Tapeless acquisition: The final frontier?

When it comes to the future of digital acquisition, about the only thing Panasonic and Sony agree on is that it will not include recording on videotape. The two companies have introduced their own respective IT-friendly formats. With these two different, incompatible digital storage systems, they hope to attract ENG customers who currently shoot mainly on digital tape.

A tale of two systems

Panasonic’s PMCIA-style P2 card contains four 1GB SD memory cards. It can hold 18 minutes of DVCPRO 25 video and nine minutes at DVCPRO 50 quality.

Panasonic's Professional Plug-in (P2) series equipment is an extension of its DVCPRO family of products, stores images on a solid-state SD memory system, while the Sony XDCAM uses professional-grade optical discs. Panasonic's equipment should be ready to ship in the first quarter of 2004, while Sony has already delivered its IT-based gear to a few broadcasters in the United States and overseas for testing.

Each company has provided details on how its system improves production workflow by enabling users to move images from the camera and into an edit system faster than ever. Both have introduced complementary products, such as laptop edit systems and studio and field readers/recorder decks. Each system offers format-neutral recording of everything from standard-definition digital video (DVCPRO and DVCAM at 25Mb/s) to 50Mb/s and, eventually, 100Mb/s high-definition recording. Sony's equipment also will record in its proprietary IMX format.

Yet, that's where the similarity ends. Whether one technology is more useful than the other depends upon a number of factors, such as equipment availability (Sony's will be available first), maintenance (Panasonic's SD memory gear offers the advantage of no moving parts) and, most of all, reliability.

The new format war

As with many previous ENG platform introductions, the advent of these new platforms has started another “format war,” with each side claiming the support necessary to make its vision a success. Each company has its supporters, and each has announced broadcast customers and support from third-party NLE manufacturers.

CBS and FOX officially support Panasonic's solid-state acquisition; CNN and NBC will test Sony's XDCAM. At the recent IBC technology conference in Amsterdam, Sony demonstrated its Professional Optical Media drive working with a Quantel nonlinear edit system, while Avid Technology expressed its support for Panasonic's SD memory.

The Panasonic P2 cam comes with five P2 card slots, giving a total potential record capacity of 90 minutes with 4GB P2 cards.

Thomson also has said it would support the SD memory-card technology — initially in its news-editing products and, in the near future, in its professional cameras. In the past, Thomson has worked with both Panasonic and Sony in its support of their respective digital videotape formats. This latest decision to adopt solid-state memory in its professional recording equipment — announced officially at the same IBC show — should not be taken lightly. Many in the broadcast business see Thomson's support as vital to the successful adoption of solid-state SD memory.

Panasonic and Thomson also have agreed to share and market each other's technologies under an OEM arrangement. Panasonic will sell Thomson Grass Valley Profile servers and Thomson Grass Valley's M-Series iVDR, while Thomson will include SD memory technology as well as Panasonic LCD monitors in its professional product portfolio.

No panacea

Most broadcasters are looking at both technologies cautiously. Several camera operators and broadcast executives have said that the choice comes down to individual visions for the future of image acquisition and how easily tapeless acquisition will integrate with other digital equipment in the production chain.

The Panasonic P2 deck can also handle five P2 cards. It operates like a VTR and has VTR-like interfaces to link it to a standard broadcast infrastructure.

Panasonic wants camera operators to shoot on solid-state memory and then transfer the material to optical disc or videotape for long-term archival storage. Sony said that, at $30 per optical disc, the system affordably allows users to avoid the transfer process and remain in the optical domain from start to finish. Broadcasters can use the original disc for both acquisition and long-term storage. Panasonic and Sony both sell DVD library archiving systems, while Sony sells its SAIT tape libraries for such applications.

Different strategies

While both Panasonic and Sony have deep traditions in the consumer-electronics industry, the companies are sending out decidedly different marketing messages to achieve their goals. Panasonic executives in Japan and the United States are making an effort to celebrate solid-state technology's consumer roots, stating that economies of scale in manufacturing and sales would help bring down the cost of the SD memory (which currently costs about $500 per GB).

To Panasonic, leveraging a consumer technology within the broadcast space is beneficial now that broadcasters are moving to an IT-centric future in which a wide variety of computer-based technologies are helping to improve workflows. And, with no moving parts, the P2 Series gear is resistant to shock, dust and moisture, which sometimes plague tape-based cameras.

Sony, on the other hand, is stressing the differences between the professional optical media storage equipment and its consumer DVD cousin. The professional Blue Laser disc, which is housed in a rugged plastic cartridge, is said to have a capacity five times that of current standard recordable DVD media, and a 72Mb/s data recoding transfer rate (per optical head). Recording-media provider TDK is adding the XDCAM professional disc to its recordable-media offerings. The disc also includes a new scratch-proof coating technology.

Sony executives say that the XDCAM holds up well in high-vibration and low-temperature applications. They reportedly tested an XDCAM camera on a powerboat traveling at high speed. Although there was lots of vibration and moisture, the camera did not drop a frame. There also have been a number of successful cold-weather tests.

