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Hyper-Real

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This month many of you will assemble in Las Vegas for InfoComm, where the focus is mostly on the world of video display in all shapes, sizes, forms and technologies. As never before, an increasing number of those displays will be capable of displaying HD images, and virtually any display worth its salt will be able to accept an HD input even if the display is a lower resolution. Fine to show things, but what about creating the images in HD?

For that, you would also want to be in the Las Vegas Convention Center, but in your time machine so that it is about two months ago when the NAB show was in town. Since it is safe to say that the time machine is probably in the shop for a tune-up, and thus your ability to travel back even that short amount of time is impaired, we'll do the job for you here with a roundup of what is new in the world of content creation and post production for the HD world.

Indeed, no matter which aspect of HD you looked for, it was there in spades at NAB. One need only look at the marketing themes for some of the major players. Sony wanted us to get on the "HD Highway," JVC was touting that "Affordable HD is here," and Microsoft made no secret of its plans to provide products that were "Powering the HD Revolution from Creation to Consumer." Another booth took things right to the core with a sign that simply read: "HDTV: Making it Happen." You get the message.

The first thing that needs to happen, presuming that at some point along the line you are dealing with live content, is to capture the images. For that, all the majors, including Sony, Panasonic and JVC, had camera and camcorder entries that make it possible to acquire high-def images without high prices. As to how the images (and accompanying audio) are recorded, that is still an area where you need to make a choice based on any need for backwards compatibility, as well as budgets, features and personal brand preferences.
JVC is sticking to the HDV with the new GY-HD100U due this summer for $6,295. Sony is offering both affordable HDV and more expensive HDCAM SR camcorder formats. Looking forward, they will be extending the capabilities of its blue-laser (but not BluRay) based XDCAM disc-based camcorder system to include HD recording, and a demonstration of that was held at NAB. However, pricing and availability are still in the "next year" category.

More immediate on the advanced technology HD capture front with a fall introduction was Panasonic's all-solid-state HD camcorder. The "P2"-based AG-HVX200 will debut this fall for under $6,000. Note, of course, that the 8GB memory cards that you would want to use with it are expected to cost about $2,000 each, but down the road the payback in terms of increased reliability and the need to do away with the cost of tape consumables will help. By the way, by using two 8GB slots in the new camcorder you will be able to capture about 40 minutes of 720P/24, considerably more time with 480P formats.

Getting the images has been reasonably easy for a while, though now it is less expensive. The "big three" recording deck brands all had models that facilitate editing, but the real work of editing these days is done on computer-based systems. Software-only vendors such as Avid brought new HD editing products to bear at NAB, but cruising both the press conferences and the exhibit halls, the most noise, both literally and figuratively, was made by Apple. It should be noted, however, that long-time broadcast editing powerhouse, Avid, used NAB as a platform to announce its pending acquisition of Pinnacle Systems, itself a leader on the "prosumer" and consumer side of the editing and content manipulation world. The potential for synergy between the products of those two companies under a unified corporate structure may yield interesting products for those of us whose portfolio includes systems that have to edit, as well as display audio and video.

Back to Apple, building on Final Cut Pro HD, its first HD entry introduced at last year's NAB, the latest offering from Apple is Final Cut Studio. Able to edit uncompressed HD video and almost anything else the matching (Apple, natch) hardware can handle, the new suite of video and audio edit tools is very impressive. Key to those planning ahead for the eventual availability of high-def material on some sort of optical format, the new Apple software includes support for direct "burn-out" to HD-DVD discs as demonstrated using a prototype Toshiba player and the DVD Studio Pro 4 component of the $1,299 suite that includes the basic Final Cut Pro 5 editing software, the Soundtrack Pro audio design module and the Motion 2 animation and graphics module. Costing more than twice the price of a full Final Cut Pro HD package, and therefore clearly not included, is Apple's Shake 4 visual effects processing and composting software. (Though an upgrade to existing Shake owners is "only" $999.) Clearly in the realm of visual artists, seeing the demo of this impressive package at NAB did drive home the point of how it is easier than ever to create impressive HD programming for distribution through a network, on disc or even converted to film.

For kiosk and digital-signage applications, the cost of all the Apple software described here and the hardware needed to run it is not bargain basement. But when viewed in the context of the power of the images, it can create to deliver a powerful sales, information or education message, the value is very clear. That is even more so when it serves to drive the remainder of the sound, image and data distribution and display systems you purvey.

Coming out of NAB, the most critical part of the distribution chain when it comes to HD was still in flux; as this is written in mid-May, it still is. What we are referring to here is the outcome of discussions said to be underway to reach an agreement that will lead to a single, unified blue-laser-based format for high-definition optical discs. Whether we all have to deal with one format or two is yet to be decided, and hopefully by the next issue we'll have some good news on that front. Or not.

