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To HD, or Not HD

A recent event motivates me to consider the vagaries of the market for high-definition video as it relates to the staging and rental business.

Phone rings. Its my brother. Hey, Im having some friends over to watch the Super Bowl in high-definition on my new plasma TV. Do you want to come by? Great, can you come over a little earlier and hook it up for me?

When youre the only one in the family with any kind of technical chops, invitations often come with strings, or should I say wires, attached.

The result of my visit was interesting. The gathered group clearly appreciated the difference between the SD and HD viewing experience. It felt as if you were watching a production rather than TV. Camera angles, replays, the expressions of the players and coaches and the cheerleaders costumes all stood out in great detail. I couldnt help thinking how much fun the technical director must have, now that HD viewers can pick up the nuance of the production.

Weeks later, Im wondering when the HD revolution will make significant inroads in corporate presentations and whether it matters. While broadcasters have been forced to move towards digital television standards and have included HD as part of their package, staging productions have pretty much avoided the issue by sticking with high-resolution graphics systems and standard definition video.

From the corporate presentation market perspective, the desire for high-definition video production is low, mainly due to the general reluctance to spend extravagantly on company presentations. The cost of producing video in HD remains high, unless the producer is willing to utilize one of the newer HDV formats. While these formats offer the promise of HD compatible production at SD prices, the current reality is not sanguine.

A Worrisome HDV Test Run
The arrival of single-chip HDV cameras costing less than $5,000 created a great deal of buzz in the video production community two years ago, so when a client offered to shoot some material for us to compare with other formats, we were enthusiastic. Having shot the same scenes in HDV and DigiBeta, the comparison was startling. The HDV material was grainy, color definition was imprecise and the overall image quality was lifeless. In other words, it looked like it was shot with a cheap camcorder. Compared to the HDV material, the DigiBeta material actually looked better in many respects.

To top off the test, we projected some material we had shot ourselves using a pro HDCam system. Now, this looked like HD. The combination of a high-end, three-chip camera, $15,000 lens and HDCam format resulted in images that looked deep and accurate. Selling this kind of quality to a client would be as easy as convincing them to spend the extra money would be difficult.

Now comes Sonys three-chip HDV camcorders and, once again, the buzz has begun, with early reviews stating that these products will push HD production into the mainstream. I hope that becomes true, but Im not counting on it, at least from the projection perspective. While these inexpensive camcorders may be able to produce images that look acceptable on the HDTV set at home, I think large-screen projection is too difficult a medium for cameras that rely on inexpensive optics.

Assuming that HDTV production for corporate presentations does become the norm, where does that leave staging companies? In pretty good shape, as a matter of fact. The projectors and switchers in common use are HD-compatible, for the most part and expensive HD source decks can, under some circumstances, be replaced with computers optimized for QuickTime or Windows Media HD playback.

I-MAG in HD is still a considerable challenge as true HD cameras and video switchers are beyond the means of most staging company equipment budgets. However, current SD cameras do a fair job in 16:9 mode and in combination with a high-end SDI switcher package can be used without a noticeable fall-off in image quality.

With staging companies ready to handle HD content, the worry is that staging companies will be handed High-definition content produced on the HDV format systems that dont compare well to standard definition when projected on a large screen. It should be interesting.