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October 04, 2005

Table of Contents

Glass Houses: Consumer Complaints--Replicators Beware!
HD & HDV at IBC
Roxio Launches Easy Media Creator 8
Microboards to Distribute Pioneer Displays
Digigami Ships MegaPEG HDTV: High-Definition MPEG-2 Encoder for ATSC, IDSB-T and EBU Digital TV
New Security Features Added To Stordigital Tower DVD/CD Duplication Systems
Leading Computer Manufacturers Support Blu-Ray High-Definition Format
Paramount to Support Blu-Ray

Glass Houses: Consumer Complaints--Replicators Beware!

One thing that's really surprised me recently is how many complaints I've heard about disc quality. Replicators may not want to bash their competitors on the record, but many say they are getting new clients as a result of bad experiences they've had with other disc manufacturers. While printing quality is one of the main complaints, title mix-ups and even just general playability issues are coming into focus. Many of the problems seem to come down to money--money to buy equipment and money to staff the plant--but they also derive from lack of communication, and replicators and clients alike making the wrong assumptions about their respective responsibilities. Here's a look at all of these dilemmas one by one.

If only I had a dollar for every time I've interviewed someone and they've said, "we offer quality and service for the cheapest price." Karl Renwanz of Video Transfer Inc. and Tom O'Reilly of College Sports Media have the same reaction to that statement. You might be able to offer two of those promises, they say, but it is not possible to offer both. "Pick any two promises and call the appropriate media manufacturer," says Renwanz.

The problem is that when replicators have open capacity, they give away the farm. Many commit to short turnarounds when they're not busy, but customers come to assume those turnarounds will be the standard all year round. "You'll never hear anyone quote less than 7-10 business days for a project. Sometimes that timing is not that easy to accomplish," says O'Reilly.

Two content providers told me stories of recent nightmarish experiences with media manufacturers. One producer talked about a DVD-9 set disaster. CD titles other than his own got mixed in with his DVD artwork and were sent out to the customer. Perhaps there wasn't enough time to check the work before sending it out. While there is equipment out there that can almost guarantee that won't happen, some replicators are just cutting corners wherever they can, particularly, some say, in the mid-tier and ultimately the lower-end plants that promise the lowest cost.

DaTARIUS has developed both code and label readers that would have avoided such a mix-up. The code inspection systems check the disc's codes before they are printed or packed to ensure that the right disc gets the right printing and goes in the right box. Since this is a completely automated process, DaTARIUS group marketing manager Tim Frost says the process does not add production costs. "There is a capital cost of course," Frost says, "but this becomes relatively insignificant compared to the cost of losing a customer or paying substantial compensation." Replicators need to consider that balance.

Another content provider, Stephen Parr of Oddball Film + Video, recently told me, "DVD manufacturing is not really perfected in any kind of meaningful way as far as I'm concerned. We've had problems recently. First, we had to send 500 DVDs back to the manufacturer because they wouldn't lock into the cases correctly. Some companies that may do the replication send out everything else," Parr continues. "I've found that they may farm out printing to a place where there is a $7/hour an hour guy cutting it. Printing should be the last reason to send a disc order back. But why should one disc be red and the other orange after we OK'd a proof?"

In defense of replicators, I recently did a story on printing, and how the disc and the paper packaging often don't match. This problem seems to be of particular concern to replicators who say clients just don't understand the technical challenges involved, nor do they recognize their own accountability when it comes to quality control; they make too many assumptions. After talking to some of these clients, I agree with the replicators, for the most part. Content providers don't understand, it's true; but replicators need to remember: it's their job to explain it. If they don't, they will pay the price for their own wrong assumptions.

Several sources have agreed that inexperienced staffing is one of the biggest problems the plants face. The customer service people who typically have the most client contact are often the newest and lowest paid. In the plant, a less experienced staff means the increased risk for technical mistakes. "Good service requires properly trained personnel who look out for their customers' needs," Renwanz says, "with an eye on long-term relationships."

Renwanz adds that content providers can avoid being burned simply by visiting the manufacturing plant to see for themselves where and how their product will be manufactured. He also tells content providers to check a replicator's references by consulting other clients with needs similar to their own.

