Category Archives: Video Technology

Cameras, recorders and other video devices

Why Final Cut Pro specific cameras?

At the MacWorld Final Cut Pro User Group Supermeet on Wednesday night (Jan 7th) JVC announced two new ProHD camcorders. The 1/4″ progressive sensor 3-CCD compact (prosumer form factor) GY-HM100 and the shoulder mounted 1/3″ sensor GY-HM700.

There are a couple of things that make these two cameras interesting. They record in QuickTime native format ready for native editing in FCP. No import, no conversion – just copy and edit (or edit off the card). They also use SDHC compact memory cards instead of expensive proprietary formats. Both cameras have two card slots and with two 32 GB cards, can record up to 6 hours continuously for just a couple of hundred dollars.

You can read up on the rest of the specs but there are three points I’d want to make.

As far as I know this is the first camcorder made specifically for Final Cut Pro. While there have been some earlier attempts to make Avid-friendly camcorders, they didn’t hit it off in the marketplace. Clearly JVC see Final Cut Pro as a big enough market, with at least 1 million unique registered users (and probably twice that if unauthorized copies are counted) to justify doing a specific camcorder.

Secondly, increased use of SDHC. As well as these two new cameras the AVCHD/AVCCAM (Panasonic HMC-150) use compact flash as does the Red One camera. These are multi-vendor, non-proprietary formats that are readily available up to 32 GB. Take that P2 and SxS media! Of course, all these sources use compressed video of some format.

The third point is the most interesting one. JVC acknowledge that the camera does 720P at 19 or 35 Mbit/sec; 1080i at 25 Mbit/sec (aka HDV) and 1080P at 35 Mbit/sec using an “Enhanced MPEG2 Long GOP Encoder”. Traditionally ProHD has been working within the HDV specifications but there is no 35 Mbit/sec spec for HDV, particularly not one that’s already supported by Final Cut Pro. It appears that JVC are using Sony’s XDCAM EX format or something very like it, for these two new cameras.

This is not the first time JVC has worked with the Sony format. Back in September 2008 JVC announced support for XDCAM EX media and created a version for 720P licensed from Sony, which only supports 1080 in XDCAM EX.

Increasingly, Sony’s XDCAM EX format – at 35 Mbit/sec – is the grown up version of HDV.

Little boxes, on the set top, little boxes full of ticky tacky!

So, Netflix and LG announce yet another set top box. Well, actually they announced that LG would include the Netflix service on “selected devices”. Best guesses are that the service will be added to a dual mode (HD DVD and Blu-ray) player, or even the Television itself.

Here’s the problem with this: it’s Netflix on LG devices and only Netflix. No slight on Netflix, the service is good and the company needs to provide for a non-disc future. However, the industry should be gathering together for a single standard for delivering from the Interent to the lounge room, not proprietary deals with single suppliers. If we want movies from Apple then it’s another set top box (Apple TV). Vudu have their own movie service and their own proprietary box. Tivo is a little more open – it has an API for programmers – but it’s still another box on top of the cable or satellite box you’ll probably still have.

We need a single standard or interoperable standards for delivery of “Internet TV” to Televisions. It has to be simple. TV would not have caught on if we’d needed separate Television sets for CBS, NBC and ABC – but that’s exactly where these companies think we’re heading.

It won’t work. Any device(s) that link the Internet sources with a TV are good, but it needs an open standard – perhaps that’s what google are working on, but even then it won’t help integrate with cable or satellite boxes unless those providers have a significant change of heart.

Apple TV, for all the people who claim it to be a “failure” is the leading device to connect computers and televisions. While its sales are disappointing by Apple’s mega-hit standard, it’s estimated to have about 800,000 units sold in 10 months (took Tivo 4 years to get that far) and it’s way ahead of the competitors, other than Xbox or PS3 which both act at media extenders.

My mantra for 2008 – proprietary bad, open standards (even from one company) good.

ProRes 422 Explained

One of the currently popular memes is the “wisdom of the crowds” and if by crowd we mean a lot of people then there’s a lot of wisdom at CreativeCOW.net. Trouble is, it’s spread across a whole bunch of their forums so it takes a smart writer to take that wisdom and filter it down into something much more useful.

