50 years of progress?

Did you know that NTSC just celebrated its golden anniversary? On Dec. 17, 1953, the FCC adopted the “compatible color” NTSC standard.

On Dec. 30, 1953, Admiral announced a 21-inch color console for $1175, but it was not the first color TV to ship. Many collectors consider the 15-inch RCA CT-100 to be the first compatible color TV offered for sale; the price tag was $1000. But Westinghouse introduced a 15-inch color TV several weeks earlier at a price of $1295.

Admiral’s 21-inch color console sold for $1175 in December 1953.

It took another decade for NTSC color TV to reach critical mass as a consumer product. Four decades later, NTSC is still going strong, delaying one of the last major transitions from analog to digital content distribution. (It is not surprising that the other holdouts are AM and FM radio broadcasts, and analog cable TV.)

IBM introduced the first magnetic hard-disk drive on Sept. 13, 1956. The 5MB IBM 305 Random Access Method of Accounting and Control drive (RAMAC) was not for sale, but could be rented for only $3200 per month. IBM estimates that today's dollar cost per megabyte of that disk would be $100,000 or $100 million per gigabyte.

IBM projects that the cost for one gigabyte of hard-disk storage will be 23 cents in 2006, the 50th anniversary for the hard disk. This represents a cost reduction of more than 400 million to one!

If NTSC color TVs had declined in cost by the same factor, you would be able to buy 4000 13-inch color TVs for one penny today! Somehow, this makes the fact that you can buy one 13-inch color TV for $69 today a little less amazing.

Fortunately for the manufacturers of consumer electronics products, displays are not following the same geometric progression that is driving the cost of devices that process bits in a relentless downward spiral.

On the other hand, some view it as unfortunate that traditional professional video equipment manufacturers are caught up in this digital spiral. Customers of these companies may find this downward pricing pressure to be good news however. It means the tools of the video trade are growing in capability, even as the prices tumble. But it's a zero sum game for manufacturers — there is no way to survive this ride when the number of professional customers is NOT growing, and revenue per unit is declining every year.

RCA’s CT-100 is considered by collectors to be the first color TV sold. It cost $1000.

Meanwhile, less-tradition-bound companies are riding this downward spiral, and in doing so, are changing the landscape of digital television. At NAB2003, companies such as Avid, Apple and Discreet Logic offered software-based tools for video editing, special effects and composition — tools that are equally capable of cranking out an NTSC news story in the back of a HumVee crossing the Iraqi desert, or an HD movie in a Hollywood studio.

It's only software

Jan. 22, 1984, is another important date in television history. This was the year that Apple ran the now famous 1984 advertisement launching the Macintosh. It also was the year that I used one of the new Macs to help with the introduction of the Grass Valley Group Model 100, almost 20 years after Intel's Gordon Moore observed that the number of transistors one could put into an integrated circuit would double for the same cost every 18 months. The Model 100 took advantage of microprocessors and software to create a platform optimized for linear video editing under the control of a computerized editing system.

Control is the operative word here. The computerized editing systems of that era used microprocessors and RS-422 serial links to control many of the devices in a million-dollar linear edit suite, including the source and record linear tape machines, the video switcher and some form of audio-follow-video mixer. Together with a new generation of lower-cost products aimed at the emerging business and industrial video markets, the Model 100 made it possible to create a computerized A/B roll editing system for less than $100,000.

While I was busy at NAB1984 with the Model 100 introduction, there were two other product introductions that caught my attention: the Montage Picture Processor and the Lucas Arts Edit Droid. These nonlinear editing systems used banks of VCRs and laser disc players respectively, to simulate random access to source material. Montage introduced the use of picture labels on a timeline.

Despite the fact that the personal computer revolution was now in full swing, it never occurred to me that it would be possible to edit video without some form of linear recording devices. A single frame of video could gobble up nearly all the memory available in a PC in 1984. The ability to store and play video from a hard disk drive seemed impossible in 1984.

On Jan. 22, 1984, Apple launched the Macintosh computer with its now-famous commercial during the Superbowl.

By 1990, digital video compression was beginning to show promise, and the impact of Moore's Law on anything digital was beginning to sink in. With compression we could store video on the hard disk drives of a personal computer. We could now put the guts of a video editing system inside a PC, using a few expansion cards to handle the video compression and video processing. Avid was one of the first companies to market with a compression-based nonlinear editing system. It soon became clear that it would only be a matter of time until somebody developed an online-quality nonlinear editing system.

That milestone was passed in 1995, when Media 100 delivered the first online-quality nonlinear system. That same year, the FCC adopted the ATSC digital television standard, with its computationally intensive HDTV formats. Traditional video equipment vendors re-invented the million-dollar edit suite to support HD editing.

Assuming that HD is six times the resolution of NTSC, one could extrapolate that online nonlinear editing of HD would be possible in about four years. Turns out that this was overly pessimistic, since hard disks have been doubling in capacity every 10 months since 1994. The hard-disk revolution, together with faster processors and more RAM, made it practical to handle uncompressed SDTV editing in real time by 1999. Uncompressed HDTV editing is now a practical reality.

But that is only one aspect of this story. Treating video as just another form of data has had an even more profound effect on the creation of special effects and graphics. We now manipulate visual objects within a composition directly, rather than trying to control switchers, DVEs and character generators. These products are now used only for live video production, while many of the visual elements that they integrate are pre-produced using computer-based tools.

Hard-disk arrays have been used to record uncompressed HD files from 24p camcorders for more than a year. Another milestone will be passed in 2004 as professional video acquisition systems move from linear tape to random-access optical discs and solid-state memory (flash RAM). Soon it will be possible to take a PCMCIA acquisition module out of your camera, plug it into a notebook computer and edit video … using only software.

Craig Birkmaier is a technology consultant at Pcube Labs, and he hosts and moderates the OpenDTV Forum.

Send questions and comments to:cbirkmaier@primediabusiness.com

Web links

National Television Systems Committee

Projecting the Cost of Magnetic Disk Storage Over the Next 10 Years

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