next year's show will be in Las Vegas from April 15-18. Passes will be available from local dealers 2-3 months in advance.

Closing comments: Final Curtain on the Show

Bob Lamm is Manager at CYNC Corp., a video dealership that hopes to sell all these products as soon as they're available. He can be reached at (617) 277-4317, cync@world.std.com.