HD anachronism

Welcome to NAB2005 your future starts here. That's an interesting way to describe the world's biggest trade show and conference, an event that is focused
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An HD version of Sony’s XDCAM will be demonstrated this year at NAB. It is unknown if it will use the same compression as Sony’s HDCAM (pictured here), but it is likely.

Welcome to NAB2005 — your future starts here.

That's an interesting way to describe the world's biggest trade show and conference, an event that is focused on the rapidly evolving tools that we use to produce and distribute digital media content. Obviously, the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) must be talking to a larger audience than its membership, which relies on the NAB to hold the future at bay.

Talk about a great deal. Everyone who wants to influence the future of digital media comes to NAB to push their vision of the future. Then the NAB takes their money and uses it to help its members delay that future another year. Then another, and another.

This year, according to a growing number of vendors, the HD highway will be running through NAB. In January, Steve Jobs proclaimed 2005 to be the year of HD for Apple, announcing support for the HDV format that is being popularized by JVC and Sony. And Sony has invited us to travel the HD highway through its NAB booth; a pre-NAB press release tells us that planned exhibits and demonstrations will focus on current and future HD products and technologies, and on the roads customers can take to migrate from their SD infrastructures to HD-based operations. (See Web links on page 20.)

Somehow this all seems to be a bit anachronistic. To be certain, the HD bandwagon appears to be moving now, but listening to all of the hype about HDV, you would conclude that it's time to jump aboard now or you'll be left behind. Somebody is putting the HD cart before the horse.

Will the mere existence of $5000 HD camcorders create an overwhelming demand for low-cost HD production? I think not. Would it not be helpful to have a way of distributing HD content first? And how about an HD display to hook up to the HD — DVD players that will be here … in the future?

Yes, the future starts here. Figuring out how to get from “here” to that HD future is the question that many will be asking as they travel the HD highway through the NAB exhibits. Many of those questions will involve intense debates about the technologies that will take us down that highway, and those that will wind up in the ditch.

Consider, for example, the debate about the future of HD-DVD. What color would you like: red or blue (laser)? What codec should you use: MPEG-2, AVC/H.264 or VC-1?

Will this be another Beta/VHS war, in which case, it may take a few more years for the winner to emerge? And what would happen if another optical storage technology blows them both off of the HD highway?

The tapeless future

The clues will be at NAB2005, if you know where to look. This column will provide an analysis of what is likely to be important in the future, when the HD highway is ready to handle some serious traffic.

Remember way back, when the big hype at NAB was “the tapeless facility?” Today you can record bits on optical discs, magnetic hard disk drives, solid-state memory, and, you guessed it … tape.

But tape does have limits, and it is linear, which implies a whole host of issues related to digital workflow. Optical discs are nonlinear, but they too are limited in terms of write speeds and are potentially more vulnerable to environmental issues when used to replace tape in a camcorder. Solid-state memory is fast and totally random; there are no moving parts, and power consumption is minimal. But they are expensive, and it is necessary to move the bits to another storage media for processing and archiving. Hard disks are cheap, totally random and competitive with tape in terms of price per stored gigabyte; but they have issues when integrated into a camcorder.

The emerging reality is that all of these storage media have a place (or multiple places) in the digital workflow of the future.

If you acquire to tape, you will more than likely digitize analog video and store it on hard disks, or move digital video files to hard disk for processing. If you acquire to optical disc, you will probably move the bits to hard disks for processing, and to tape and disc for distribution and archiving. If you acquire to solid-state memory, you are likely to move the bits to hard disks, even as you are shooting, to free up the expensive memory modules. And if you acquire direct to hard disk, you will probably back up those disks to tape or optical disc for storage. Got the picture?

In the long term, tape probably will go away, because the storage densities projected for optical and magnetic disks in the future and the I/O speeds, will make tape slow and expensive. Solid-state memory has the right stuff for future acquisition products. It just needs a few more years … .

