Production switching

Product categories evolve over time, not unlike the natural world. Things that make a product distinct and useful tend to show up in similar ways in other manufacturers' products. Patents notwithstanding, it is easy to understand that one company's success breeds sincere copying. What is perhaps most interesting is when a feature becomes generic and expected. Then all subsequent products have little option but to incorporate the good ideas that may have started elsewhere.

Switcher innovations

I am specifically thinking about the periodic introduction of small switchers as game changers. In another century, and in the analog domain, Grass Valley introduced the Model 100 switcher. I'm not sure what market the company thought it was addressing, but I would be willing to bet Grass Valley was astounded at the places it ended up — edit suites, production controls rooms in broadcast, education and industry, and surprisingly major mobile units where it became a key element for split feeds and in truck editing. It spawned the IPS-100 with an automated audio console and character generator integrated into one product. But would the original designers be surprised that periodically over the last 26 years, since the Model 100 took hold, there have been copycat products, first component analog, then digital and most recently with built-in multiviewers, frame syncs and even digital effects?

The answer is yes, in some respects. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Innovation in production switchers is all about imitation and differentiation. Grass Valley created a memory store for panel recall in the 1600 series of production switchers, and like Kleenex, EMEM has become an accepted part of the lexicon, even if other manufacturers were obliged to find another name for it. The key point is that it changed the way the product is used and therefore became critical to competitor's products.

Other instances of such invention and imitation are all over the production switcher market. Many of today's switchers have built-in multiviewers, from modest to grand. And in every case they solve particular problems in the integration of switchers into complete production systems. A large switcher might include a multiviewer to allow an easy upgrade to a control room, including the monitor wall, instead of buying stand-alone products. A small switcher may have a multiviewer because it drops the cost of installation dramatically, or makes a portable system with its own monitoring quite practical and easy to deploy in the field from a suitcase.

Another example is the integration of multiple formats in one switcher. It may have begun with onboard aspect ratio conversion to allow the use of 16:9 and 4:3 pictures in one SD production system without having a slew of outboard conversion products. Over time, the concept has evolved to include integrating HD and SD in one switcher. A few years ago, one manufacturer, who also built high-quality up/downconverters, integrated software and hardware to do up/down/crossconversion in the switcher, including the ability to author an SD and HD output from the same switcher. This seems totally logical because at the time the industry was deep in the conversion from SD to HD. That strategy now looks more like the integration of legacy SD content into current productions without having an SD infrastructure around to support the past. How perfectly logical …

Where innovation originates

Increasingly, these innovations are software running in GPU hardware or other generic IT and consumer-based hardware developments. On the scale of the long-term sweep of technology, nothing could be more important to the industry. We are a small business. At one time, we could expect RCA to develop a vertical product line that started in acquisition and continued through post, broadcast and finally ended in the consumer display. Now the reverse is more likely to happen, where a development that makes a new consumer device possible filters into the professional industry. Cameras are an obvious place where this happens with great impact on the manufacturers we know best. But consider the development of scalars for flat-panel televisions. Is that not in spirit if not in fact the origin of the multiviewers in production switchers I mentioned earlier? A capability that was developed to sell masses of chips in the consumer marketplace drifts into the corner cases in our industry and finally becomes critical to the feature set in a production switcher.

I am not concerned about the future of the production switcher market in the least. That is not to say that if I worked for a manufacturer I would not be struggling to find innovations that can be migrated into a switcher. Internal clip players, still stores, buttons that relegend themselves and magically change color, and touch-screen interfaces are not new, but the methodology of implementing them using generically available technology is critical to manufacturing cost. That kind of innovation provides features we have come to expect and offers the manufacturer reductions in cost to partially offset the design and development expense.

To date, few switchers use generic IT technology in the signal path. But in an era in which it is hard to justify developing complicated products for a tiny industry like ours, does it make sense to continue building special-purpose hardware and code software that can only run on hardware that might not be available in 10 years because parts have been discontinued? I suspect the obvious answer has pushed most manufacturers to look hard at the incredible processing power of six core processors, cell processors and GPU chips, and think about switching from purpose-built hardware to a rack of blade servers and a terabyte of memory. Imagining the kind of innovation that might bring, and the further drop in development cost that could accrue, is intoxicating. If my iPhone can rotate and scale images in real time, can this be so hard? The obvious answer is yes!

John Luff is a broadcast technology consultant.

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