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What I Saw in Las Vegas - TvTechnology

What I Saw in Las Vegas

Las Vegas -- a cold, heartless place, the kind of place where each day a thousand dreams are born and a million hopes are murdered. They come here from around the globe, full of notions both fanciful and farcical, brilliant and banal; but Lady Luck plays no favorites, and neither rhyme nor reason can be found in the outcomes. They play hopeless long shots, convinced they've got the only sure thing in town...And that's just the exhibitors.
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Las Vegas -- a cold, heartless place, the kind of place where each day a thousand dreams are born and a million hopes are murdered. They come here from around the globe, full of notions both fanciful and farcical, brilliant and banal; but Lady Luck plays no favorites, and neither rhyme nor reason can be found in the outcomes. They play hopeless long shots, convinced they've got the only sure thing in town.

And that's just the exhibitors.

The annual pilgrimage to Las Vegas may leave NAB attendees dazed and confused, but for exhibitors, it's a high-stakes crapshoot: How will the marketplace -- the horde of video/audio/multimedia/RF faithful -- respond to what they exhibit? Did all the R&D pay off, or is it time to plan another big layoff?

In April, I went to NAB2002 in Las Vegas, and I can tell you that I've got no inside track on what will sell big, or at all, for that matter. But what I can do is run down a few things that you might've checked out if you'd been there, things I liked, things that looked clever or at least got me thinking.

BUFFED-UP BUFFER

NAB was the first big public showing of Media 100's new uncompressed compositor, 844/X. Like its older sibling, the non-linear editor Media 100/i, 844/X consists of a hardware platform and the software application to make it go; together, they deliver a powerful Flame-style compositing solution for about $60,000, which is pretty hot news. For me, though, the exciting part is the hardwareÉ the board set, or more specifically, the chipset that gives 844/X its processing power.

Video interfaces ("frame buffers," in the old parlance) are among the last remaining places where your whiz-bang general purpose computer still needs proprietary circuitry, to turn bits into bitstreams, if you're doing digital video, or into analog voltages if you're not. The major developers, including Avid, Pinnacle Systems and Media 100, often need to include a fair amount of onboard processing, using hardware compression to help keep stream bandwidths manageable. This turns the process of circuit design into a fairly intricate affair, which more or less guarantees that you won't see a brand-new design very often.

Knowing this, the Media 100 folks determined that a new hardware engine was needed to support a new generation of products, and the result is the GenesisEngine, a set of three PCI boards currently implemented only for Wintel machines. Three new processor chips, each bearing the name of a Media 100 circuitry guru, are sprinkled around this boardset to handle the heavy lifting, resulting in some pretty massive signal processing power -- 10 bit, multiple-stream, HDTV-capable. For now, the software chosen to run on the new hardware is the 844/X compositor application, which is pretty impressive, but I'm willing to bet that the best is yet to come.

My guess is that when Media 100 gets around to overhauling its editing products and handing them over to the GenesisEngine, that we'll see some truly astonishing things.

FUEL FOR THE FIRE?

SGI launched a new workstation shortly before the show, which is news unto itself: The mighty computer company which could once do no wrong has been abruptly re-made over the last two years, in large measure by the changing nature of the computing marketplace. Big computing is less fashionable, and selling computers in the desktop marketplace is not for the faint of heart; how'd you like to find yourself competing with Steve Jobs and a dozen others one fine morning?

But when the going gets tough, smart companies fall back on their core technologies -- on what they do best. And by creating Fuel, a new mid-level graphics workstation, SGI has done their best, which is saying a lot. Over time, SGI has energized its Octane workstation to a level once reserved for Onyx supercomputers; at the same time, fundamental design limits keep the SGI O2 restricted to more modest tasks.

By introducing Fuel to bridge this gap, and by keeping the new entry affordable, SGI may have opened up a world of high-powered applications, like Discreet's editing and compositing tools, to a market segment which couldn't afford them before. Will there be Fuel for the fire, or for flint, flame or smoke? The next step is for developers to match Fuel's modest pricing with applications and versions that let creatives enter the big-time arena without going broke.

BOXX FILLS THE VOID

Those of you who've been around longer than about two weeks may remember a company called Intergraph. They pulled out of the multimedia "marketspace" a couple of years ago now, but before that, they were putting together high-powered Wintel workstations for use in graphics and animation, among other specialties. I remember having a lot of trouble wrapping my brain around that; after all, they weren't a manufacturer like IBM or Compaq (both also NAB exhibitors), but were more like that guy Eddie I used to know who cobbled together $500 computers in his basement, using crates of no-name Asian parts.

Big difference, though. Intergraph was hand-picking and optimizing first-quality components for dedicated purposes, and their machines really did run better. I've still got one in service.

But when Intergraph pulled out, it seemed to herald the end of the custom-built era -- after all, every new computer is pretty fast these days. What I failed to notice is that BOXX Technologies, who'd been around for a bit, now had an opportunity to step forward and be recognized. BOXX actually outdoes the old Intergraph, in that its models are optimized for incredibly specific tasks, and certified on market-leading apps -- 3DBOXX is certified for Alias|Wavefront Maya and Softimage, for instance. RenderBOXX is, well, just like it sounds. A render box. No money invested in elaborate graphics adapters and DVD drives, simply a powerful render node, rack-mounted, just like it oughta be. But for me, the most exciting product is HDBOXX, an affordable-but-powerful way to get launched in HD. I don't know about you, but we've been getting more and more inquiries about shooting in HD, and we've actually completed a few projects, running in to New York to do the finishing work. I'm not sure when and how we'll add HD hardware of our own, but I suspect HDBOXX may be part of it.

