Vendors’ heads in the cloud (and elsewhere) at NAB 2011

There was a lot of pent-up enthusiasm for better times ahead at this year’s NAB Show, and a larger crowd than last year’s gathering, but unfortunately most of the excitement was based on technologies and concepts that have little value for local broadcast stations struggling to keep up with competition coming from a number of alternate delivery platforms.

For a convention that relies on buzz words and pie-in-the-sky technology to spur interest in individual exhibit booths, 3-D, clouds and numerous versions of service-oriented architectures (SOA) seemed to dominate, while low-cost HD news production, wireless (WiFi and 3-4G) ENG delivery and controlling audio loudness appeared closer to stations’ pocketbooks.

Indeed, 1/3in sensor HD cameras, automated production and playout systems, audio signal analyzers and processors, and upgrading routing infrastructures to 3Gb/s signals appeared to garner the most interest. According to many vendors of these technologies and systems, stations have begun to buy in healthy numbers, after two years of scarce capital and reduced budgets.

“It’s been a difficult and tricky period the past two years, but that period is behind us,” said Michael Wellesley-Wesley, president and CEO of Chyron, regarding the revenue from his company’s cloud-based services and traditional hardware graphics technology. “We’re in the best shape we have been in many years.”

“There’s a wave of optimism across the industry,” said Carl Dempsey, president of Wohler Technologies. “However, the market remains lumpy.”

That optimism was apparent in the wide variety of eye-catching exhibit booths that had to cost tens of thousands of dollars to design and construct. Looking around the show floor, it seemed like an exhibit booth designer’s playground. This new investment had not been apparent the past few years, as the tough economy caused many to make the most of what they had.

“The gradual economic rebound [in the United States] is certainly a welcome development,” said John Baisley, Panasonic’s executive vice president of media and products services. “We have seen an uptick in capital spending by our customers.”

What many companies that normally court local stations were showing in those bright, shiny booths this year was often not geared toward terrestrial stations at all, but to those professionals involved in the growing high-end (4K) digital cinema producers and independent movie makers (single 35mm sensor cameras and lenses).

Companies like Canon, Fujinon, Hitachi, Panasonic, Sony, and others, which typically introduce new products for ENG applications, introduced scant products for the “broadcast” market this year.

“There’s not a lot we can do that we haven’t already done for broadcasters, in terms of new product introductions,” said Larry Thorpe, national marketing executive, broadcast and communications division, Canon U.S.A. The company introduced an HD ENG lens with a built-in 2X extender for 2/3in cameras, costing less than $8000. “Local stations appear to want low-cost [1/3- and 1/2in sensor] equipment, and there’s plenty of that around.”

There appear to be a number of high-profile sports productions occurring in the area of 3-D, but the activity is limited to the haves and have nots. If your company offers production equipment, you have seen interest, but if you make servers or routing switchers, not so much. Both Panasonic and Sony introduced single-sensor 3-D camcorders that look to make an impact on this nascent production world.

“We’re in a ‘wait and see’ mode when it comes to 3-D,” said Neil Maycock, chief architect at Snell, a company that makes both production switchers and 3Gb/s routers that can accommodate 3-D signals. “I think Internet-connected TVs will be a more significant market in the short term.”

Many vendors at NAB this year had their heads in the cloud — cloud computing and storage that is. The basic concept of storing and processing content at a remote site in order to reduce capital expenditure was evident in more than a few exhibit booths.

“Cloud computing brings so many advantages to customers that they can’t avoid looking at it in some capacity,” said Tony Lapolito, vice president of product management and marketing at Signiant. The content delivery company helped one broadcast network move 15,000 files (3PB of data) last year, illustrating the need for more efficient delivery methods.

In talking with company executives, the idea has caught the attention of large service providers like cable and satellite TV providers, and even large broadcast networks like NBC (new York) and Turner Broadcasting (Atlanta), because it allows them to distribute large amounts of content to numerous locations around the world — sometimes simultaneously.

Another benefit for vendors is that they move their business model from a product vendor to a product and services supplier.

The other big concept that many were trying to wrap their head around was deploying a SOA system whereby a software layer helps a large organization with virtually every aspect of collaborative production and makes its staff more efficient. It also will help equipment vendors like Avid, Grass Valley, Harris, IBM, Miranda Technologies and Sony (which all showed some type of SOA offering), integrate their products with third-party systems easily and with little strain on an existing operations.

“The SOA environment allows an organization to dedicate its staff to specific tasks and be much more productive across multiple sites, either locally or around the globe, because they are all using the same common interface,” said Eric Dufosse’, senior director of product strategy for Grass Valley. He was instrumental in developing Grass Valley’s new Stratus media workflow application suite, which includes a special software layer, on top of an operations’ Grass Valley K2 server-base shared storage layer, to reach into all areas of a content developer’s content creation chain.

Avid introduced a similar model for production, called Avid Interplay Central, which features Web- and mobile-based apps that rely on Avid’s existing Interplay collaborative networking technology.

Transmission and encoding technology to support Mobile DTV was also in evidence (with several over-the-air HD and 3-D demos), although most of it was relegated to the side burner in booths that just last year championed its potential. That’s because many of the same issues surrounding ATSC Mobile DTV receiver chip availability and transmission equipment investment that surfaced last year have yet to be resolved. (Harris said more than 70 stations are on the air with its technology alone.)

Technology aside, the NAB said attendance was up considerably from last year, with 92,708 making the trek to the desert, compared with the 88,044 registered attendees that came in 2010. This was reflected in across-the-board vendor enthusiasm, as many said they hosted more “serious” meetings with customers on the first day of the show than during all four days of last year’s event.