Panasonic's P2 products

Panasonic's P2 Series camera, called an IT-newsgathering (ING) product, uses four 1GB SD memory cards on a single PMCIA-style card. A single P2 card stores 18 minutes of DVCPRO images compressed at 25Mb/s and nine minutes at DVCPRO 50Mb/s. Users can select among the three compression modes. The SD cards, which are hot-swappable, offer a maximum of 640Mb/s transfer rate, enabling faster-than-real-time download from camera to edit system. The proposed “P2 cam” will hold four 4GB cards (for 90 minutes of recording time) and have an extra “auxiliary” slot available for a global-positioning system (GPS) or other transmission device.

Panasonic also has shown a P2 laptop edit system (based on the company's “Toughbook” notebook PC models), a P2 deck, a P2 drive and a 5-card reader/writer equipped with a USB 2.0 interface that links the cards into a PC.

Sony's XDCAM

Sony's XDCAM Professional Optical Media equipment has been shown to journalists privately for at least three years, but took its time to develop smaller codecs and software features to keep the camera's weight to a minimum. Models include the DVCAM-only PDW 510P and the PDW 530P. The PDW 530P offers a choice of MPEG IMX and DVCAM compressed formats at both 25Mb/s and 50Mb/s.

Each single-sided Blue Laser optical disc holds up to 23.3GB of material, or approximately 85 minutes of 25Mb/s, DVCAM-quality footage. The disc is housed in a rugged plastic cartridge, which Sony said has been shown to hold up well in high-vibration and low-temperature applications. Each optical disc can be reused more than 1000 times and offers a significant reduction in size and weight when compared with existing videotape formats.

Other XDCAM equipment announced by Sony includes the PDW-V1 mobile deck, with a built-in color LCD screen, and the XPRI edit family of NLEs. Version 6.0 of the XPRI SD and HD systems also were shown working in Sony's exhibit booth on the IBC show floor. The XPRI system can recognize easily the Proxy AV files and metadata generated by the XDCAM cameras as they record in the field.

Sony’s XDCAM Professional Optical Media equipment includes the DVCAM-only PDW-510P and the PDW 530P cameras. The PDW 530P offers a choice of MPEG IMX and DVCAM compressed formats at both 25 and 50Mb/s. Other XDCAM equipment in production includes the PDW-V1 mobile deck with a built-in color LCD screen and the XPRI edit family of NLEs.

Proxy AV files

Proxy video, or low-resolution versions of files that can be used quickly to edit footage in the field or back at the station, is an undervalued benefit of these new image-acquisition systems. Among other things, these proxies help users save time in transferring material and locating individual scenes (or frames).

In Panasonic's case, the P2 card stores proxies with an MXF wrapper that includes data identifying the time, date and location the images were shot to enable fast file search and retrieval of stored material. With optional voice-recognition software that can be loaded onto the camera, the user can easily log and annotate scenes as he shoots them.

Sony's gear uses a similar concept but takes it a step further by inextricably linking the proxy to the high-resolution video so that they remain together throughout the post-production process. The company said that a user in the field can transfer one hour's worth of “footage” into a laptop NLE in less than a minute. Once an editor completes offline editing, he can write the EDL back to the optical disc in seconds. When transferring the edited program in SD, the EDL will retrieve only those files the user selects.

The decision is yours

Which technology will win the recording battle is yet to be determined. At next year's NAB, you should expect to see more tapeless product announcements and customer wins from both sides. The market will eventually decide what it wants; although with digital videotape thoroughly entrenched with most station ENG crews, that final decision could be at least five years away.

Michael Grotticelli regularly reports on the professional video and broadcast technology industry.

Ikegami/Avid continue to push tapeless alternatives

While both JVC and Sony offer hard-disc-storage camera solutions, Avid/Ikegami's Editcam, a hard-disc camcorder now in its second generation, remains the most visible hard-disc technology, albeit with minimal sales.

Issues such as the inextricable linking of the media to the Avid nonlinear edit system and the fact that hard-disc systems have failed during high-vibration applications (Ikegami has included a two-second RAM buffer to cope with this) have plagued the Editcam's broader acceptance. Add to this the fact that the camera is expensive and the result isa good idea, but has few takers.

The camera, with its removable drives, has found a home within the government. The Army Broadcasting Service purchased more than 20 Editcam IIs about a year ago.

First introduced in 1995, the Editcam, and now the Editcam II, offer 16GB “FieldPaks” (for one hour of DV25 images) that you can take out of the camera and load directly into any Avid Technology NLE system. A special adapter allows you to instantly load the FieldPak data into a laptop.

The camera is available with either FIT or IT CCD imagers and records in a variety of resolutions, from Avid's AVR codecs to Panasonic's DVCPRO 50 and Sony's IMX. Ikegami recently introduced a new stand-alone recorder, the DNE-31. And now there's a pocket-sized FieldPak called FP-S4.

Editcam II offers time-lapse recording, retroloop (where the arrival of the subject cannot be predicted) and the ability to perform advanced Avid editing functions in the field by connecting a laptop to the camera output and using optional Remote User Interface software.

Ikegami also markets the portable DNR-20 dockable disk recorder, which can mount on most of its HL-series cameras.

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