ARTICLES

OpinionN.A.B. 1998

by Philip Hodgetts

Note: This review of NAB 98 is a personal one and therefore very subjective. My opinions do not represent those of any manufacturer or other group. This was my first attendance at an NAB exhibition so therefore any comparisons with past years are simply not possible.


This was clearly the show of MPEG 2, DVD and Advanced Television although the latter was somewhat confused with High Definition Television. There was also a trend for some hardware manufacturers to unbundle their previously included software and place a value on it.

Across the floor there were exhibitors with various MPEG 2 encoders for all purposes - for broadcast, for program interchange and for DVD preparation. Even Sony's Betacam SX seemed to gain additional life given its MPEG 2 basis.
DVD authoring systems were on display for authoring DVD-video. A distinction needs to be made between DVD-Video and DVD-ROM. DVD-V is the format used by the set-top players for movie playback with very limited interactivity. The interactivity is generally limited to which language you want and some limited text interactivity. Unfortunately 'true' interactivity isn't really available through this incarnation of DVD, although it may come later. Video for DVD-V needs careful preparation because the specifications for the discs are very, very tight which is why the authoring systems start at US$20,000 and go up from there. For DVD-V video must be in MPEG-2 and conform to the tight specifications of the format.

On the other hand, DVD-ROM is a rather large data bucket. Conceptually the differences between DVD-Video and DVD-ROM are similar to those between audio CD's with only one possible encoding format, and CD-ROM where the data can be anything desired. DVD-ROM is the same. While the video can be MPEG 2, it can also be compressed with Cinepac, the new Sorenson codec, Photoshop files - indeed any sort of digital data. DVD-ROM content can be used for any form of interactive content but must be utilized from a computer rather than the recreation room set-top box.
There is most certainly room for both DVD-Video for the mass produced video releases, usually with a standard 4x3 version on one side and a letterboxed 16x9 on the other side.

The only thing clear about the Advanced Television offerings is that nothing is clear! Most vendors at the show were promoting one of the 18 possible formats and all seemed to be hoping that one would clearly 'win'. This seems to be an example of "in the square" thinking. Advanced TV (ATV) is not about a format, it is about broadcasting bitstreams which can be video bits - either one high definition signal or multiple standard definition signals, and/or 'internet' web pages and/or ancillary data. Imagine having the choice of multiple camera angles on a major event (driving directors of such events to distraction) and choosing which one to watch. On a wide screen (16x9) display, miniatures of all 4 might be down the side of the screen real estate and the chosen one on the main display.
Or being able to click on various parts of the screen and have ancillary information (where to purchase, where to get more information about the subject, etc) display beside the picture.

Of course, the only way to successfully 'predict' the future is to report it as history but it is unlikely that the same old business models which the broadcasters and their suppliers are promoting, are appropriate for a whole new generation of technology.
As a consequence there was much promotion of various conversion technologies and it might be a safe bet to buy Schnell and Wilcox shares right now!

There was also a trend for previously 'free' or bundled software to have a value applied and to be sold separately. With their announcement of Blue Ice to supersede the current Green Ice accelerator board, Ice also unbundled the Iced Effects putting a value of around US$1000 on the software that makes the board useful. As more and more software is to be offered in 'Iced' versions this makes perfect sense - users will pick and choose which Iced software they want to use and not pay for that which they have no need.

Apple also placed a price on QuickTime 3 although the base level will still be available bundled with Macintosh computers, available for download or on CD for free. (CD delivery may have a small handling fee involved although the installer CD being given away at NAB included both Macintosh and Windows versions for free. They had run out by Thursday lunchtime!) For content creators or those wishing to unlock some of the more advanced features of Movie Player 3, a one off charge of US$29.95 is required. In the US this can be done after the 15th April by calling an 800 number. For other countries arrangements have not yet been announced but presumably the local Apple distributor will be the point of contact. QuickTime 3 is awesome and well worth the small investment.