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HD & HDV at IBC

As I write this, IBC in Europe has just passed and the number of HDV choices has grown significantly. HDV started in 2003 as a two-horse race that barely got out of the gate, with two camcorders from the same manufacturer, JVC, that failed to make a significant impact in the market. Late 2004 brought the prosumer Sony HDR-FX1, which ushered in the real HDV market, and NAB 2005 brought a more professional Sony HDV model, the HVR-Z1U, and the promise of a few more options later this year.

Now that we have a genuinely reshaped HDV landscape, with most of the major manufacturers accounted for, here's an updated look at the various HDV—and accessibly priced "true" HD--camcorder options that are currently available.

Sony HVR-Z1U
Sony's Z1U, now listed at $4,600, has three 1/3" CCDs in 16:9 Wide Aspect Ratio. If you delve into the details, you'll find out that each chip only has 960x1080 pixels and it offsets the chips (like Canon's "Pixel Shift" technology) to get the detail needed to record HDV's 1440x1080i spec. The Z1U has good low light capability but no longer has the variable prism technology for image stabilization that the PD-150/170 had. Sony's specs are notably quiet on the issue. It has good low-light capability. The Pro version adds a XLR adapter, audio and image controls and more menu options.

Panasonic HVX-200
Panasonic's HVX-200 was introduced at NAB 2005 and is slated to ship by year's end. It offers multiple flavors of SD and HD including 720p (24 or 60), 1080p24, and 1080i30, as well as DV and DVCPro 50. This camcorder also uses pixel-shift technology and three lower-resolution CCD imagers to give us HD. As far as I can discern, Panasonic is positioning this camera as a "true" HD camcorder and will record true 24p HD onto the P2 cards, whereas the tape mechanism is limited to DV.

This is not an actual HDV camcorder, but it's worth noting here because Panasonic has promised a price point ("sub-$10,000") that makes it competitive at the high end of the HDV space. Also worth noting here is that Panasonic has partnered with Focus Enhancements for direct-to-hard disk recording. DV goes to tape, and everything else to P2 cards or direct to disk via a FireStore DDR. Panasonic says to get a few P2 cards and offload them to a portable hard drive device Panasonic makes, but this can be expensive. John Baisley, president of Panasonic Broadcast, said, "We have selected the FOCUS FireStore `Direct To Edit' solution as a way of offering economical long-duration DVCPro, DVCPro 50, or DVCPro HD recording to the event production market."

Currently, hard drives are more economical than P2 cards/readers. At 40-80GB, DDRs also allow far longer record times than the two 8GB P2 cards in the HVX-200.

Sony HVR-A1U
Sony's new A1U is an unusual bird. It is a CMOS-based, 1/3", 3MP, single-chip camcorder that records 1440x1080i HDV, DVCAM, and DV for less than $3,000. Sony's HVR-A1U is the "prosumer" version of the Sony HDR-HC1, a single-chip model that goes for about $1,800. As with the FX1 and the Z1U, the main difference between the consumer and prosumer models is the XLR adapter and some menu changes.

 This is a very small, bottom-loading, consumer camcorder that produces good pictures and may have decent low-light capability. Possibly a good "B" camera for HDV shooters who already have an FX1 or Z1U. The camera's CMOS imager does not "tear" vertically on a very bright light. So candles, the reflection of the sun, etc., do not affect the CMOS image they way they affect a CCD. However, there has not been a mass-production CMOS-based camcorder for the pro market yet so it remains to be seen what the limitations are.

We look forward to getting our hands on one of these to test. Given that the A1U is one of the smallest camcorders in today's prosumer HD/HDV market, you'll need some sort of shoulder harness or brace to attach most anything to it--wireless, light battery, etc. This limits the A1U's size advantages if you intended to use it as an "A" camera. It also uses a touch screen to access almost every function of the camera, which tends to yield more camera-shake than dedicated buttons.

JVC GY-HD100
The GY-HD100, for about $5,400, is JVC's newest "ProHD" Camcorder. It uses three 1/3" CCDs, has a 1280x720-pixel resolution, and a professional, interchangeable lens. I still call this a prosumer camcorder because of its small size, but it does offer a lot of true pro-camera feel. For instance, it has a speaker you can hear while you shoot, which no other prosumer camcorder (except the DSR-250) has. It was clearly designed from the ground up to be what it is: a hybrid of consumer-based HDV technology and professional lenses, viewfinder, on-shoulder style, and capability. There is no consumer version.

