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Graphics systems

In the good old days (10 or so years ago), buying a live-to-air graphics system was much simpler than it is now. A facility selected a character generator that had the most bang for the buck, including real-time operation, creation tools, fonts and a basic newsroom interface. Although the CG was only one element of a graphics infrastructure that might include expensive paint and animation systems, DVE, still store, and clip playback, file format inconsistencies made it very much an island unto itself.

Fast-forward to today. With the advent of ultra-fast CPU technology, graphics acceleration and ever increasing storage capacity, the newest breed of CG is a powerful system capable of creating, aggregating, managing and distributing graphics content.

Basic systems

Today, almost every high-end system uses nonproprietary components and will output SD, HD or both on each channel. Most systems are Windows-based, enabling the user to take advantage of many Windows features, including fonts and file management. The hardware is generally a standard PC or a rack-mounted industrial style PC with a dual-core processor, an I/O card and an off-the-shelf graphics accelerator card with enhanced 3-D capabilities. If the I/O card is also a frame buffer and has on-board processing, it can handle certain real-time functions, thereby freeing the CPU for other tasks. This is almost essential if a single system with two independent HD streams is required.

Some systems with still and clip playback or locally stored media files also have large drive arrays, although any RAID component will reduce the active storage space.

Most systems also have dedicated keyboards available as an option. Recalling messages numerically, quickly changing functions and manual control or override can occur immediately without ALT or SHIFT key functions. In a live environment like sports, a dedicated keyboard is essential.

One point that should not be overlooked is placement of the equipment. Although the rack-mounted chassis may be placed in the control room, there will be fan noise. With multiple dual-core processors, graphics accelerator boards and I/O cards, as well as drive arrays, multichannel systems may have up to six fans of varying sizes. The Catch-22 is that serial keyboard extenders are good for only a specified length and must be tested and approved for the system being purchased.

As with all video gear, don't forget the audio. A graphics system should have embedded and AES audio available. Also, many systems allow capture and playout of WAV files, and some systems enable an audio mix function, which is important for bumpers, snipes, fade in/out or a duck under.

Relay bypass is important in a master control environment, and GPI/O, although not a new technology, is still a handy tool enabling external control of almost any function.

Creation software, control and interface

Because most systems are Windows-based, there is some similarity between all systems. Every CG has a canvas with a palette and a file manager. But take a closer look, and the software is quite a bit different in all systems. While every system has basic features, some systems import 3-D files, and some both create and import files.

There is no easy way to determine which software is best. It depends entirely on the method of operation at the specific installation. To know for sure, you have to see the systems in action. Almost every manufacturer will do a Web-based demo, as well as supply free trial software that runs on any PC. A system that is deemed acceptable still may require an on-site demo, so all aspects of the product can be tested in real time.

Today, many facilities use standard products like Adobe's After Effects and Photoshop, Autodesk's 3ds Max and Maya, and others to create graphic objects. A useable feature is the ability to import those files without conversion and manipulate them within the CG graphics program.

Every graphics system has a video and audio clip playback scheme. Most use software coder/decoder, or codec, technology to enable many different types of clips to be imported and played back. Common codecs include WMV, MPEG and QuickTime. Although AVI is referred to as a codec, it is really a container format that a number of different codecs may use. In any case, software codec technology is flexible and generally enables new codecs to be added. Some systems also use a hardware-based codec. Although almost certainly proprietary, the hardware codec is stable and reliable. The best of both worlds will include hardware and software codecs.

Most DVE moves are done in a production switcher, but high-end graphics systems generally include a DVE. This enables a full effect and transition to be accomplished within the system, freeing up the switcher for other functions.

A critical component of the graphics system is its ability to interface well with many different devices. The most obvious is MOS for news. MOS interface enables a reporter or journalist, with no graphics skill, to browse, edit and insert graphic elements from lower thirds to stills and clips directly from his or her workstation, generally using an ActiveX component. Many systems enable independent MOS playlists to be controlled across multiple devices from a central location.

MOS generally does not include interface to a station automation system. That functionality is available, but is difficult to implement because news is a live event and many times incorporates last minute changes.

Another major change is the use of centralized graphics content creation, storage, management and distribution. In this model, a graphics department is centrally located and serves many facilities. Each facility may have its own look and feel, but in reality more organizations are opting for a centralized solution.

There are many benefits to this model, including a graphics center, less manpower, common creation techniques and software utilization, and the ability to have quick access to all graphics content. The model creates certain problems, too. How is a graphic requested? How long does it take for that graphic to be produced? If the requested graphic is not available, is there a placeholder to alert the user when it will be available? How is the actual content sent to the graphic device at the facility?

All these questions are answered if the graphics system has its own graphics management system, or it can be an element in a third-party system. Even if centralized graphics management outside the facility is not an issue, think about how many graphics devices are used internally. The same lower third for news could be used in a master control branding situation, as could time and temperature bugs, station logos and IDs, and “coming up next” promos. The ability to “create once, use many” is essential for timeliness and efficiency. Of course, this also means that specialized branding devices must be able to share content with the main graphics device.

Keep in mind that the product purchased today must live in an ever expanding graphics environment. It must have the features necessary for eye-popping graphics, as well as the capabilities that will ensure expansion of interface and management functions. A smart purchase today will ensure the return on investment every organization is seeking.

Rich Hajdu is a 30-year television industry veteran, with experience in remote and broadcast production, sales and management.