HDTV equipment

A decade ago, would any of us have guessed that today we would see a rapidly expanding market for HDTV programming and a demand for HDTV hardware? Perhaps
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A decade ago, would any of us have guessed that today we would see a rapidly expanding market for HDTV programming and a demand for HDTV hardware? Perhaps some might have, but few of us would have foreseen the wide range of equipment and features now offered.

We can make some generalizations about HDTV equipment. It is almost always digital. Any analog equipment is likely to be interfaces or monitoring products (CRT or plasma displays). It is likely to be more expensive than 525/625 equipment, though by a margin narrower than many think. It is likely to use slightly more power than standard-definition hardware, and likely to support multiple standards. It is probably only slightly larger or heavier than SD hardware, and probably provides features similar to its SD counterpart. With these characteristics in mind, let's review some key product categories in a bit more detail and see how they stack up against SD equivalents.

Cameras and lenses

The price of professional camcorders and lenses has fallen steadily for years. Full-featured 480i news camcorders are available for under $20,000. Indeed, some consumer camcorders are better than the EFP cameras of a few years ago. One need only remember the first CCD cameras (the RCA Hawkeye, for instance) to see just how far we have come. The Hawkeye, a vintage 1984 camera, had no recorder and was 525, not HDTV. By contrast, the Sony HDW-700A has approximately four times the resolution, vastly superior performance, and weighs considerably less than the Hawkeye did. And the Sony camera costs less in depreciated dollars than the RCA did almost 20 years ago. Now that's progress!

Image sensors

All television (at least the picture portion) starts and ends with light. The camera we need for HDTV acquisition has the same fundamental objectives as an SDTV camera. But the lens focuses the light onto a different kind of sensor — different in resolution and aspect ratio and, in some cases, different in structure.

All SDTV sensors operate in interlace mode. But not all HDTV sensors do. The momentum behind progressive-scan systems (1080p24 and 720p60) is real. Thomson Grass Valley offers a camera with a sensor that can be reformatted for anything from 480i to 1080p in many different aspect ratios. The company does this by substantially oversampling the sensor to the tune of 9.2 million pixels. By combining rows of pixels from the 1920×4320 sensor, the camera can produce almost any number of lines you might want. This is a significant benefit for mobile companies, many of whom recently flocked to this camera to enable multi-standard native imaging. By combining columns of pixels, the horizontal “scan” can accomplish native 1280 imaging, or 720 for 480 applications, though that would be gross overkill. Hitachi, Ikegami, JVC, Panasonic, Sony, Thomson Grass Valley and others have HDTV camera systems with a variety of options and image formats.

Fiber optics

What's most interesting is that today these cameras can operate on standard triax camera cable, though at a shorter distance than a native fiber-optic camera cable system. Until recently, it was assumed that HDTV cameras would have to use fiber-optic camera cable, and SMPTE diligently worked to establish a common standard for all manufacturers to use for fiber camera cable. Lenses also have become so good that the difference between SDTV and HDTV versions is slight. One lens manufacturer simply says all of their ENG lenses are HDTV compatible.

Recorders

HDTV acquisition without recording would be a throwback to the early days of television, when there were no recorders. Contrast the Ampex AVR-1 to the Panasonic AJ-HD130DC DVCPRO HD recorder. Keep in mind that the AVR-1 weighed over 2000 pounds more than the AJ-HD130DC, while the HD recorder consumes about one percent of the power and produces obviously higher performance. An hour of quad tape weighed over 20 pounds. A single DVCPRO HD tape (currently less than an hour) weighs about a percent or two of the quad tape weight. The DVCPRO's effective writing speed is much lower, but the information density on the tape is far higher.

Recently, JVC announced a consumer camcorder that weighs a pound or so that can shoot 720p footage. That shows the phenomenal changes in the technology in 30 years.

HD recorders come in several flavors. Some record and play HD only. Others record and play HD and SD formats, and a third group records and plays HD, but also plays SD. Perhaps the most versatile VTR on the market today is the Panasonic AJ-HD3700H. This system records and plays all HDTV formats, as well as all 525/625 formats, at multiple frame rates (23.98, 24, 25, 29.94, 30, 50, 59.94). It can be used for mastering in an HDTV format and releasing in many formats and many standards. Like HDTV VTRs from Hitachi, Ikegami, JVC, Panasonic, Sony, Thomson Grass Valley and others, it includes an internal downconverter.

Significantly, the VTR does not pre-filter the signal, preserving detail and color fidelity. Some VTRs subsample the picture to as few as 1280 pixels horizontally from 1920 in the native picture. That is important because mastering should be performed with a minimum of filtering and compression. Finally, don't miss the Sony optical storage camcorder that uses MPEG-4 compression.

Switchers

But having outstanding shooting and recording capability without switching would be like having cappuccino without the foam. Fortunately, HDTV production switchers have significantly grown in capability over the last several years. At this year's NAB, we will see HDTV production switchers with the full range of features and effects that we have come to expect in 525/625 digital equivalent models. Sony has a multiple-standard switcher (MVS-8000) that supports the most popular HDTV formats (1080i, 1080p24, and 720p60) as well as SMPTE 259M SDTV formats. Only a few years ago, this would have been complicated technically, and extremely expensive. Also, Thomson Grass Valley will introduce its HD Kalypso production center.

This versatility is important to the implementation of HDTV production studios and mobile units. Though the cost of serious production switchers has come down considerably since the first “large” HDTV switchers (which might have cost almost $1 million with DVE) debuted a few years ago, $500,000 is still a major investment. The ability to switch to 525 production at will gives producers the freedom to seek revenue wherever it exists in the waning years of SDTV origination.

The whole enchilada

A complete range of HDTV products is available today. In addition to conversion products (which were the subject of this column recently), you can purchase test-and-measurement products, master-control switchers, routing switchers (wide-bandwidth and HDTV-specific), character generators, keyers, closed-caption inserters, analog-to-digital converters, video servers and, of course, monitors. At the beginning of the transition to HDTV, it was hard to find some types of equipment at all. Now you have an array of equipment for most needs, and a range of prices and feature sets.

So what do you need to design an HDTV facility if the hardware is ubiquitous and modestly priced? Mostly, you must research the features you need and compare them with those the manufacturers support. Take care not to shoot too high because, at the upper end, HDTV can still be very expensive. But you can bet that the cost of tomorrow's HD equipment will be nearly as low as that of SDTV systems today.

John Luff is senior vice president of business development at AZCAR. To reach him, visitwww.azcar.com.

Send questions and comments to:john_luff@primediabusiness.com