Blue-ray DVD looks attractive, given the large storage capacity relative to red laser DVD. But blue lasers can be used in innovative new ways to increase storage densities. This past January, InPhase Technologies, based in Longmont, CO, announced a working prototype of the world's first holographic drive, which stores bits as 3-D holograms within the writable media. (See Web links on page 20.) The company's first product will store 200GB in an optical disc that is comparable in size to the Blue-ray discs; future products are expected to reach 1.6TB per disc. Current Blue-ray recordable drives, such as those that Sony uses in the XDCAM product line, can store 23.5GB on a disc that costs between $25 to $30. InPhase estimates that a 200GB disc will cost about $60. That's nearly 10 times the storage for twice the price. In recent years, this technology has been previewed in off-the-floor hotel suites at NAB, but this year it will be on the show floor in the Maxell booth.

Sony has announced a technology demonstration of an HD version of XDCAM at this year's NAB. It is not known whether it will use the same compression as Sony's HDCAM products, but this would appear to be the likely choice to take full advantage of other HDCAM workflow products. To make this work, it will be necessary to increase the write speed of the Blue-ray recorder in the camera. The most likely scenario will be a dual head drive mechanism that Sony uses for its off-line transfer stations, which supports faster-than-real-time file transfers thanks to the higher I/O rate. But a new HD compression format could also be in the cards. And Sony will be adding products to support the HDV workflow, while promoting the availability of its FX-1 HDV camcorder.

Panasonic’s challenger to HDV will support recording modes that use the original DVCPRO (25Mb/s) compression format, DVCPRO50 (pictured above) andDVCPROHD (100Mb/s).

Panasonic has a variety of industry forums abuzz with rumors of a challenger to HDV, based on the company's P2 solid-state acquisition systems. In pre-NAB press briefings, Panasonic has “leaked” the following information: The new camcorder will support recording modes that use the original DVCPRO (25Mb/s) compression format, DVCPRO50, and DVCPROHD (100Mb/s), storing the bits on P2 memory modules; it will support 24p acquisition and cost less than $10,000. The product will be shown as a mockup at NAB, where we'll learn details of its capabilities.

In private briefings at last year's NAB, company representatives were talking about several potential products. There was a mockup in the Panasonic booth of a P2 palmcorder and talk of an HD product with strong parallels to the high-end 720p Varicam. The latter could have tremendous appeal, and the P2 storage modules would provide a less complex, but more versatile, recording system than the DVCPRO tape drive used in the Varicam.

In order to make variable frame rate recording to tape possible, Varicam always uses the tape speed needed to record 720p at 60fps. For lower frame rates, the tape speed remains the same and each frame is recorded multiple times. Thus, the in-camera storage requirements are the same for any frame rate; when files are transferred to hard disk, the redundant frames are removed. Recording to solid-state memory has the advantage that each frame is only stored once. When shooting 60p, the storage rate would be the full 100Mb/s. At 24p, however, the storage required would be 24/60th of 100Mb/s, or 40 Mb/s. Thus, the recording capacity of a P2 storage module would more than double when shooting 24p.

When Panasonic introduced the P2 product line, it noted that the write speed for all P2 storage modules would be sufficient to support future HD products as well as faster-than-real-time file transfers. Current 2GB storage modules have a transfer rate of 320Mb/s, while the 4GB modules (and all future higher capacity modules) have a transfer rate of 640Mb/s. Panasonic expects to begin shipping 8GB modules this fall.

Another year?

Ultimately, what is stored on P2 modules needs to be moved to hard disk for processing, and logically to optical disc or digital tape backup for archival storage. Early adopters have been using the portable P2 drive to move files from P2 modules to some kind of hard disk storage in the field. One of the more popular target drives for this application is an Apple iPOD, which has both IEEE-1394 (Firewire) and USB 2.0 I/O capabilities. The P2 drive uses USB 2.0 I/O.

In February, Panasonic announced the P2Store, a 60GB hard disk with an integrated P2 memory card reader. This P2Store is designed to attach to your belt. When you want to move the contents of a P2 module to the hard drive, you plug in the module and hit a single button to move the contents; the drive can be hooked up to a computer to process the files or to move them to another storage device.

The stage is set for another NAB that will look a lot like those of years past. The HD hypeway will be filled with bumper-to-bumper traffic — lots of carts being pushed by horses. What ever happened to buggy whips?

Web Links

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

Sony Pre-NAB release http://news.sel.sony.com/pressrelease/5591

InPhase press release on Holographic optical storage www.inphase-technologies.com/news/firstholoproto.html

Send questions and comments to:cbirkmaier@primediabusiness.com