A switcher's life cycle

Expect next-gen production switchers to be 1080p60.
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This month, let's look at production switchers from the standpoint of product life cycles. Every manufacturer looks at the four stages of product life cycle (introduction, growth, mature, saturation/decline) as both opportunity and risk to be managed. As an industry, we might look at the overall product category and decide where opportunities remain for innovation, whereas as users, we should be aware of the likely decisions manufacturers must inevitably make.

The early days

The first production switchers, developed for monochrome television in the late 1930s, provided little more than cuts, fades and mixes. In the 1960s, the second stage of switchers emerged. They evolved to successfully accommodate color, with completely different processing needed for the three principal color standards worldwide (PAL, SECAM and NTSC). Bandwidths had to be higher and signal electronics more linear in performance. In that same generation came significant new effects, with complex wipe generators and the introduction of chroma key. These products developed into mature offerings, and new generations replaced them with more effects rows and new capabilities to accommodate the increasingly complex production styles in vogue.

In this period, the first digital techniques were introduced as both stand-alone and integrated tools. The key capability was to break the fixed nature of the plane of the image, allowing digital video effects to zoom and pan the picture. Eventually, full 3-D manipulations became possible as software evolved, but the basic tools from the 1960s until the late 1980s were essentially unchanged.

In the late 1980s came the third cycle of products. They were radically different in that processing was not analog, but rather entirely digital. Functionally, little was new, but in terms of picture quality and the ability to create complex layering, this cycle produced a major divergence from the past, every bit as fundamental as the move from monochrome to color-capable versions. Over time, digital effects moved into newer switchers. System stability improved, and electronics units reduced in size.

Today's and next-gen units

Now we have entered an era when HD content predominates. Ten years ago, an HD-capable switcher cost $750,000, making HD more of a science project than a business tool. I question how fundamentally different the early HD switchers were from SD digital, but now several manufacturers deliver units with clear differentiation. These are what I interpret as the third generation of products — those that allow mixing of different resolutions (i.e., 525-, 1080- and 720-line systems) in one product. Though not quite resolution-independent, they free users from technical restraints regarding the way content is manipulated during a production, and they simplify system designs.

It might be useful to think about the life cycle of a switcher in a station, which is determined by three essentially independent timelines. The depreciation cycle is of interest mostly to senior management and the CFO, for it affects long-term capital investment needs. The production cycle is determined by the desires of the production staff and the competitive landscape in which productions are developed. And the technology timeline is determined by both the reliability of the product and the way it fits into a slowly evolving system architecture. When a new switcher is installed, all three clocks reset, but all except the depreciation clock run at only slightly predictable speeds. The goal is to maximize the product's long-term viability in both producers' and engineers' perspectives and approximate the depreciation cycle, or ideally — from the CFO's view — exceed it. This might be possible in stable markets, but this is not a stable time. As I write this article, the June analog cutoff has just occurred, and no one expects stability in our industry given the dynamic and the generally foul business climate.

Times of change breed more change, and in this case it seems likely that the momentum behind HD production will only continue to accelerate. Very few 4:3 receivers are purchased today, and consumers seem to want everything in HD on their big flat panels. That demand will undoubtedly drive more production switcher development in HD.

Going back to product life cycle planning, the generation of products we are in now best fits the growth stage, where costs come down due to economies of scale, and sales volumes increase significantly. In combination, that creates profits, public awareness and competition, which keeps prices in check as new players and products pop into view. It would not be unreasonable to see HD switcher prices generally, though slightly, decline to essential parity with where SD switcher prices were a couple of years ago. Stable prices will move capital dollars when the first signs of economic recovery appear. Those dollars will further accelerate the pace of technology innovation as manufacturers move to participate in the maturing market.

When digital switchers first came out, it seemed that a simple translation of analog production techniques had been embedded in the digital products. At NAB this year, the new production switchers seemed to have moved past that to new features not possible with old thinking or analog devices. Control panels have become modular work surfaces that are simply user interfaces for sophisticated digital processing.

That got me thinking how long it might be before conventional video hardware exists only in the I/O for switchers. When pressed, one manufacturer admitted that the next generation of switchers will be capable of 1080p60, with 3-D content switching a production requirement for many live productions. They will likely include a work surface tied to a rack of blade servers processing content. When that happens, we will certainly have achieved a fourth generation and perhaps the last where hardware is differentiated between generations. Once a switcher is mostly software on common IT platforms, the evolution of the production process will take a giant leap forward.

John Luff is a broadcast technology consultant.

Send questions and comments to:john.luff@penton.com