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With HDV and similar cameras available in both 720p and 1080i, such as Sony’s HDV camcorder shown here, broadcasters will find HDTV news production at the local level attractive.

The title of this column is particularly apropos to the subject of HDTV hardware, for developments over several years have begun to turn HDTV into a real business. The “Technology in Transition” column is all about change, and this year's NAB gave plenty of evidence that HDTV is indeed in transition.

The MPEG solution

Over the last 10-plus years, we have seen several generations of HDTV hardware shown in private and public forums, and often purchased in such low volumes that it must have seemed more a science project than a business intended to sustain itself. Not long ago, HDTV cameras cost E250,000 and more, a lens cost nearly E200,000, and a single VTR tacked on E360,000 more. A reel of tape cost E1000 for the first uncompressed HDTV recorder from Sony (circa 1994).

Something had to change if HDTV was to become a reality in the marketplace. Early projections said a station would need E30 million to build an HDTV infrastructure — a number that certainly precluded station profits!

The enabling change was compression, then called “bit-rate reduction.” MPEG-2 could deliver HDTV in 20Mb/s instead of the 1.5Gb/s required for uncompressed signals. Recording and transmission became technically feasible, and that has changed everything. NAB this year marked the introduction of the HDV consumer and professional format endorsed by multiple manufacturers. Not much bigger than a conventional 525/625 camcorder, in fact smaller than a single image orthicon of barely 40 years ago, HDV represents a cost reduction in entry-level HDTV system technology of at least 99 percent from a decade ago. Nonlinear HDTV editing can be done for less than E20,000. HDTV switchers cost about the same as their SD-only equivalents in the 1990s.

The miniaturization of HDTV technology has a lot to do with the trends. ASIC's and programmable logic have replaced complex multi-component systems. Software has replaced hardware as the long lead time item in the development of new products, but allowed hardware designed with sufficient processing bandwidth to evolve as new code is released.

What defines the shift in the professional marketplace is a series of developments in the last three years that make HDTV economically practical for production and emission. Until perhaps three years ago, high-end HDTV switching and digital effects were just plain ridiculously expensive — E1 million for a practical production system, more than double the cost of SD-only. Today there are several manufacturers offering high-end capability in HDTV systems at a premium over SD-only systems similarly equipped of around 30 percent. Snell & Wilcox introduced a production switcher (shipped this year) that does both SD and HD at the same time. This kind of innovation would not have been possible a few years ago, but drives new applications and markets.

Lower conversion costs

With HDV and similar cameras readily available in both 1080i and 720p from several manufacturers this year (maybe more by IBC), HDTV news production at the local level might well be attractive to some broadcasters. There is no cost penalty of any consequence. That kind of change makes innovation by programming professionals much more likely. A decade ago, who would have thought HDTV editing on a laptop would be possible when an hour of recording media cost half of the cost of a laptop today?

An important element in all of this is the reduction in the cost of conversion between HD and SD formats. Early converters were half-rack or more, but now the functions of scaling and aspect ratio conversion can be done on a single card run by a wall wart and unceremoniously hung in the back of a rack as a black box hidden and forgotten. Four rack units can hold up to 15 converters now. I/O options include fiber for long-distance transport of the high bit rates needed.

What's next?

The rest of the infrastructure all exists. Early HD routing cost E250,000 for 32×32. Now a 16×16 router costs barely E9000, and a full 128×128 frame costs under half of what 32×32 cost in 1997. Indeed, multi-rate routing is hardly an extravagance today, but rather a proper hedge for the future even if considering an SD-only project today. Routing is indicative of where the industry seems to be going. Why build or buy two different flavors of anything if one will cover both?

With this kind of watershed change, what happens next is hard to predict. Consumer interest in HDTV has finally begun to show as more than a statistical curiosity. That interest has spawned new display technologies, as well as production techniques intended to satisfy both 4:3 and 16:9 audiences. Few barriers remain to providing a rich and full experience that consumers expect. With HD DVD expected late this year, it is reasonable to predict further consumer uptake.

While HDTV equipment and applications will continue to mature over the next few years, it seems all but certain that it will not be long before manufacturers essentially stop building products that support SD-only use. The cost penalties are dropping like a stone in a well, and the capabilities no longer produce compromises. Introductions like HDV are not evolutionary; they are revolutionary, for they challenge the view of the state-of-the-art for technologists and users alike. This could be a very interesting year indeed.

John Luff is senior vice president of business development at AZCAR.

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