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. Both companies introduced their respective IT-friendly formats to the European market at the IBC2003 conference and are hoping to attract customers--who mainly shoot on digital tape and will for the foreseeable future--with two very different digital storage systems.

Panasonic’s Professional Plug-in (P2) Series equipment, an extension of its DVCPRO family of products, stores images on a solid-state SD memory system while Sony’s XDCAM uses professional –grade optical media discs. By all accounts, Panasonic’s equipment will be ready to ship in the first quarter of 2004 while Sony’s IT-based gear has been delivered to a few broadcasters both in the U.S. and overseas.

At the IBC conference both companies showed how their respective systems improve production workflow by enabling users to move images from the camera and into an edit system faster than ever before; and both introduced complementary products, such as laptop edit systems, studio and field readers/recorder decks.

Yet, that’s where the similarity ends. Whether one format is better than the other depends upon a number of factors, including equipment availability (Sony’s will be available first) and application (Panasonic’s SD memory gear offers the advantage of no moving parts that can be affected by environmental and maintenance issues).

Like many product platform introductions before them, a “format war” has begun, with both sides claiming the support necessary to make them a success. Both camps have their broadcast supporters, with each announcing broadcast customers and third-party NLE manufacturer support. A Quantel nonlinear edit system was seen working with a Professional Optical Media drive in the Sony stand at IBC, while Avid Technology expressed its support for Panasonic’s SD memory technology.

Tipping the scales a bit, Panasonic welcomed the announcement that Thomson would support its SD memory card technology in its news editing products (the Grass Valley NewsEdit and M-Series iVDR) initially and professional cameras in the near future.

At this early stage in the game, several camera operators, like Keith Cass, director of technology for the U.K.’s ITN TV network, and broadcast executives said that the choice comes down to individual visions for the future of image acquisition and how easily it will integrate with other digital equipment in the production chain.

The proposed P2 cam camera from Panasonic will hold four, four GB cards (for 90 minutes record time) and have an extra “auxiliary” slot available for a global positioning system (GPS) or other transmission device.

Called an IT News Gathering (ING) product, Panasonic’s P2 Series equipment uses four 1 GB SD memory cards on a single PMCIA-style card. The proposed P2 cam camera will hold four, four GB cards (for 90 minutes record time) and have an extra “auxiliary” slot available for a global positioning system (GPS) or other transmission device. A single P2 card stores 18 minutes of DVCPRO compressed images at 25 Mbps and nine minutes at DVCPRO 50 Mbps. Users can select between the three compression modes. The SD cards offer a maximum of 640 Mbps transfer rate, enabling faster than real time speeds from camera to edit system.

Pictures are stored on the P2 card with a MXF wrapper, to enable fast file search and retrieval of stored material. With optional voice recognition software from Panasonic that can be loaded onto the camera, the user can easily log scenes as files as they are shot. And with no moving parts, the P2 system is resistant to shock, dust and moisture that often plagues tape-based cameras.

At the IBC show Panasonic also showed a P2 laptop edit system (based on the company’s “Toughbook” notebook PC models), a P2 deck and a P2 drive, a five-card reader/writer equipped with a USB 2.0 interface that links the cards into a PC.

Sony showed its XDCAM Professional Optical Media equipment with equal fanfare. The PDW Series Optical Camcorders were referred to as “the best standard definition camcorder head Sony has ever produced.” There’s the DVCAM-only PDW-510P, as well as the PDW 530P, which offers a choice of MPEG IMX and DVCAM compressed formats at both 25 and 50 Mbps data rates.

Production units of the Sony Optical Media format equipment include the PDW-530/530p and PDW-510/510p camcorders, PDW-V1 laptop edit system, PDW-1500 compact source deck and PDW-3000 studio deck, Xpri mobile edit/news system, and the Xpri nonlinear edit workstation.

Each single-sided Blu-Ray optical disc holds up to 32 GB of material, or approximately 85 minutes of 25 Mbps, DVCAM-quality footage. The disc is a rugged plastic cartridge, which Sony said has been shown to hold up well in situations of high vibration and low temperature applications. Each 129 x 131 x 9mm disc can be reused over 1,000 times and offers a significant reduction in size and weight when compared with existing videotape formats.

Other XDCAM equipment announced at IBC includes the PDW-V1 mobile deck, with a built-in color LCD screen, and the Xpri edit family for fast nonlinear editing capability. Version 6.0 of the Xpri SD and HD systems were also shown working in Sony’s exhibit booth on the show floor. The Xpri system can easily recognize the Proxy AV files and metadata generated by the XDCAM cameras as they records in the field. The PDW-1500 Compact Deck is ideal for high-speed transfers with studio NLE systems, according to the company, while the PDW-3000 offers the most features and functionality.

These low-resolution Proxy AV files help users save time in transferring material. For example, Sony said, in the field one hour’s worth of footage can be transferred into a laptop NLE in less than a minute. Once off-line editing is completed, the edit decision list can be written back to the Optical Disc in seconds. When transferring the edited program in SD, the EDL will only retrieve those selected files instead of all of the clips on the disc.

Which format will win the final battle is yet to be determined. At next year’s NAB, expect to see more tapeless product announcements and customer wins from both sides. As always, 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.

For more information visit www.sony.com/professional and www.panasonic-broadcast.com.

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