NAB2004 may well be remembered as the turning point for interoperability. It set the stage for a new digital workflow based on the processing of digital media files containing both the essence media and the metadata that describe these media and the ways in which other applications can use the media. The benefits of this approach were visible everywhere at NAB, suggesting that the era of proprietary tape-based video formats, with the costs and constraints they impose, is drawing to a past-due close.
At NAB2004, Sony delivered a full-bandwidth HDCAM studio/field recording system, which will compete with the Panasonic D-5 format. The SRW-5000 is a full-bandwidth HD VTR that does not use prefiltering or resampling. Based on the MPEG-4 Studio Profile compression algorithm, the system can write 440Mb/s to tape at 10-bit resolution. It can record all 1080-line frame rates, as well as native 720p at 60Hz.
Sony also unveiled a prototype three-chip HDV camcorder that records HD imagery using long-GOP MPEG-2 at 25Mb/s. But the future for the HDV format remains clouded. The need for a highly compressed tape-based HD acquisition system is questionable, given the trend toward acquiring less-compressed, high-resolution images direct to hard disk or solid-state memory.
A partnership with impact
Several years ago, Apple and Panasonic announced their intention to develop software codecs that would allow DVCPRO audio/video files to be processed using affordable desktop and notebook computers. The DV-25 and DV-50 codecs allowed Apple to validate the concept that software like Final Cut Pro can be used to handle editing and compositing tasks without additional expensive hardware. At this year's show, the companies introduced the DVCPRO HD codec, which enables users to realistically work with and deliver HD using affordable off-the-shelf components from the information-technology industry.
Apple and Panasonic have set the stage for the real HD revolution. But they are leveraging the existing tape-based infrastructure for the moment, while Panasonic puts the finishing touches on P2, its SD memory-based acquisition gear.
To fill the gap, Panasonic introduced a new studio/portable DVCPRO deck that supports the entire range of DVCPRO codecs, from DV-25 to DVCPRO HD. The AJ-HD1200A is the company's first recorder to offer an IEEE 1394 interface operating at 100Mb/s data rate with DV high-definition video streams. Equipped with the 1394 interface, this deck will sell for about $30,000, within the price range of many independent producers. This will allow them to rent HD acquisition gear and finish their HD projects using the same tools they now use for SD production.
Roll your own
Across the aisle, Avid was proving that Panasonic and Apple do not have a monopoly on HD innovation. Avid's DN×HD compression system operates in 4:2:2 color space and is available in three user-selectable bandwidth configurations: 220Mb/s configurations for both 10-bit and eight-bit video, and an eight-bit configuration requiring only 145Mb/s. The technology supports 720p at 60fps and 1080p/i HD resolutions at 30-, 25- and 24fps.
Avid is publishing the DN×HD algorithms, opening them up to any company that wants to implement the software. One of the first manifestations of the new codec will come from a longtime partner, Ikegami. At NAB, Ikegami announced it will develop a disk-based HD camcorder that uses the DN×HD codec.
And there were other signs at NAB that companies are taking the need for interoperability seriously. Thomson Grass Valley announced a partnership with Apple, opening up the Grass Valley Digital News Production products to allow the use of Apple's Final Cut Pro. Thomson Grass Valley will supply a Broadcast Plug-in software module to allow the editor to decode files stored on the company's servers.
The survivors of the interoperability battle will be the companies that are committed to working with everyone. Apple and Avid are emerging as the leaders — for now — of the shift from working with formats to working with files. Both companies also understand the importance of working with each other. And their partners understand the need to work with both. When companies are free to develop tools that work for anyone, anywhere, then everyone wins.
Craig Birkmaier is a technology consultant at Pcube Labs, and he hosts and moderates the OpenDTV Forum.
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