Well, the Cow’s Tim Wilson has done just that in two excellent articles:

Apple’s ProRes 4:2:2 Codec, Part 1 and
Apple’s ProRes 4:2;2 Codec, with a splash of Color, Part 2.

Highly recommended and well worth the read.

A podcast is not the same media form as a video podcast a.k.a. vlog

I’m totally on board with audio podcasts. They have effectively replaced the car radio for all but the shortest drives. Perhaps that’s because I prefer "talk radio" in the car and the podcasts I subscribe to are most akin to talk radio and on business related subjects.

I’ll put up with inconsistent quality in an audio podcast – after all, it’s only taking up part of my attention. That is the crucial point with audio. We can listen to podcasts and drive the car, or go to the Fitness Center or Gym (and I should listen to more podcasts there) or do housework. The audio is only taking up part of my attention span.

But add video to it and you’re now demanding 100% of my attention while the video is playing. I can’t drive and watch a video; I can’t watch it while moving around the fitness center because the screen needs always to be in front of me; I can’t watch it while I go for a walk or do housework. Video assumes I’m going to give it, if not 100% of my attention, my primary attention.

If it’s not necessary to watch the video portion to get the value from a program, then dump the video and just go with audio.

I don’t normally subscribe to the highly regarded and very popular This Week in Tech a.k.a. TWiT, but a friend recommended a specific episode and suggested I get the video version. That one hour program has sat on my hard drive for six weeks waiting for me to have time to watch it. In that time I’ve listened to more than 15-20 hours of very similar programming. I’m still wondering why my friend had me get the video version: it’s just four guys sitting around a table in an infinite black set recorded by three cameras.

The video adds nothing. Apart from a short glimpse at an iPod Nano (is it really that old?) there were no props; no visual aids; no graphics; nothing that justified all my attention. Put the four faces in the artwork for the feed and I’d have had the same benefit.

Just because we can deliver video as enclosures in an RSS file, doesn’t mean we should. Bad video is easy. Good video is hard, and consistent regular production is very hard to do. I was talking with Scott Sheppard of Inside Mac Radio and Inside Mac TV about the difference in what he’ll have to carry to a trade show to get interviews for his iPod video show, compared with his weekly and daily audio shows. For audio: Marantz solid state recorder, microphone. For video: video camera, tripod, a basic lighting kit, microphone, radio mics, receivers… Instead of fitting in a shoulder bag or backpack with his laptop he’s now wondering whether he’ll need a custom cart to lug around – or an intern. This is, of course, because he’s trying to make the show up to something that uses the video well. You can find more ranting on this subject in an earlier post of mine: What makes good visuals

There are some programs, like Tiki Bar TV – always high in the new subscribers ranking in iTunes – that really try. While it may not be scripted in detail, it has good production values and I think I see some Apple LiveType and Motion effects in there – appropriately edited in the Final Cut Studio.

Bad video is easy. Good video requires considerably more equipment, effort, talent, skill and, most importantly, the need for video. Because if we don’t, we’re going to bore the market to sleep before they adopt any form of non-mainstream content as being valuable.

So, even though audio and video podcasts are superficially similar by their use of RSS and enclosed media files, they are not the same medium. Video requires a much higher commitment from the viewer than audio does from the listener.

Here’s a question for all the budding video podcasters out there: Is your content so valuable, compelling and well produced that I’d be happy to pay $100 an hour to watch it? If you wouldn’t, consider that is exactly what you’re asking me to do. OK, I don’t pay that to watch a "Hollywood" movie (but then again, I rarely watch them) but my time has a value and you’re asking me to give up that value to watch your program. With audio, it adds value to my time – redeeming time that would otherwise be wasted.

One media adds value to my time; the other robs me of it. That’s why they’re not the same.

When a good format “wins” for all the wrong reasons

Although I’m definitely in the group of people that sees Blu-ray as the undoubtedly superior technology of the two high density optical disc competitors, and should be happy that the tide seems to be turning toward Blu-ray “winning” the war before a shot is fired or product released, it seems the reason Paramount and Warner Bros “defected” to Blu-ray was because of the Digital Rights Management (DRM) supported in that format is much more restrictive than for HD DVD.