We look forward to testing one of these, as it may prove to be the wedding and event shooter's affordable HDV dream camera. It's also the only camcorder at this price point to offer both a professional viewfinder which makes it easy to focus, and a color LCD which many like to have as a color confidence monitor. When it ships, it will likely duke it out with the Canon XL-H1 (see below) for the event videographer's dollar.

In 2004, JVC also teased us with an HDV version of their GY-DV5000U pro camcorder. At the time they indicated that it was one of the many directions they were going with HDV, but it had no model number or price. It may still be in the works, with bigger chips, better image processing and true, pro functionality. Only time will tell. Just don't hold your breath.

Canon XL-H1
The Canon XL-H1 is a direct descendant of the XL2. It maintains almost all the same features while delivering 1080i HD resolution (with pixel shift), along with selectable frame rates of 60i, 30F, and 24F. It comes with a very nice 20x optically stabilized lens and a long enough body that by adding a plate over the XLR inputs and a big battery for camera/light power, you can begin to pull the weight of the camcorder back over your shoulder.

It also uses the improved Canon LCD viewfinder from the XL-2 It looks to ship in November for about $9,000, a price that seems a bit high compared to JVC's offering and current XL2 prices. It gives us 1080i resolution with three native 16:9 CCD's recording at 60i, 30F, and 24F. We'll need to wait and see what method they use for 24fps before rendering any judgments on that. It also records DV.

Canon offers straight (pre-compression) HD-SDI and SD-SDI output which is unique at this price point. This enables shooters to use a pro HD deck or go right to the computer with an uncompressed HD signal. This feature is sure to affect the sales of higher-end camcorders.

Grass Valley Infinity
Grass Valley, through a partnership with Iomega, has shown their "Infinity" Digital Media Camcorder offering both HD and SD multi-format support for under $20,000. This is a true professional camcorder. Here are the manufacturer's specs: 1080i50/60, 720p50/60 , 625i50 (PAL), 525i60 (NTSC), DV25, JPEG 2000, and MPEG-2 compression. It will record to, and play back from, Iomega's integrated REV PRO and professional-grade CompactFlash media. This is the latest hard drive-based camcorder. As long as it's compatible with systems without undue hassle, hard drive recording can really speed up the post production process.

If it follows the FireStore FS-3's ease of use, they may have a hit on their hands. Other special features include internal Gigabit Ethernet. We'll see how useful they make that when the camera and decks are scheduled to ship, sometime in 2006.

Sony XDCAM SR
Though it is not slated for an official introduction until NAB 2006, Sony has already started showing their XDCAM HD and SR. This Blu-ray optical disc-based XDCAM camcorder may go for about $16,000. It will likely support 1080i 50 and 60, as well as 1080p 24, 25, and 30, which pretty much covers all the bases. It is also supposed to offer four channels of audio, though I have yet to see a camcorder offer four full-quality channels of audio since broadcast Betacam.

The CCD's are 1/2" with a 1440x1080 resolution. Images I have seen showed an autofocus lens as well as a very nice color LCD below the probably standard B & W CRT viewfinder. If anything, this is a very high-end--and expensive--DSR-250 replacement. This camcorder uses standard XDCAM discs and there are already decks available. Footage can be transferred via FireWire or built-in Ethernet. XDCAM also touts simultaneous recording of "offline" proxies and picture frames for super-fast "offlining" of your work. The discs can also be used to hold edit files and more. The ability to archive an entire wedding--from source to edited master--on a single Blu-ray disc would be a very useful capability of the XDCAM system. The camera has analog component and composite video out.

The long-GOP MPEG recording has a bit rate of 35Mbps max, but has the same structure as HDV. This is a nice revision to the HDV concept, offering more data for the heavily compressed HDV video at a rate that's still heavily compressed. However, who knows which edit systems will support this new and unique Sony standard. Can anyone say Memory Stick or MicroMV?

