Friday, April 11, 2014

Blackmagic adds studio cameras to its live production suite, makes its switchers 4K

Blackmagic Design has long been known as a post-production hardware vendor, starting with its DeckLink cards in 2002. In 2010, the company moved into live video production when it acquired switcher manufacturer Echolab's assets out of bankruptcy. Together with its Videohub routers and video & audio monitoring hardware, Blackmagic built a fairly complete line of live production products. Then, in 2012, Blackmagic introduced its first camera, the Blackmagic Cinema Camera (BMCC). Many people wondered if the Cinema Camera could be used for live production since it has an HD-SDI output, but Blackmagic cautioned against using it that way. The BMCC's color output is so flat that it can't really be used without color correction, and Blackmagic's subsequent camera models launched prior to this year aren't much better suited for live use.

However, at NAB earlier this week, Blackmagic introduced a line of cameras designed specifically for live production, the Studio Camera HD and Studio Camera 4K (which outputs video in Ultra HD and HD.) The Studio Cameras are designed around 10" LCDs that do double duty as viewfinders and menu displays. The company claims that the viewfinders are the largest offered by any manufacturer. Unlike the Cinema Camera and Production Camera, the Studio Camera's display isn't touch-sensitive; a row of buttons below the display is used for user inputs. The company claims that by eliminating the touch-sensitive layer, the Studio Camera's display is brighter.

On the back of the display, there's a wedge that contains all of the camera's connectors, the lens mount (active Micro Four Thirds), imager and most of the camera's electronics. The result is a very strange looking camera, but one with significantly better features than previous Blackmagic models. For example, the company's previous cameras have become known for their poor battery life, but Blackmagic says that the battery in the Studio Camera will last for four hours, and a standard four-pin power connector allows users to connect external batteries for more runtime, or AC power for continuous operation. The single minijack or dual 1/4" jacks used for audio input in the previous cameras have been replaced with dual XLR connectors with phantom power.

The Studio Cameras also have several new features:
  • A LANC interface for connecting a remote iris, focus and zoom control (if your lens is compatible)
  • Dual jacks for connecting an aviation headset for intercom use; Blackmagic claims that aviation headsets are much less expensive than video production headsets with comparable features
  • A bidirectional optical fiber connector that's compatible with the ATEM Studio Converter and provides the same functionality as the $595 ATEM Camera Converter. This enables the Studio Camera to send and receive HD or 4K video, stereo audio, talkback/intercom and tally lights over cable runs as long as 28 miles
  • A software-based Remote Camera Control that works with any ATEM Production Studio. All of the settings on the camera can be monitored and controlled with this software. In addition, a full copy of DaVinci Resolve's primary color corrector is included for live color balancing
You may be thinking, "These Studio Cameras are better than Blackmagic's first-generation models in almost every way, and they're the same price, so why would anyone buy the earlier models?" One big reason is that the Studio Cameras have no storage. No SSD, no CFast, no SDXC, nothing. You can, of course, add an external recorder such as Blackmagic's HyperDeck Shuttle, and you've got other options using the Studio Cameras' SDI connections. However, an external recorder adds to the size, weight and cost of the cameras.

The Studio Camera HD is shipping now and is priced at $1,995 (U.S.), while the Studio Camera 4K is expected to ship in June and is priced at $2,995. Given Blackmagic's track record with cameras, don't bet your life on that June ship date, and expect some problems with the cameras that are shipped for the first several months.

Blackmagic has also made a number of changes to its ATEM line of switchers (all of which are shipping):
  • The original HD-only models of the ATEM 1 M/E and 2 M/E have been discontinued; the sole HD-only switcher that remains in the product line is the $995 ATEM Television Studio, which is primarily intended as a "personal" switcher for webcasts and small productions
  • The new ATEM 1 M/E Production Studio and 2 M/E Production Studio support 4K and HD on all inputs and outputs (except the monitor outputs, which are HD only)
  • Last year's ATEM Production Studio 4K, which has similar functionality to the ATEM Television Studio except it supports 4K, remains in the product line at $1,695
  • The ATEM 1 M/E Production Studio 4K is priced at $2,495, and the ATEM 2 M/E Production Studio 4K is priced at $3,995, $1,000 less than last year's model
With the Studio Cameras and its 4K switcher line, Blackmagic now has just about everything needed to build a live production facility.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

For 4K cameras, price is A thing, but not THE thing

I'm back from NAB, where the overriding theme this year was 4K everything--cameras, monitors, editors, special effects, routers, switchers, etc. Perhaps the biggest battle was in cameras, where AJA Video entered the market for the first time and Blackmagic Design and Sony announced new 4K cameras. (JVC also announced its first 4K digital cinematography cameras, but gave no prices or availability dates.) 4K cameras have been a "thing" ever since the RED One, but $10,000 was the least that you could spend to buy one (Canon's 1D C) until Blackmagic shipped its 4K Production Camera late last year, priced at $2,995.

