NAB2006: Beyond convergence

At NAB2006, the main focus was on IT components, IPTV and overall system flexibility.

The word convergence no longer accurately describes the technology and systems broadcasters are now installing in earnest to make, manage and distribute content to viewers.

At the National Association of Broadcasters convention last week, attended by more than 105,000 broadcast and video production/post professionals, virtually all of the technology in display could be categorized are IT-centric or “IT immersed” (according to Grass Valley), borrowing more from the computer world than the traditional baseband video era.

Of course, traditional video systems are still an important part of the mix, but the majority of task and functionality that was once the domain of traditional, proprietary video hardware has given way to more open software-based architectures that enable a broadcaster to ingest a raw video signal, quickly convert it to data for processing, and then convert back to SDI signal for distribution to terrestrial receivers or to cable and satellite TV providers. This as it simultaneously goes to the Web as a stream of Internet Protocol packets that are easily displayed on PCs and a full a range of portable devices in a compressed format using MPEG-4 AVC or VC-1 codecs.

Software processing replaces hardware
Companies like Avid (with its new Interplay collaborative workgroup system), Omneon Video Networks (with its new MediaGrid system), OmniBus Systems (showcasing its software-based master control system itx), and Snell & Wilcox (introducing its Hyperion signal analysis system and Helios integrated signal conversion platform), all announced new software-based processing that was once done expensively in hardware, or not at all.

Indeed, IP was the popular acronym of the week, enabling video to be converted to the Internet Protocol and delivered as data over a broadband connection to consumer PCs or a digital set top box. It also allows broadcast station groups to share non-critical content between sites cost-effectively.

There was also a plethora of systems engineered for sending video to mobile phones. Yet it seems ironic that just as broadcasters are gearing up their facilities to produce beautiful standard- and high-definition pictures designed to be displayed on large widescreen TV sets, many equipment vendors came to Las Vegas with messages (e.g., “workflows”) designed to distribute video that is eventually displayed on 3inch screens. For the most part, however, broadcasters witnessed the various demonstrations of “digital mobility” and walked away.

The planned or current use of advanced codecs borrowed from the IT world to save bandwidth was also clearly in evidence, although H.264 MPEG-4 AVC appears to be winning the war of penetration over the SMPTE standard VC-1, as many companies continue to express a reluctance to work with Microsoft (developers of VC-1) for fear of being beholden to its underlying proprietary strategies.

Business is good
Most equipment vendors at the show reported record sales quarters, signaling that stations that have already purchased the necessary transmitters and transmission lines, and are now making the commitment to HD production equipment. This includes cameras, switchers, routers, servers, and graphics.

The complete emergence of IT components into the video space also meant that formats and protocols familiar to computer industry professionals, and designed with off-the-shelf parts, are enabling a new generation of affordable gear. Take for example, the new Grass Valley Infinity camcorder and digital media player introduced at the show. Leveraging removable media made by Iomega, SanDisk media, and JPEG 2000 compression offers customers a choice of recording formats not possible a few years ago. The show floor was also populated with several new 2K and 4K digital cinema cameras, some less than $20,000 that surely caused some of the established camera manufacturers concern.

However, companies like Ikegami, Panasonic and Sony all showed technology that embraces the flexibility and cost-effectiveness of an IT-centric philosophy. This includes Ikegami's EditCam (with its FieldPak hard drives), Panasonic's P2 solid-state recording system (including its new AJ-HPC2000, 2/3in HD camcorder and HVX-200), Sony's XDCAM HD format (which Gannet, Cablevision's News Channel 12 and the entire CBS News division have made commitments to), and even Hitachi's new MediaPac removable hard drive system (developed with nNovia and Audavi) for its Z-DR1 dockable digital recorder.

Embracing IT
Further evidence of the IT industry's significant influence could be found in the fact that the established video players that supply the broadcast business announced a number of partnerships or joint development deals with such computer stalwarts as Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Microsoft and Sun Microsystems, to name a few.

What all of this IT technology means to broadcasters is more flexibility in the systems they commit to, lower prices, and a more open approach that enables technology from different manufacturers to work together more seamlessly under a common user interface. And with the new (younger) generation of broadcast professionals carrying a working knowledge of computers, it means that employees get up to speed on new broadcast technology faster.

Yet buyers should be aware IT-based does not always mean non-proprietary. Many of the companies that have embraced the MXF protocol offer their own flavors that favor this specific equipment that are not universally compatible. Different encoders require different players and Panasonic's P2 cards and Grass Valley's REV PRO cartridges are only available through those companies' respective dealer networks.

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