So these are the choices that I see now. I see the main competition between the stock Canon XL-H1 and the JVC HD-100. Many videographers have already chosen Sony's FX1 or Z1U but really, that was because Sony had no real—i.e., shipping--competition. By the time you read this, that will have changed. I think both the Grass Valley Infinity and the Sony XDCAM SR offer some real production-speed boosts compared to tape-based systems. They also offer far more HD recording capability than Panasonic's limited P2 recording in the HVX-200. As always, assess what is important to you and make your decision accordingly. Decide based on true usability rather than any "wow" factor and you'll have a camcorder that will serve you for many years to come.

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Roxio Launches Easy Media Creator 8

Roxio, a division of Sonic Solutions, has introduced Easy Media Creator 8, a significant upgrade to its Editor's Choice-winning digital media suite. Easy Media Creator 8 merges advanced technologies from Roxio and Sonic into a comprehensive suite of CD and DVD authoring, burning, photo, video, and music applications available. The software is scheduled to be available globally in retail and online beginning later this month

Consumers' new digital media experience begins at Media Creator Home, the central hub for navigating to any of the suite's 25 applications, launching specialized features or completing common tasks in just a few mouse clicks using Home's embedded functionality. From Home, users can quickly appreciate the tremendous depth and breadth of digital media functionality Roxio Easy Media Creator 8 delivers. Those seeking guidance, or with little time to invest, will appreciate the new Task Assistants that lead them through the creation of stunning personalized projects. It is here that consumers will also discover new functionality such as instantly sharing photos over the Internet with friends and family or accessing digital media anywhere on a home network.

Headlining the new music capabilities of Easy Media Creator 8 is DVD Music Disc, which turns any DVD player into a virtual music jukebox with up to 50 hours of Dolby Digital quality music. With enough room for approximately 65 albums, DVD Music Discs play back in standard set-top DVD players and feature attractive DVD menus and navigation by track, artist, genre, album or year, accessed via remote control. Another industry first in Easy Media Creator 8 is MusicID, which acoustically fingerprints unknown music files to automatically fix or add the correct ID3 tag information such as title, artist, and genre. MusicID is a tremendous time saver for consumers using Easy Media Creator 8's feature for digitizing classic LPs and tapes. Other new audio features enable users to burn a long audio compilation across multiple audio CDs simultaneously, and specify a play back order of MP3 and WMA files even if their player only supports alphabetical playback. Another Easy Media Creator 8 innovation makes it easy to extract audio from DVDs to create audio CDs or MP3/WMA music tracks for use on portable players.

Easy Media Creator 8 uses Sonic Solutions' advanced DVD authoring technology with the integration of the newest version of MyDVD. The popular authoring application, already renowned for its ease of use, now makes it easier than ever for consumers to create personalized DVDs with custom designs and full-motion multi-chapter menus that enable advanced navigation. VideoWave, the suite's rich video editing application which includes automated video creation options as well as advanced hands-on controls, has been architected to work in real-time with HD video streams. Easy Media Creator 8 now includes DivX 6 support to enable the creation, editing and playback of high-definition DivX media files. In addition, TiVo Series 2 subscribers can now use Easy Media Creator 8 to transfer, preview, and burn to DVD the shows they record on their home-networked TiVo Digital Video Recorders.

Easy Media Creator 8's recording and backup components enable consumers to burn, copy, and archive all types of digital media and data on CD and DVD, including double layer DVD media. Large files can now be automatically spanned across multiple discs and burned in multiple drives simultaneously, which is ideal for the many consumers with both a built-in CD recorder as well as external DVD burner. DVD movies can be easily compressed and copied from 9GB to 4.7GB discs, with options for removing unwanted extras to optimize recording quality. In a similar fashion to compiling a mixed music CD, consumers can now create compilation DVDs of movies from different sources such as DVD-Video, DivX or WMV. Easy Media Creator 8 also allows consumers to complete the most popular data burning and disc copying functions in fewer clicks by embedding common functions directly within the suite's new Home application and component launcher.

