Just when you thought it was safe to invest in a new tapeless recording technology like solid-state memory or optical disc, another way to store video and audio has emerged.
Grass Valley's Pro AV line
It's actually not a totally new storage method, but an innovative repackaging and improvement of hard disk recording. It's called the REV drive, and it comes from Iomega, the inventors of the Zip drive, which became ubiquitous in the print industry for storing large graphics files. The company recently partnered with Grass Valley to develop a next-generation removable disk cartridge, this one targeted for use with professional production and broadcast applications.
Grass Valley's interest lies partially in the format's IT-friendly design. Also, the company thinks it might have found the Holy Grail for ENG recording: a widely available, low-cost recording media that helps stations get stories on-air faster with less complexity. By improving production workflow, the companies claim the technology will pay for itself in the first two years of use.
Under the hood
Grass Valley and Iomega have entered into an OEM and joint technology development agreement that will result in the REV disk being integrated into a variety of products from Grass Valley's Pro AV line. The first in this series is the Turbo iDDR, which was announced in May and can now be ordered with built-in REV drives. It's not hard to imagine that down the road, the REV cartridge could be integrated into cameras, source decks and a variety of other production equipment that relies on storage.
Iomega currently offers the REV drive as part of its line of NAS servers, in capacities of 160GB to 1.6TB. But can the REV disk stand up to professional audio and video production use? For the answer to that question, let's look into the actual disk mechanism.
Figure 1. Components of the Iomega REV cartridge. Click here to see an enlarged diagram.
The REV drive resembles both a floppy disk and a hard drive. (See Figure 1.) It has a spinning disk like a floppy, but the disk is actually a 2.5in rigid hard-disk platter, similar to that used in laptop computers. In addition, the motor to spin the disk resides inside the actual REV drive, not the player/recorder, as is the case with a floppy drive.
To enable the high storage capacities that the disk provides, there can be no floppy give-and-take here. We're talking about hard-disk manufacturing tolerances. The hard plastic shell is supported by a rigid steel bottom plate. The shell is securely fixed to the plate by four screws.
Also attached to the steel plate is the motor that spins the disk and the platter's shaft bearings. The disk is supported by two bearings at the top and bottom of the center shaft.
Because the system is really a hard disk, the storage surfaces must be protected from any contamination. The platter must remain completely clean and dust-free. To protect the storage medium, a contaminant-free environment is maintained by a locked and sealed door mechanism. Only after the REV is loaded into a player/recorder, and into another clean environment, does the front door open, exposing the hard-disk surface.
Figure 2. Components of the Iomega REV drive. Click here to see an enlarged diagram.
The drive is loaded by a powered, docking mechanism, much like videotape. The drive is sucked into the player/recorder and then locked firmly into position by a set of guides and fingers. It's important that the drive remain precisely positioned at all times because the next step is for the hard-disk heads to rotate out from the player/recorder to fly just above the platter's magnetic surface.
As the drive is locked down, power and speed-sensing connections are established through four contacts on the right side of the disk. The drive motor now spins up, under the control of the player/recorder.
Once a REV disk is inserted into a drive, play and record functions can start within about 13ms. This access time will improve in future generations, according to both Grass Valley and Iomega. If power is lost during recording, the drive is automatically disengaged, and the data recorded up to that point is already safely recorded on the disk.
Current capacity of the drive is 35GB of storage, or about two hours of 25Mb/s SD or 45 minutes of 75Mb/s HD. Iomega officials say storage capacity will increase significantly as the data density for its rigid removable disk technology continues to improve.
The drive has only been available for just over a year. Even so, Iomega has tested the system in a variety of extreme vibration, temperature, altitude and humidity conditions and said it meets or exceeds all of the requirements of video and audio professionals.
So, what are some of the benefits of the REV disk? First of all, it provides all the advantages of true random access to stored material. Second, the REV disk is up to eight times faster than comparable tape-based systems and up to five times faster than the DVD format. External drives with Firewire or USB connectivity and internal drives with SCSI interfaces are available from Iomega, so there are plenty of playback options.
When compared with optical media, REV drives are faster and cheaper. The drives are shock- and vibration-resistant, provide storage density of 60Gb per square inch and have a hard bit error rate of 1/000. The REV technology is also cheaper than solid-state storage.
Clearly the technology provides many advantages over tape-based formats. It offers I/O transfer rates up to 200Mb/s, supporting faster-than-real-time import and export of digital files. The REV cartridge can also be used for long-term archival storage, with a shelf life estimated at more than 30 years.
Also important for broadcast applications is the disk's portability. The 3in × 3in × 3/8in package is easy to handle, yet small enough to provide dense storage.
The toughest part might be selling the Iomega name to the broadcast industry, but the Grass Valley name will certainly help in this regard.
To help facilitate the REV disk's overall acceptance within the broadcast industry, Grass Valley is developing a Partners Program of third-party manufacturers that already offer production technology, including audio workstations, NLE systems, graphics and special effects devices. The goal is for these partners to develop REV-compatible solutions.
When it comes to video storage, there are emerging alternatives, but the Iomega REV disk could be the best replacement yet for videotape. It offers all the workflow advantages of a hard drive while avoiding the size and durability issues. Also, if the format takes off, everyone will benefit from a widely available media for-mat and lower prices from volume manufacturing.
The true test might come when broadcasters try it themselves for news and other portable applications. Only then will we know just how good the REV technology really is.
Michael Grotticelli regularly reports on the professional video and broadcast technology industries.