Well-Fed HD

Well-Fed HD
  • OK, you've done the deed and convinced an existing client that it's time to step up to high definition displays, or perhaps an RFQ has come across your desk where the use of HD displays has already been called for. That's a good thing in that it goes a long way towards putting the project on the right path for the future, but now that the displays will be ready for high def, what will you do to make certain that there is something to feed program material that demonstrates the benefits of the high definition?

Sony will soon be offering external drives for Blu-ray read/write/re-writeable applications. Where program length makes the use of CD-ROM discs impossible and when the number of distribution head ends is relatively small, don't ignore the possibility of using portable hard drives as a means of getting the files from one location to another.
Of course, the easiest thing to do is find a way to fit an off-air ATSC tuner into the project so that you will have access to over-the-air broadcasts as they become increasingly available in HD. It is true that most high definition programming is currently aired during "prime time" when the typical venue may not be in operation. However, access to an off-air tuner is more than a means of being able to show off the system, it also allows the entire venue or network to have access to news, sports, and other broadcast programming that may not be the norm, but which may nevertheless be valuable when there is something of particular interest such as the finals of a sports event, major news, or weather information that needs to be displayed.Depending on the distribution system, you will have to determine how to route the signals. Short distances may be simply done with DVI or HDMI connectivity, but as runs get longer the situation may get more complicated. HDMI and DVI "run out of gas" beyond 10 meters or so; after that you need to consider repeaters. Conversion of the signal from digital to analog is not always an easy option, as copy protection in the form of today's HDCP or tomorrow's broadcast flag system may make that impractical, impossible, and quite possibly, illegal! Thus, if distribution of off-air programming (whether actually received via a terrestrial antenna, or "second hand" through a cable box or satellite receiver) has to be done through analog components or some other means such as fiber or IP topologies, make certain that you are not precluded from doing this by potential copy protection issues. Where appropriate, make certain that the displays are HDCP compliant if that is needed. Virtually any digital display aimed at the consumer market will have no problem with this; pure "data monitors" and many commercial displays are not compliant. An HDMI connector means you're good to go. A DVI connector does NOT always signal that the display can handle HDCP.

A variety of BD-R/RE media will be available from Sony and other vendors.
If off-air reception (or the ability to view "cable networks") in HD is not needed, your next logical source is a computer. Given a proper video card there is no reason why a standard "Wintel" architecture PC or any contemporary Macintosh computer can't deliver full HD output. Indeed, these very computers are frequently used to edit HD programming shot on an HDV camcorder, or even more sophisticated broadcast equipment. As long as the video card and processor speed are there, you may not need more than a 1394 input to transfer the signals from the camcorder or other HDV deck onto the computer's hard drive. Edit it if you wish, and then, hard drive space permitting, you're good to go.

Not a bad arrangement, though curiously, it presents an issue with displays that are almost the direct opposite of the previous example. Here, where the content is unlikely to be copy protected, you simply need to make certain that the output of the computer (or an add-in high performance video card) is scan and resolution compatible with the display and your means of distribution. Given their commercial orientation, most displays outside of consumer distribution channels have both the physical connections and multi-scan adaptability to deal with most computer video standards you are likely to deal with. Consumer sets, however, may be much more limited in their range of inputs, if, indeed, they can handle anything beyond the standard broadcast formats. As should always be the rule, be particularly careful about assessing all possible and foreseeable future client needs before spec'ing the displays and signal distribution.

Speaking of camcorders, there have been a number of announcements in recent months that telegraph the future availability of new camcorder formats for HD. These won't be available until some time in mid to late 2007, at the earliest. At this early stage of HD's development in the commercial world it is worth a heads up as to future products. A major breakthrough to look for will be the AVCHD format, jointly developed by Sony and Panasonic. It will be based on MPEG-4 AVC/H.264, rather than the current MPEG-2 or MPEG-4 basic technologies so that file size is smaller without a compromise in quality.

Neither company has released full details of the record media for the new format, although their initial announcements said that the discs used would be red-laser based and 80cm (3-inch) in diameter. As current Blu-ray (BD) players playback red-laser DVDs, all that would be needed is a computer drive or standalone BD player equipped with the proper codec to provide compatible playback. Alternatively, Panasonic is already marketing an HD camcorder for the broadcast and professional markets that uses solid state memory card packages that actually use SD memory cards, so they may choose that route for AVVCHD, or go with a BD-based format as well. Rounding things out, both Sony and Hitachi have said separately that they are working on future camcorder products that will record directly to mini-sized BD-R/RE discs just as there are currently.

So far we have a nice scenario if the computer feeding the system is the one where the editing from an external full motion video source is done, but that may not always be the case. How, then, to transport the program from the edit machine to the one from which it will be distributed? Depending on the length of the program, it is certainly possible to use compression so that it can be burned on to a conventional red-laser CD-ROM disc. This allows playback at the other end provided that the computer has the needed software decoder/player and as always, video card, memory, and processor power.