Media Creator 8 makes photo creativity and sharing a snap for digital camera owners. Ideal for new users or those with little time to invest, Easy Media Creator 8 now includes a series of Task Assistants that guide users quickly through the creation of stunning photo projects such as greeting cards, panoramas, calendars, and slideshows. The ingenious slideshow task assistant enables users to produce slideshows with pan & zoom, title slides, background music, and voice over narration in a matter of minutes. The resulting slideshows can be exported to Video CD or DVD in standard or Widescreen (16:9) format and even as DivX HD in 720p or 1080p files. Easy Media Creator 8 makes photo sharing effortless with the new LiveShare feature. LiveShare establishes a private peer-to-peer connection so users can permit friends and family, via an email web link, to directly browse and download photos on their PC using any web browser. Using LiveShare is as easy as sending an email without the need for large attachments or long upload times. Another innovative sharing option is My MediaSpace, which allows consumers to use their home network and UPnP-compliant living room devices to access and view media. Using My MediaSpace, consumers can share and access photo, music, and video files between home computers as if they reside locally and even view the content on their TV via a network connected set-top box.

Easy Media Creator 8 will be available beginning later this month in over 12,000 store fronts throughout North America, directly from Roxio at (http://www.roxio.com/go/emc8) and available shortly thereafter in Europe and Asia Pacific regions. It will be priced at $99.99 SRP and at equivalent value in regions around the world. Registered owners of Roxio and Sonic products, as well as owners of select competitive products, may be eligible for special upgrade offers. For more information on Easy Media Creator 8 or to pre-order in North America visit (http://www.roxio.com/go/emc8).

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Microboards to Distribute Pioneer Displays

Microboards has announced that they now distribute Pioneer's line of high-end plasma displays.

Microboards also carries the Pioneer lines of DVD recorders and authoring solutions, as well as Pioneer's professional-grade DVD playback devices. The Plasma series has video wall expansion capability, allowing users to create a video wall with four screens (2x2), as well as the ability to make the display a touch-screen for interactive content.

The displays come in various sizes from 42 to 61 inches, with list pricing ranging between $5,995-$19,995 USD MSRP. Microboards carries the full line of accessories, including speakers, mounts, and video cards. The full line of Pioneer products are immediately available through Microboards channel of resellers and integrators.

www.microboards.com  

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Digigami Ships MegaPEG HDTV: High-Definition MPEG-2 Encoder for ATSC, IDSB-T and EBU Digital TV

Digigami has announced it is now shipping MegaPEG HDTV for Macintosh OS X-based laptops and workstations, its flagship MPEG-2 encoder for compressing high-definition video into standards-compliant MPEG-2 (ISO/IEC 13818) bitstreams. The product creates streams compatible with ATSC (North American), ISDB-T (Japan), and EBU (European) standards for HD, and can perform format conversion on the fly, including SD up-conversion and HD down-conversion and conversion from ATSC to EBU and vice-versa.

MegaPEG HDTV includes an integrated picture quality analysis (PQA) tool with the same features as Digigami MPressionist Pro HD. Any HD encoding job can be paused and the intermediate compression results analyzed to ensure that the stream meets quality expectations.

MegaPEG HDTV is best suited for HD production scenarios where files are encoded once and then played repeatedly. Such applications typically the highest quality, differing from real-time encoding scenarios where the source material passes through the encoder for a single broadcast. This includes DTV ad-insertion systems, HD kiosk applications, and closed-circuit HD TV networks such as those increasingly found in museums, theme parks, airports and five-star luxury hotels.

MegaPEG HDTV is a single pass MPEG encoder featuring a floating point video pre-processing pipeline which supports both constant (CBR) and variable bitrate (VBR) operation. Tradeoffs between compression time and picture quality (encoding accuracy) are available in a Graphical User Interface (GUI) which utilizes an eleven-position slider which configures the encoder. For advanced operators, all aspects of the encoding are available for configuration, including the specification of MPEG-2 features such as Intra-DC precision, custom GOP patterns and custom DCT quantization matrices.

Users can compress source video format or codec to any target format supported by the encoder, which currently supports all the major applications of MPEG-1 and MPEG-2 from Whitebook VideoCD to ATSC HDTV at 1920x1080i. Even if your primary delivery format is 1080i, you can easily create Web versions or support foreign formats from the same master/source.. The format conversion features have been included in MegaPEG.X since version 2.0.