My two biggest disappointments were the almost complete lack of 'real' QuickTime 3 support (beyond single track video and audio) except for one new product in alpha - Roto, and virtual sets. The 3 virtual set demonstrations I watched were impressive technology demonstrations but none of them looked like real sets. Nor did most of the demonstration pieces shown on the extensive show reels accompanying the displays. Certainly they updated the set in real time, in response to camera movement, zoom and exposure, but all looked like the talent was keyed into a real time 3D simulation, not that the talent was really on the set. There were one or two examples that nearly passed, but generally it would appear that virtual sets are still a niche market.

More impressive were the virtual characters being generated in real time and incorporated in the virtual set. These require a human actor whose motion is tracked in real time and used to generate the virtual actor.

There were impressive displays of new camera technology and the DVCPro and DVCPro50 format(s) seem to have a lot of potential. A favorite quote of mine from a Panasonic representative was "The nice thing about DVCPro is I not only win the technology argument, I also get the order, unlike MII where I won the technology argument but didn't get the order", which pretty well sums it up!

It is, of course, impossible to fully view the show in only 4 days and I concentrated on post production products 'for the rest of us'. Leaving aside the Discrete Logics, the new high end Avid uncompressed solutions and solutions that only ran on higher end SGI systems (with one exception) the strangest 'hit' of the show was the venerable Premiere from Adobe, shown for the first time in its new version 5 incarnation. Now, putting aside my personal involvement in 'Premiere 5 with a Passion' (co-authored with Michael Feerer and available from Peachpit late August 98) it was surprising to see how ubiquitous it was - from the interface to Pinnacle's mid level 'Real Time' to DV Firewire (IEEE1294) products like Promax's Firemax, Premiere seemed to be everywhere giving some of the higher end systems a run for their money. Until real world users get hold of Premiere 5 and put it to the test, I don't know how seriously those Media 100 users who expressed a desire to swap to Premiere 5 as their editing interface could consider it, but 3 different Media 100 users expressed such a desire in private conversation.

In the 3D area, Cinema 4D-XL is an impressive offering with most features offered by other 3D applications, the ability to load objects and scenes from other applications and one of the fastest renders available. The real time preview of two dolphins swimming, with shaded polygons on a standard Macintosh was pretty amazing.

Finally, Macromedia was showing Final Cut, not exactly behind closed doors, but certainly you had to know where to find it. Upon traipsing away from the exhibition on the ground floor of the Sands exhibition center, through the large cafeteria area into the 'meeting room' maze, some small signs directed to room D12. Upon arriving just in time for the very last demonstration I wasn't sure I didn't need a secret handshake to gain entry! If Macromedia had bought Final Cut to market a year ago, or even 6 months it would have been a Premiere killer. It still might give the veteran a run for its money as it is an awesome application with many features I've been wanting desperately on our Media 100 system. (Media 100 Inc dropped Final Cut as the basis for their NT based 'Bobcat' project announcing Premiere 5 as the low end interface and a NT version of their own Media 100 interface called 'Finish' at the high end, with a new version of the Vincent hardware supporting SMPTE259 (601/D1) pixel aspect ratios, also to be available for their Macintosh range.)

There was really nothing revolutionary this NAB but certainly an industry in constant evolution was evidenced with the inevitable convergence of video and computer continuing unabated. Even Apple's Steve Jobs recognized the need for dialog between both sides of this convergence in his opening keynote speech. Or as someone reported surprised "Steve was humble!" for them, that was the news. In fact it was a very good show for Apple with new Macintosh products on display and G3 computers in abundance. Although if Apple are to continue to be the leaders in desktop video (despite the lemming like rush to the more troublesome NT) they need to release a Macintosh with more than 3 slots, or support Promax's expansion chassis although however clever, a two box solution is inelegant.

© 1998 Philip Hodgetts, learnDYNAMICmedia pty ltd

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