NAB 2004: Catch the Wave!
Posted May 4, 2004

NAB 2004 sure convinced me that now's the time to be in the video and production business. The major players—Hollywood studios, network broadcasters, cable operations—were all out with checkbooks to buy the latest and greatest in the rush to assemble the complete digital studio, from ingest to distribution. For the small to medium studio, this means that prices will start falling and standards will start forming around the popular methods and formats. It also means that demand for content is strong and growing.

One prime example is IBM's success with Linux in the Digital Media Framework. Sony Pictures Imageworks, which uses IBM's stuff, showed off spectacular video for the upcoming Spider-Man 2 film created on Linux PCs. Thanks to growing support from such vendors as Corel--which has just revived the once-dormant WordPerfect for Linux (!)--companies now have real choices between a Windows-only and a mixed environment, while still delivering the same quality. Also, if you want to work with the likes of Imageworks and Disney, you'll want to seriously look at a Linux migration.

Two other examples are Blue Laser DVDs and Isilon's IQ NAS storage servers. Blue laser promises to give us 25GB per disc (hurrah!) but only in about two years. Pioneer's Andy Parsons spoke candidly about the prospects for Blu-ray, the format his company is backing: no mass market will emerge for Blu-Ray until a "publishing format," comparable to DVD-Video, is established and standardized. Sony has a professional, proprietary-format version of Blu-ray blue laser technology, that targets the broadcast market at the core of the NAB crowd. Called Professional Disc for Data (PDD), the Sony format gives us 23GB now, but at a pricey $3000 or so per drive.

But high-density removable discs are hardly the only game in town if you want next-generation storage now. Isilon's IQ boxes are just the thing for digital content storage--just ask ABC Television who uses it or Bright Systems which offers it for post-production houses. In effect, IQ boxes are the ideal combination of a high speed SAN and NAS simplicity, based on a filesystem expressly designed for handling large files (and what's bigger than video?). Given sufficient demand from the larger studios, prices should fall for these essential tools.

Naturally, HD was all the rage on the floor. Virtually every hardware or software product featured some type of support for HD. Of course, moving to HD means creating a whole new workflow besides simply buying a camera that can shoot at HD resolutions—new NLEs, new storage and processing systems, new displays. However, more than one presenter at NAB warned that unless content creators differentiate themselves with new and innovative work—namely, HD content--they will be replaced by those that do.

Fortunately, many vendors understand this growth process and are working to simplify it. For example, it was gratifying to see the studio network plumbing start to simplify around Ethernet. A prime example is Telos Systems' Livewire Ethernet Audio Studio. Linked by Gigabit Ethernet, Livewire nodes let you attach analog and digital devices together on a single network. Commodity hardware like Ethernet switches (thanks to support for Quality of Service) can thus replace expensive and limiting proprietary audio switchers and analog cabling. I give them the "It's All About Connections" award for Best Networking Product. This is exactly the kind of direction and value studios need in moving to all-digital.

Another great example of great vision and innovation came from Serious Magic. Although their booth was tucked in a corner, away from the rush of the main floor, they had one of the best products at NAB. I loved their Visual Communicator when I saw it at DV Expo. Now I am stunned by their upcoming DV Rack software—it's such a boon to serious videographers, it wins this year's coveted "But Seriously, Folks" award.

DV Rack is software that presents itself like a rack-full of video equipment: timer/clock, DV frame quality monitor, frame grabber, spectrum analyzer, DVR, vectorscope, waveform monitor and a field monitor. Since the tools all appear like their analog counterparts, it is simple to learn. But now, DV Rack is software that runs on your laptop—eminently portable and easily upgradeable (!!) Wow. This easily wins my "Off the Rack" award for Greatest Software Announced at NAB.

Another company showing a great piece of network "plumbing" was Orbital Data. Their product, IP Express, tricks IP over leased lines (or the Internet for that matter) into delivering up their full capacity (Orbital claims up to 50 times the amount of data than the connection delivered before). All this without using proprietary compression tricks. Like IBM's, their products are geared right now for the higher-end studio. But as demand for real-time dallies or content review increases, who wouldn't want to have it. So Orbital wins my "Get it to Me Yesterday! I'll Be Timing You!" award for Best Network Throughput Enhancement.

My "Doctor My Eyes" award for Most Eye-Popping Display goes to Kodak for their new 3D autostereoscopic technology. Now, I'll grant you that this large, table-top system with its $20,000 price tag really has limited appeal right now. But then, it is version 1.0. The thrill here is that, unlike any other glasses-based 3D system, I felt truly immersed in the simulated environment.

This year's "E-Gad" Best Gadget award goes to Shining Technology for their almost cute "Beetle DV" analog and digital conversion tool. Looking for all the world like a giant ladybug, the Beetle attaches to the side of your DV camera and is battery-powered. It's another must-have if you have legacy equipment supporting analog video but you are moving up to DV.

Another company that wins my "Don't Go Changing to Try and Please Me" Videographer's Best Friend award is nNovia. Their newest version of their QuickCapture DV capture device, the A2D, now supports both analog and digital recording. The unit comes with a large internal hard drive with a variety of analog and digital connectors to support a variety of cameras. This is another must-have for professional work.

Finally, my "Dave's Gotta Have It" Best in Show award, surprisingly, goes to TDK for their second-generation Armor Plated DVD media, now with UV protection. Blank discs might seem like commodity items, but for anyone who makes a living creating and selling content (like us), why not protect it? It's incredible to see them demo these discs using a steel wool pad leaving nary a scratch. They are more expensive than conventional discs, but for content creators, they're an absolute no-brainer. Seriously, I don't want to use anything else.