The new 3.0 version of Digigami "MegaPEG HDTV" is available for $795 USD MSRP. Registered users of previous versions of MegaPEG are eligible for substantial upgrade discounts. Site licenses, educational, and volume discounts are available.

www.digigami.com/megapeg/  

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New Security Features Added To Stordigital Tower DVD/CD Duplication Systems

StorDigital Systems has added a new secure data CD and DVD copy tower to its range of tower CD and DVD duplicator systems. The new secure data features are available as part of a new package called the StorDigital SafeTower.

The SafeTower features allow users to have more control over the security of their data and the production of their discs. One of the security enhancements is the provision of a removable hard drive, which may be useful for government bodies and businesses where data protection is necessary. The swappable hard drive can be removed from the duplicator and locked away securely. Further protection is added to the unit by way of a password-entry system that will prevent unauthorized access to the duplicator and its functions. Other revised features include an on-board disc counter to count how many jobs the unit has done and how many discs are copied in a particular job and hard drive partition naming (allowing users easier to the discs they have stored on the duplicator hard drive).

www.stordigital.com

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Leading Computer Manufacturers Support Blu-Ray High-Definition Format

Dell, and Hewlett-Packard have announced their support for the Blu-Ray disc format. Computer brands supporting Blu-ray Disc include Dell, Hewlett Packard, Panasonic, Sony, and LG.

Some of Blu-Ray's features compared to HD-DVD include the following:
Capacity: Blu-ray Disc's capacity is 50GB compared to 30GB for HD-DVD.

Managed copy: Managed Copy is not a function of the optical disc format, but a function of the content protection system. The AACS content protection system, which is used by both Blu-ray Disc and HD-DVD, enables managed copy and network streaming functionality. It is not format- specific.

Hybrid Disc: Blu-ray Disc can hold both high and standard definition versions of a movie on a single disc.

Backward Compatibility: Blu-ray Disc players and recorders can and will support DVDs through the addition of red lasers in the hardware.

Interactivity: Blu-ray disc is built on BD-Java, which provides interactive capabilities to the user for movies, music, and games.

www.blu-ray.com  

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Paramount to Support Blu-Ray

Paramount Home Entertainment has decided to support Sony's Blu-ray Disc format for the next-generation of high-definition DVDs.

Although Paramount will continue to support Sony's rival, the HD DVD platform from Toshiba, the studio is the first to end its singular commitment to one format, which both sides had hoped would give the industry its best chance of avoiding a Betamax/VHS-like format war.

With Warner and Universal expected to follow suit very shortly, Paramount's decision potentially throws the decision once again into the hands of consumers and retailers next year. Both formats are going to be introduced next spring.

A format war is precisely what studios, hardware manufacturers, retailers and consumers desperately want to avoid. The introduction of two incompatible formats has the potential to cause a much slower adoption of a new format for their movies, games, music and other programming, as consumers hesitate to pick one for fear of selecting the next Betamax that will become obsolete. Studios and hardware manufacturers managed to find a compromise solution on DVD, which led to the introduction of the most successful consumer electronics product ever.

With the DVD market rapidly maturing and slowing to single-digit growth rates, media companies, which derive most of their studio revenue and profits from DVD, are pressuring their home video and consumer electronics units to get the next-gen format into the market as quickly as possible, whichever one it is, in order to rejuvenate sales of their vast libraries of TV, movie, and music programming on discs.

A big setback for HD DVD was the delay of the launch of its HD DVD players from this holiday season until sometime next year. Blu-ray has always set mid-2006 as its launch date, most likely with the launch of Sony's PlayStation 3 videogame system, which will incorporate Blu-ray. Microsoft will not commit to including HD DVD in its next-gen Xbox 360 system.

In fact, the PlayStation 3 factor—Sony will not be swayed from introducing Blu-ray as the format is locked as a component in millions of PS3 machines next spring—is believed to be what has turned Paramount and Warner around in their thinking.

Although it would be a little more expensive to release movies authored and inventoried in two different formats, it's something the studios have done before with Betamax and VHS and laserdisc and 8mm, in some cases.

www.paramount.com

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