Still stores and CGs

Modern technology in still stores and CGs has evolved to the point where the platforms on which both are based have many similarities. The first practical commercial CGs arrived in the late '60s and early '70s. They had a lot in common with ASCII terminals, but had new features such as multiple fonts and sizes. Early units were often wire-wrapped card cages that were barely programmable. Updating was an adventure — and not for those with unskilled hands.

Over time and with the arrival of programmable microprocessors, CGs evolved into software applications running on special-purpose boxes. They required frame buffers designed to output video, which of course required tight lock-to-house sync and good control over signal parameters to assure legal gamut.

On the other hand, still stores were not practical until the development of digital recording technology. Ampex introduced a commercially viable still store — the ESS-1 — in 1977.

Compare the data content of a CG page with the sampled television image. Storing a television image effectively required two fields (a full frame) to avoid interline flicker in an image reconstructed from one field.

Storage was limited by today's standards, and the ability to effectively browse and search content has evolved considerably since those early products. Although it was not a computer in the sense we know of today — meaning it was not reprogrammable — it was another step in the direction of fully programmable systems.

Still stores and CGs were on course to arrive at similar technological solutions. Both required storage systems that could catalog and retrieve images with ease, conventional video interfaces and adherence to established standards. And both were initially expensive. However, once a news department got ahold of either, it couldn't let go. It is precisely this kind of market that convinces a company to invest in research and development. The result is continuous progress over a long period of time — to a point.

A migration to CGs

Jump forward to today. You will find that most companies investing in still stores and CGs are speciality firms. The reason is quite simple and obvious: The market size is just not large enough to attract the serious interest of many firms. For example, fewer than 10 CG companies worldwide produce broadcast products; three of these companies hold the majority share.

The broadcast industry is just not a big enough market to peak the interest of those with large balance sheets. As a result, the entrenched companies hold market share year after year. The positive side of this is that the players who choose to be in the market can invest in options that enhance the appeal of their products, knowing that the entry price is high enough to prevent most startups from entering.

One result of this interesting market dynamic is that many of the features of still stores and moving clip players have migrated into CGs in the last decade. A full-featured broadcast graphics system might be a better name for CGs these days. They play HD and SD moving graphics along with moving video, which in some models can be resized and positioned as part of the graphics look.

This is more than feature creep. The underlying technology I spoke of earlier has become less specific to a single product. For example, a programmable graphics engine that serves workstations and broadcast can output perfectly acceptable video. By leveraging display engines that have a broader use, the cost of increasingly sophisticated graphics systems is restrained by the decreasing investment in nonrecurring engineering.

Putting more effort into software can bring features and usability. This single fact has dramatically changed the cost structure and features available.

Where does this leave still stores?

An important dynamic for CGs in this time of technical transition is the ability to work in both HD and SD. Current HD options add cost, but over time, the differential will probably drop.

But all is not lost for still store companies competing in a graphics engine world. There are new markets, such as film and video color correction in production. Component digital video technology enhances the ability to grab a frame and maintain color perfectly. During a color correction session, the colorist will pull frames from many scenes and compare them with current sequences being worked on to ensure color match is maintained.

For this purpose, a good still store does not need multiple planes of graphics overlay, nor resizing and animation. Such systems are optimized for narrower applications, and the engineering investment can go toward a user interface and storage subsystem.

Another area where still stores shine is in news. News is all about search and retrieval from large databases. For example, if you need stills of someone who has just passed away, you don't have time to search through file folders in a cabinet. Thus, news-oriented still stores feature evolved interfaces that allow stills to be retrieved from within newsroom automation systems as well as from their own interfaces. This integration with newsroom systems is equally important for CGs, and both systems often use MOS technology as the point of connection.

In addition to the traditional role of still graphics repositories, all modern still stores are more properly termed clip stores, as moving images are equally important. The reason is simple: All recording is now file-based, and both long and short files hold the same spot in the database.

You should, however, ask the manufacturer what the recording format is. Some still stores offer composite inputs, though SDI is almost a universal option.

Protection and prediction

A word of caution about the general-purpose computer inside still stores and CGs: Keep production devices like these isolated from the public network. It is just too easy to fire up a Web browser and seek content that comes with risks. At the very least, install an industrial-strength virus protection program and popup blocker.

You might want to check with your management information systems department to be sure that newsroom computer system access over a network passes through the firewall as well. Some newsroom systems make calls through port 80 (HTTP), which is a potential conflict with a plan to isolate Internet browsing.

As time moves onwards, the line between still stores and CGs will likely continue to blur. The technologies they share (file systems, graphics output buffers and often elements of user interfaces) will assure that good business and engineering decisions move in that direction.

John Luff is a broadcast technology consultant.

Send questions and comments