Zero-effort Web broadcasting: Grass Valley's Aqua brings simplicity to webcasting

Producing a television show, live or taped, is hard enough. Formatting that same program for the Web is an added task that broadcasters are now faced with every day, and sometimes continuously throughout the day. While almost every television station and most television programs have their own website, the process of taking "broadcast-friendly" programming and formatting it for the Web has been - until now - a process that revolved around tools of the computer industry.

These computer industry tools, used to repurpose and reformat content for Internet distribution, have created less-than-ideal situations. They are either technically complex, requiring additional manpower to program and supervise, or they are low-power "toys" that take too long and don't provide the quality that broadcasters and program producers truly desire - regardless of the bandwidth used to play the online content. Clearly, a new solution was needed to enable broadcasters and program producers to prepare their content for the Web. A solution that was broadcast-friendly (meaning high quality), while simple and almost automatic to operate. A system that could handle multiple Web-based video formats and operate in either a live real-time mode, pre-programmed mode or an on-demand mode, one that understood tape cueing, SDI embedded audio and ruggedness.

The Aqua Internet encoder, developed by the Grass Valley Group, provides these powerful tools and is easy to use. The encoder, a hardware and software turnkey system, has been designed with the needs of broadcasters, program producers and other content owners in mind.

It is part of the Grass Valley Group's Web Media Publishing offerings, which include the Profile XP Media Platform, the ContentShare software platform for digital asset management and WebAble technology for streamlining the repurposing of content for the Web.

One-pass encoding technology Leveraging the Grass Valley Group's experience as a world leader in video and audio signal processing, the company's One Pass Encoding technology was created to provide the same premium-quality video to online as that seen on-air. The technology provides a comprehensive set of audio and video "cleaning" tools during both pre- and post-digitization. These tools include noise reduction, artifact removal, de-interlacing and color correction. As a result, the encoder can produce high-quality, real-time output. It is capable of sustaining multiple, simultaneous, real-time and high-bit-rate encoding processes as well as producing outputs from a simple audio stream (at 28.8kb/s) to DVD-quality streams (at more than 2Mb/s).

The encoder also features basic editing capabilities (such as fades to and from a pre-selected background color) for manipulation of the content prior to encoding, and a user interface designed to accommodate various levels of operator encoding experience.

The user can choose any or all of today's major streaming formats - Microsoft's Windows Media, RealNetworks' RealVideo and Apple's QuickTime - and encode them all simultaneously, in real time, with whatever data rate is needed. This flexibility means fewer man-hours are needed for the encoding process and the highest quality possible is maintained.

The encoder also features an auto detect and encode feature that, when connected to the Profile XP Media Platform, allows it to look into the Profile's media storage directory. When new files are detected on a Profile system, Aqua can automatically transcode the file's contents to the pre-selected streaming media format (or formats) without user intervention.

Input flexibility is another feature and includes SDI video, analog video (fully configurable), an AES/EBU stereo pair and analog stereo audio on a single capture card. Since the system is capable of automatic capture from tape in a batch-processing mode, an additional capture card is available as an option. This allows the user to shuttle a tape machine and preview the tape's contents through the encoder without affecting the batch process.

Advanced functionality Rights management systems will play an increasing role as content owners repurpose their assets for the Web. Keeping track of descriptive information, pricing information, legal rights and shelf life will be of prime importance to the owners or licensees of content. The encoder's design features interfaces for rights management systems, as well as the ability to increase throughput by distributing workloads using standard load-balancing software. By using Microsoft's .NET framework, users of the encoder can work directly with the encoder regardless of its location or the location of the material to be encoded. Additionally, the system is designed to accommodate interfaces to various e-commerce and digital media publishing and syndication applications.

For branding purposes, an optional logo burner is available. This option allows specific logo branding on the encoded streaming content without tying up traditional keyers or switchers prior to digitizing or encoding.

Portability and ruggedness are also of importance, as more webcasts are produced on location simultaneously with traditional television program production. Fully configured, fully redundant Aqua encoding requires 12RU of space and 950W of 110V power (8.6 amps) and weighs less than 100 pounds. Combined with hot-swappable PCI processors connected by an extremely fast, high-speed interconnect and shock mounted major components, the Aqua encoder is suited for permanent or ad-hoc installation in today's sophisticated production trucks. In this configuration, it can provide live, real-time, simultaneous encoding of the program content to Windows Media, RealVideo, QuickTime or any combination of the three.

As broadcasters and other content owners transition themselves into the world of digicasters, the Grass Valley Group's commitment to media without bounds is focused on expanding how content is managed, stored and manipulated.