It is worth noting that the politics of DVD technology appear to be as complex as deciding the shape of a conference table at peace talks or as intellectually challenging as Mr. Spock's three-dimensional chess. While everyone seems to acknowledge that a blue-laser HD disc in some form (maybe more than one form!) or another will reach these shores eventually, new iterations of existing or previously announced formats seem to hit the news wires daily. At NAB, Warner Home Video announced that it would release titles using the Microsoft WMV9/VC-1 codec this year. Yet less than four weeks after the NAB closed its doors, WHV also announced support of a 45GB version of the HD-DVD format that uses 3-layer technology. Who knows if any of this will come to pass, but in the meantime we certainly don't lack for DVD options.
While we wait, other distribution methods for HD content were shown at NAB, and some might just fit the bill for single-space kiosk or video wall installations or for multi-display requirements such as museums and transportation terminals. For the latter, one interesting solution was shown by Thomson, with its IP-1100 IPTV set-top terminal. Not intended for retail sale, but rather for systems installations by carriers or broadband providers, this update to the previously introduced SD-only products lets you use existing IP infrastructure to deliver HD content. Encoders to provide the front end of the system using a variety of codecs were on the scene at NAB from Tandberg, Thomson/Grass Valley, SyncCast and others.

The fact that Thomson's IPTV box supports a trio of compression codecs, H.264, Microsoft's WMV9 and MPEG-2 provides a good lead into the other side of the distribution fence-optical disc. As we wait for a blue-laser solution, it is still possible to distribute HD content on DVD using Microsoft's WMV9 (formally known as VC-1 in the world of SMPTE standards) codec. They have been doing that on a limited basis for quite some time with discs for the consumer market, and there is no reason why that technology could not be put to use for kiosk and other standalone HD information displays. Provided, of course, that the playback hardware is a computer powerful enough to do the decoding. The pieces of the HD puzzle are all in place. It's up to you to assemble them in the right combination to continue to complete the puzzle with profitable jobs that deliver value to the client.


Scoping Out Your High-Def Options

With HD capture, edit and distribution brimming with options, the final steps are to make sure the signals get to where they are going, and to see them when they get there. On the all-too-ignored test and measurement front, one of the more interesting products on display at NAB was Hamlet's new Flexiscope. Limited to some degree, since at the present time it only accepts SDI signals (but they may be HD or SD), it allows complete waveform, vector and audio measurement on a 3.5-inch, 16:9 TFT LCD display along with picture display and a built-in speaker. If there is any doubt as to what might be happening to your signals anywhere along the transmission path, plug one of these handheld puppies into the line and you can literally 'scope it all out. With additional plug-in options for other input signals due over the course of the year, this product has the potential to become the HDTV equivalent of the ubiquitous telephone "butt-set" tester.

Of course, in most cases, you will want to look at the signals on a larger screen, and in a wider variety of signal types. For that, LCD is fast on the way to replacing CRT, though there is still some life in tube displays for hypercritical monitoring applications. You would want to-and probably couldn't afford to-place Sony's new BVM-A series Trinitron monitors everywhere, but at least once in the signal chain of a complex HD video system is worth the expense. Plasma and LCD are thin and sexy, but when you need that one monitor in a medical or industrial video application that is your guide to be certain that colors are correct and contrast is available to reveal the most subtle details, it is good to know that products from Sony and others are still available to fill that need.

Where the criticality of a display is not as much in the resolution or color accuracy, but rather in its ability to show an image in high ambient light, a different solution was introduced at NAB from longtime audio/video monitor specialist, Wohler Technologies. Its Daylite series LCD monitors are designed more for production use than digital signage, but in cases where monitoring is required in bright, direct sunlight, these units (up to 10.4 inches) perform as well or better than any seen to date.

-Michael Heiss


Show Your HD Hand

The final link in the HD chain is, of course, the display. Placed halfway between all the consumer display news in January at CES and June's display-oriented InfoComm, there was much less in the way of new display models or technologies at this year's NAB as there has been in past years. Some of the few new projectors were from Sanyo, with a pair of new midsize LCD models, including one that recognizes the trends towards SXGA+ video output from laptops with a 5,800 lumen model equipped for 1400x1050 native resolution. Hitachi and a few others gave us hints of what you may be getting ready to see in terms of projection when we all hustle back to Las Vegas for InfoComm. On the flat-panel display front, Panasonic began to show its cards for InfoComm with a pair of LCD monitors sporting 10mS response time, a 17-inch W model and a 32-inch W unit with WXGA resolution and a $3,495 price tag.

At the end of the day, this year's NAB did not provide any great new technology revelations, at least in so far as they apply to the non-broadcast world we live in. In many respects, that is fine as it continues to show the solidity of HDTV as a means of giving added emphasis and clarity to video presentations of all types, regardless of the nature of the intended audience or the specifics of the display venue. We've now gone through two successive NAB events where that is the case, and it should put to rest once and for all any doubts your clients or prospects might have about the viability of HD for a new system or an upgrade. All the tools for very cost-effective capture/production, edit/post production, test and monitoring, and, of course, display are here, in place, and available at very reasonable prices as well as the stratospheric.

-Michael Heiss

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