Where program length makes the use of CD-ROM discs impossible and when the number of distribution head ends is relatively small, don't ignore the possibility of using portable hard drives as a means of getting the files from one location to another. The cost of hard drives has dropped to the point where this isn't as outrageous an idea as it may have once seemed, and there is the added benefit of being able to add electronic or physical security where needed. On a more sophisticated scale, hard drives and relatively transportable server products have been used in many of the early schemes for delivery of electronic cinema content to theaters. Expensive, but certainly secure and it works well. To top it off, you can't say that it compromises the high definition image quality, as the picture from the servers is shown in high brightness at long throw distances with demanding (shall we say PAYING) customers who rightfully insist on the best in image resolution and sound quality. After all, the ultimate comparison for any HDTV display system, 35mm film, is likely to be right down the hall in another auditorium in the typical multiplex cinema.

However, as the number of locations grow, or as budgets shrink and there is a need for more frequent change to the program material, hard drives become an expensive luxury. What then to do? The answer is, or will shortly be at hand in the form of blue-laser based optical disc formats. Anyone with a passing interest in the HDTV scene is certainly aware of the format battle that is now reaching a peak with consumer versions of both HD-DVD and Blu-ray in the market. Where there was once hope that a single format could be agreed to, those hopes were dashed late last year. As you read this consumer HD-DVD players are available from Toshiba and RCA (Thomson) while players are being sold by Samsung. As we move forward into the fall, additional members of the camp will have players, as well. Other brands will offer HD-DVD players, Blu-ray players, or both. There has even been talk of a combination BD/HD-DVD player, but none has been formally announced.

If you lean towards the Blue-ray side of the fence, and have a "fun" view of what might be viewed in HD, remember that Sony's PlayStation3 game console will have a BD drive built-in. The entry level model will have analog Y/Pr/Pb outputs only; the step-up model will include HDMI along with a larger (60GB) hard drive, memory card slots, 802.11 wireless and other additional niceties. Curiously, it may well be the least expensive self-contained BD playback device available, as its $599 price is almost half that of any BD player so far. Yes, Microsoft has announced that there will be an external HD-DVD drive option for Xbox 360 that should be available this fall, but precise timing and pricing are yet to be released.

On a cautionary note, if you do choose to use one of the forthcoming consumer market BD players from Sony or Toshiba, be aware of the fact they while they play conventional red-laser DVD discs, they will NOT play standard CD Audio discs. (Samsung's BD player will play CDDA discs.) While this may not be an important factor in every installation, in places where rack space or equipment placement is limited, you'll need to know this if there are plans to count on the BD player to play back music from a CD as you might otherwise expect the player to do.

All well and good, but even if you are able to beat the consumer rush and secure an HD-DVD or BD player, how will you get the program material burned to a disc? That's where we turn full circle back to the use of a computer.

The Blu-ray side has been more aggressive about offering a recordable solution right out of the gate. A Sony Vaio desktop will be available for $2,300 that includes a built in BD player/burner. The first BD-R/RE notebook will be Sony's VGN-AR190G, carrying a list price of around $3,500. Finally, Sony has also demonstrated external drives that burn BD discs, and they, too should be available before the end of the summer. Although there is no official support for BD from Microsoft, it goes without saying that drivers and authoring programs will be part of the package with the BD-equipped models.

What about HD-DVD? Even though it was first to market with a consumer player, it is currently lagging behind with regard to a recordable format. Toshiba is now offering the "Qosmio G35-AV650" laptop at $2,999 with HD-DVD playback, but no HD-DVD recording. Given the competitive nature of the market it is not unreasonable to expect that a model with an HD-DVD burner will follow before the end of the year along with external and internal drives for installation with existing computers. The fact that Microsoft will support HD-DVD as a standard part of its new Vista operating system when it is finally released in OEM form this fall and as an upgrade early next year clearly signals that recordable HD-DVD is on the horizon. (The current Qosimo model does, however, burn conventional red-laser DVD discs.

Once you have the computer fully fitted out with either an internal or external drive and the hardware and software around it, you are ready to go. Play it back from a consumer player, play it back from a game console, or, of course, play it back on the drive in the machine in which it was recorded. Take it out when you're done and put it on the shelf until you need it as would be the case with any optical media. This way there is no need to tie up precious hard drive space or purchase additional drives.

Note, however, that as is the case with any new consumer or professional electronics technology the price will start high and perhaps stay there for a while before volume production, Moore's law, and increased competition combine to bring prices down. Indeed, you may find at first that the cost of an external blue laser drive along with the high price for blank BD discs, particularly in comparison to the low cost of high-capacity HDDs to be prohibitive. At the moment it is also worth remembering that while HD playback from optical discs is appealing, at $20 each for write-once discs you had better not make too many errors in the recording or you will not only be making some VERY expensive coasters, you will quickly find yourself spending more than the cost of a 200GB drive and an external USB connected enclosure.

With the number of possibilities for preparation and playback of HD programming material increasing rapidly, it clearly makes sense to consider the options discussed here, and others to come, and make plans not only for the usual staid use HD displays for computer generated graphics, but also for live full motion playback.