Both formats support Advanced Access Content System (AACS) as the primary DRM and Blu-ray has two additional DRM control agents included. However the point of difference, and the reason Bill Gates said Blu-ray was “anti consumer” is because HD DVD mandates that all discs support Managed Copy, while Blu-ray leaves the option to activate Managed Copy to individual disc authors and studios – meaning in practice that no Blu-ray disc will be allowed to be copied to a hard drive or sent around a home entertainment network. Managed Copy allows this extended use, although the amount permitted beyond a basic single copy to a hard drive, is still up to the content owner.

Blu-ray’s non-requirement for compulsory Managed Copy is why 20th Century Fox came exclusively to Blu-ray and apparently why Paramount, and then today Warner Bros, opted to support both formats, leaving only Universal Studios supporting only HD DVD (while other parts of the Universal group are already in the Blu-ray group).

Forrester Research are declaring Blu-ray the winner but that, given Forrester’s previous record that could be the best news Toshiba has heard recently! Even though Forrester Research are predicting it, Blu-ray does seem to have the momentum now, mostly because of the draconian DRM they’ve chosen to apply.

Which is sad. Blu-ray has a longer future than HD DVD and more interactive tools in the specification. However, even with the momentum, the DRM will probably cause both formats to be declared Dead On Arrival in the face of more flexible media delivery, with reasonable DRM, from suppliers like Apple. Sure Apple’s doing 320 x 240 now but it could do HD “any time” they decided to and had the product for.

The net result of restrictive DRM will be that more programming opportunities open for independent producers who bypass the studio and networks going straight to their customers with new distribution models and payment methods.

JVC confirms ProHD strategy

As reported previously in the Pro Apps Hub, JVC’s ProHD strategy is a marketing catch-all for all their HD offerings based on MPEG-2 transport streams. Included in the stragegy is the HDV KY-HD100U and the HDV+ GY-HD7000U.

Available in “early summer” the KY-HD100 is a professional-level HDV camcorder with solid camera-operator-friendly features that justify the ProHD moniker. Three 1/3″ CCDs sit behind a removable lens, although standard is a Fujinon 16x lens developed with JVC. The GY-HD100 records at 30p and 24P at 1280 x 720 resolution in HD and at 29.97 in DV. 24P is accommodated within the 60i standard framework by repeating a 2:3:3:2 pulldown like the only used by Pansonic in the AG-DVX100using MPEG2 flags to flag certain whole frames need to be duplicated, so it does 3 frames and then 2 frames (not fields like the DVX would do) and hence embeds 24p in a 60p video stream, but only records 24p frames of data to tape – quite clever really. This allows JVC to offer 24P even though it was not part of the original HDV specification, without deviating from the specification. [Thanks to Graeme Nattress for the correction.]

See Hub news on March 10 for more details on both cameras. At US$6295 JVC have come in well “under $10,000”.

Panasonic announce P2 Camcorder

Panasonic generated a lot of buzz at NAB with the announcement of the AG-HVX 200 multi-format camcorder expected to sell for $5949?? without media. The AG-HVX 200 camcorder is a small-form-factor unit with a built in DV deck for DV25 recording and P2 solid state media support for DVCPRO 50 and DVCPRO 100 recording. Reportedly the FireWire output is also active for recording DVCPRO 50 or HD to a tethered FireWire deck. Panasonic are talking with Focus to develop support for the FireStore HD.

The camera itself is an impressive, multi-format, multiple frame rate device. In DVCPRO HD it supports 1080 i at 30i (60 fields), 1080 p at 24 frames/sec, 720 P at 60 or 24 Progressive frames. In 720 P mode is supports variable frame rates like the Varicam to the P2 media. It has 3 x 1/3″ native 16:9 CCDs.

Panasonic plan a bundle with two 8 GB P2 memory cards for US$9999 – an indication of just how far we have to go before solid state media becomes a viable proposition outside news gathering and other niche markets. While P2 media can be used directly as a source in many NLEs- Final Cut Pro adds native support for this media – it’s not viable to retain the P2 memory cards during editing. Most commonly the card’s contents is immediately dumped to hard drive. Panasonic announced a unit specifically for the purpose recently: the AJ-PCS060 portable hard drive with a P2 card slot. [Hub news February 14th]

Having the media on hard drive makes it instantly available for editing, but does not address the need for archive. Either the hard drives need to be permanently retained for archive or the media needs to be copied to another format for archive. This is more handling than most people are used to.