FUTURE TENSE

At a major show like NAB, you can usually recognize the software and applications being shown as either off-the-shelf or off-the-radar, shrink-wrapped and ready to purchase, or a distant gleam in the eye of a marketer. Vaporware, as they say.

Normally it's not real easy to get worked up about the promise of software to come; I'd much rather touch and feel and manipulate controls to get the sense of what it does and how it works. But I got a glimpse into some future developments at Discreet -- a couple of "software initiatives" -- that actually seemed as though they would make a huge difference in the way creative projects are undertaken and completed.

Using the code names "Strata" and "Mezzo," Discreet gave limited private previews of an application in development which, how shall I say?... "embodied these initiatives." And what I saw was, quite simply, the way things ought to be; not hobbled by the realities of networking fat files and handing off data to sister applications; free to use 3D within the native editing and compositing environment, and with an intuitive user interface that gives you as much or as little control as you'd like at a given moment.

In terms of creative tasks, there's nothing new here; use sound and pictures, build a scene, tell a story. The new part is the absence of that superhuman, multitasking, brain-warping stress required to force silicon and copper to tell your stories for you.

CYBORG IN CAMOUFLAGE

Okay, Management 101 students, here's today's assignment: You want to bring a new product to market which provides a suite of powerful visual processing tools to high-end artists, editors and compositors. However, your potential clients are accustomed to only one visual interface, and aren't interested in learning a new one; so if you choose the wrong "look," at least half of your potential customers will refuse to buy it. What's a developer to do?

Well, how about combining the hallmark features of the major graphical interfaces into one cohesive desktop? That doesn't seem like such a tough answer -- why didn't anybody think of this before 5D did? The London-based software shop had been cranking out powerful -- and popular -- high-end plug-ins and helpers for years before deciding to take matters into their own hands. They didn't want to replace any of the big-ticket applications, but instead sought to enhance workflow by bridging between them, performing common tasks in an environment that could manage almost any file format, resolution, bit depth, color space and so on. The result was 5D Cyborg, and it was demonstrated at NAB in its first full-blown, shipping version, flying through a variety of image-processing tasks for appreciative audiences.

But for me, that user interface is the big thing. In a glance, even a casual user like me can recognize that distinctive Discreet layout; and then, a moment later, the familiar Quantel colors and style. Prefer a node tree layout for your comp? No problem, Cyborg's got it. As I see it, 5D Cyborg sets new benchmarks for ease-of-use.

REALVIZ FOR REAL PEOPLE

When French developer RealViz debuted their quartet of products known as the Image Factory a few years ago, I was intrigued by the sheer cleverness of their solutions. Using the results of government-sponsored research, the company was able to create these ingenious modules which solved some of the knottiest problems in the effects department: interpolating good-looking slo-mo, stitching stills into panoramas, modeling 3D from stills and deriving virtual camera tracking data from average, run-of-the-mill footage. I liked their approaches then, and they're even more endearing now.

RealViz came to NAB with new or updated versions of all their programs. ReTimer, the slow down/speed up app, added several new controls and features, but mostly added processing power; Stitcher was shown in a new OS X version. But you really had to love a new version of MatchMover, the camera tracking wizard, which brings the entire process as close to "idiot-proof" as possible. It's not that it was hard to use before, but with MatchMover 2 Professional, it's entirely possible -- that you won't have to tweak the data one little bit, that's how accurately it runs.

RealViz' other good news is a series of product bundles which bring all these tools to those of us without feature film budgets. RealViz Interactive Studio, for example, lets Shockwave artists use the features of Stitcher and ImageModeler on Web-resolution projects. You might not need this software on every project, but when you need them, there's no better way to accomplish these tasks.

NEW LIFE FOR AN OLD ALLY

It's become a kind of ritual at the major trade shows to stop by and check on the old standby applications, the less glamorous, long-past-trendy workhorses, to see what the latest incremental upgrade might bring. A new file type supported? Vertical slider controls replacing horizontal ones? The news isn't often breathtaking; in fact, it's sometimes difficult to suppress a yawn.

But I learned a valuable lesson at the Adobe booth this year: Don't take anything for granted. Sure, I was aware of the recent launch of Photoshop 7, the first version for Mac OS X. But if I hadn't seen a demo of some of the new features and enhancements, I might not have started using them, and that would've been too bad. I have to admit that I haven't always run out and bought upgrades for every copy of our software, I've let one or two seats lag behind until next time. Photoshop 7, however, is the upgrade to spring for; a file browser feature, a new painting engine with some creative goodies, the amazing "healing brush," and most of all, native OS X support. I'm there.

WIRED OVER PLUG-INS

There's an entire class of production-related software that got me going at NAB: effects plug-ins for the popular compositing systems and applications. There were dozens and dozens of effects and utilities shown all over the exhibit halls -- so many, in fact, that I've decided to spend one whole column exploring the wacky world of compositing plug-ins, so stay tuned.

Walter Schoenknecht can be reached via e-mail at walter@m2gi.com.