The AG-HVX 200 won’t ship until some time in the fourth quarter of the year, leaving JVC and Sony a long lead time for the competing HDV to become established. With 37,000 FX1 and Z1U units sold, according to the Apple presentation, in just the first six months, that’s a huge lead for Panasonic to catch up with, particularly since JVC will be shipping their KY-HD100U nearly six months ahead.

Avid buys Pinnacle – the fallout

The acquisition of Pinnacle will greatly strengthen Avid’s Broadcast video offerings, the area of their business that has been strongest in recent years but will create challenges in integrating product lines and cultures. It is a move that brings further consolidation to the post production business.

Pinnacle has been in acquisition mode for most of the last five years acquiring, among others, Miro, Targa, Dazzle, Fast and Steinberg (sold on to Yamaha recently). It has a diverse line of products in major product lines:

  • Broadcast Tools – Deko On Air graphics products (Character Generators) and MediaStream playout servers;
  • Consumer editing software and hardware – with 10 million customers;
  • Professional Editing – The Liquid product line acquired from Fast; and
  • Editing Hardware – Cinewave and T300 based on the Targa acquisition.

Pinnacle has achieved nine Emmy Awards for its Broadcast product lines.

There will be conflicts and opportunities for Avid. It presents Avid with a new opportunity to create a consumer brand and Avid CEO David Krall has announced that a new consumer division will be formed analogous to the M-Audio consumer audio division acquired last year. M-Audio is the consumer parallel to Avid’s Digidesign professional division. The acquisition also consolidates Avid’s position supplying the Broadcast markets, making the company more of a "one stop shop" for a broadcast facility. There is definitely engineering work to be done on integrating the two technology lines, but there are no particular challenges there, and savings are to be made in streamlining sales and marketing. In broadcast there are only pluses for Avid.

Consumer

Bringing the Avid brand into the consumer market has a slight risk of diluting the Avid editing brand – if consumers edit on "Avid" what’s special about professional editors? However, by carefully managing product brands over company brand, as has been done with M-Audio, there should be an opportunity to bring some of those retail customers up to Xpress or Adrenaline products as their need grows, similar to the way Apple have a path for their iMovie customers to move up to Final Cut Express or Final Cut Pro.

Hardware

Avid and Pinnacle have had a long relationship on the hardware side – Targa supplied the first boards Avid used for video acquisition and the Meridien hardware was designed to Avid’s specifications but manufactured by Pinnacle as an OEM. Whether Avid has any use for the aging T3000 hardware product line (like Cinewave based on the Hub3 programmable architecture that was the primary driver of the Targa purchase) is debatable: Avid have embraced the CPU/GPU future for their products and are unlikely to change course again.

Cinewave

It almost certainly spells the end of Pinnacle’s only Mac product – Cinewave. Rumors were spreading independently of the Avid purchase that Cinewave was at the end of its product life, possibly spurred by changes coming in a future version of Final Cut Pro that no longer supported direct hardware effects. Regardless of whether or not there was any foundation in that rumor, Cinewave is an isolated product in that product group and based on relatively old technology. It is a tribute to the design flexibility and engineering team that essentially the same hardware is still in active production four years after release. Whether the product dies because it’s reached the end of its natural life, or because Avid could not be seen to be supporting the competing Final Cut Pro, it’s definitely at an end.

Liquid

There is, however, one part of the integration that simply does not fit: Pinnacle’s Liquid NLE software. Avid are acquiring an excellent engineering team – the former FAST team out of Germany – but the two NLEs have no commonality. Integrating features from one NLE into another is not trivial as code-bases are unlikely to have any compatibilities, and attempting to move Avid’s customer base toward any Liquid editor is unlikely to have any success at all.

Avid could simply let the product line die. The Liquid range has not exactly sold like hotcakes. This scenario would bring the best of the features and engineers into the Avid family and we’d see the results in 2-3 years as engineering teams merged.

They could, of course, leave Liquid alone – set it up as a division within the company and leave it be. Avid have done that with Digidesign, Softimage and M-Audio. No radical changes and slow integration of technologies where it makes sense. Liquid have probably taken few customers from Avid to date – few Composer customers have moved to Liquid. Instead, Liquid has acquired new NLE customers or people moving "up" from other NLEs. Liquid’s strongest customer bases are in small studios and in broadcast markets.

Even though Avid have let Digidesign and M-Audio compete, even although there is some overlap, it’s hard to imagine keeping a full product line that directly competes with the flagship products – on cheaper hardware at lower cost. Hard to imagine, but not impossible. It would be the most consistent behavior based on past acquisitions but one that would require a delicate balancing act to retain the new customers Pinnacle are bringing to the fold, without risking cutting into the more profitable Xpress, Media Composer and DS products.

Transaction

The transaction values Pinnacle at $462 million based on Avid’s closing price yesterday and will be handled by a combination of cash and shares. Avid will pay about $71 million in cash and issue 6.2 million new shares to the holders of Pinnacle stock, who will then make up about 15% of Avid’s shareholders. The transaction has been approved by the Boards of both companies but must still be approved by regulators and shareholders and is not expected to close until the 2nd or 3rd quarter of 2005.

The companies expect savings in regulatory costs, marketing and sales. We can expect little to change in the short term except probably, some volatility in Avid’s stock price as people try and work out what it all means.

NAB is going to be interesting this year.

NAB, Rumors and business

Why does the Apple rumor mill get so frantic coming up to NAB? It’s not like we don’t all know to delay purchases until after NAB unless you can get a pay back in the months between now and then. So what is it that makes us frantically review rumor sites and set the forums and email groups buzzing when ThinkSecret purported to leak (yet again) from within Apple?

Nobody can confirm or refute the rumors until Sunday April 17th, and in reality the rumors don’t do much more than supposedly “confirm” what can reasonably be inferred from existing public announcements (HDV support in FCP “next version” is an announced feature); known intentions to meet customer desire (heck there was even an obscure reference to Multicam in the FCP 4 manual suggesting it was, at one time, proposed for that version); or reasonable inference (CoreVideo technology in the OS would enhance FCP’s real time). New applications for sure – that’s called progress and until Apple have a full and complete set of professional tools in the Pro Apps product lineup then they’ll keep announcing new tools.

Since I am only guessing and have no knowledge, I won’t be publishing my guesses here or on DV Guys but ask me privately and I’ll make my guesses. Even though I think I’m as good at guessing as the next person I still expect to be surprised and impressed come NAB.

But that’s not the point – lots of opportunity for rumor mongering all over the place. It doesn’t do any good, it doesn’t influence business or buying decisions so why is there this intense speculation about what Apple might be going to announce? And why mostly Apple? Avid haven’t pre-announced their NAB releases. There’s the same level of secrecy going on but not the speculation.

Is this some bizarre desire to be “on the inside”? A sort of technological one-upmanship? It’s not like knowing there’s a new version of Final Cut Pro coming sometime (probably) in the next 2-3 months makes editing any easier today, or eases the pain of any “undocumented features” currently existing.

Until this last year or so I was as keenly interested in listening to, and spreading, any rumors I could find and yet now I find myself strangely disinterested. Curious yes – I’ll go read the rumor and consider whether or not I think it’s reasonable – but I find myself not as interested in spreading the guesses and inference.

I wonder why that is? Is it finally maturity, or is it finally evidence that I am, officially, jaded? 🙂

Update March 1 – there’s just been a purported “leak” of Avid’s NAB announcements. While the leak is almost certainly bogus, this type of malicious leak can be very damaging. The supposed prices are way below what is reasonable for Avid (although if true, would be a real change of direction) and there are other key giveways for the educated reader, that this is not a real release. But now, whatever great announcements Avid had for NAB will be compared with a totally unrealistic, bogus release setting up expectations that were never reachable.

At least that’s my take. If not and Avid do announce $5000 Unity and open interoperability with AJA and Decklink on April 16, then that paragraph will have never happened 😉