The floodgates have now opened:
  • Panasonic's GH4: $1,699, or $3,299 bundled with its SDI/XLR interface dock
  • Sony's A7S: Price not announced, but expected to be between the $1,700 A7 and the $2,300 A7R.
  • Blackmagic's 4K Production Camera: $2,995
  • Blackmagic's URSA EF: $5,995
  • AJA's Cion: $8,995
None of these cameras cost more than a fraction of the price of an ARRI Alexa ($80,000+) or Amira ($40,000-$52,000 depending on enabled features,) RED EPIC-M Dragon ($50,000+), or Sony F55 ($29,000+) or F65 ($65,000+). You'd think that ARRI, RED and Sony would be shaking in their boots, but they're not. There are two reasons why the companies that make high-end cameras aren't necessarily threatened by the new inexpensive models:
  1. There are many elements that determine whether or not a specific camera is appropriate for an application, and
  2. You get what you pay for.
Here are some (but far from all) of the elements of camera design that influence how the camera performs and what it's good (or not good) for:
  • Imager size
  • Imager resolution
  • Color space (e.g., YUV or xvYCC)
  • Color sampling (e.g., 4:2:0, 4:2:2 or 4:4:4)
  • Bit depth (8-bit vs. 10-bit)
  • Video output resolution (DCI 4K (4096 x 2160), UHD (3840 x 2160), 1080, 720)
  • Video compression formats (e.g., AVCHD, H.264, ProRes, DNxHD, XAVC, XAVC S, AVC-Intra, AVC-Ultra)
  • RAW storage and/or output
  • Frame rates supported at specified resolution (e.g., 24, 25, 29.97, 30, 59.94, 60 or 120)
  • Dynamic range in stops
  • Native ISO speed
  • Sensitivity (maximum usable ISO speed, NOT the camera's rated top ISO speed)
  • Lens mount(s)
  • Lens control (manual, automatic or limited automatic)
  • Image stabilization (digital or optical, in the camera body or in the lens, or no stabilization)
  • Viewfinder, display screen, both or none
  • User interface design (e.g., touchscreen(s), menus, dedicated buttons and knobs)
  • Storage capacity
  • Storage media
  • Internal or external storage
  • Video interface(s) (HDMI or HD-SDI, with different HDMI versions and, for HD-SDI, maximum speeds)
  • Audio connector(s)
  • Balanced or unbalanced audio in
  • Phantom power availability
  • Run time on battery
  • Removable or permanent battery
  • External power voltage and connector
  • Camera shape
  • Camera weight
  • Ruggedness
  • Manufacturer and design maturity (how much experience does the manufacturer have in designing cameras, and how long has the manufacturer been making this particular camera)
There's an enormous number of elements to consider, and some elements work much better for certain applications than others. In some cases, buyers have a wealth of cameras to choose from, while in other cases, there may only be a handful that can do what they need.

Rather than salivating when you hear about a new low-priced camera with attractive features, ask yourself these questions:
  1. What am I going to use it for?
  2. What trade-offs am I willing to accept (for example, are you willing to live with less sensitivity in order to get a higher-quality compression format?)
  3. How often will I use the camera (do you know that you'll be using it over and over on new projects, or do you have one project in mind and you don't know when you'll have the next one?)
  4. How much can I afford to pay?
Answering the first two questions will allow you to compile a list of cameras that meet your needs. Answering the final two questions will tell you whether you should buy or rent the camera that you can afford. In some cases, you may decide to buy a less-expensive camera and use your remaining budget to buy lenses or mounting equipment. In other cases, you could rent a camera and use the savings elsewhere on your production, or rent a camera that you can't afford to buy that's superior to other choices for your application. In short, you should answer the four questions first, rather than starting with the price of the camera and instead hoping that it will meet your needs.

Thursday, April 03, 2014

Brendan Eich's resignation from Mozilla is a victory for no one

Earlier today, Mozilla announced that recently-appointed CEO Brendan Eich has resigned, both from Mozilla's for-profit arm and from the board of the non-profit foundation that controls the company. The reason for his resignation was the blowback from a $1,000 contribution that Eich made to a group supporting California's anti-gay marriage Proposition 8 (his contribution became public knowledge in 2012.)

Before I continue, a disclaimer: I worked with Brendan, Mozilla Chairwoman Mitchell Baker and Mozilla Foundation Director Bob Lisbonne at Netscape in 1995-97. In addition, I strongly support gay marriage. With that in mind, I'm very sad that Brendan was forced out of an organization that he was such an integral part of for so long, not because of any claims of mismanagement, financial irresponsibility or technical incompetence, but because of a personal belief.

If the shoe was on the other foot--if an executive who had contributed to a campaign supporting gay marriage or gay rights (like NOH8) was targeted for dismissal by opponents of gay marriage--would the members of the gay community calling for Brendan's head have supported the executive or the rights of the gay marriage opponents? I'm pretty sure that it would have been the former, and I'm very sure that their actions would be hypocritical.

Brendan had agreed that his opinions about gay marriage would play no part in how he ran Mozilla, and his opponents could point to no evidence that his opinions were even known within Mozilla prior to 2012. In addition, although I'm sure that he was paid a good salary at Mozilla, he could have become far wealthier by going to work for totally for-profit, pre-IPO company. Instead, he chose to work on open source projects that would increase the common good for everyone.

All of us have opinions and beliefs that other people disagree with. For example, I support a woman's right to have an abortion, an opinion that's wildly unpopular in parts of the U.S. However, unless I was working for a company with a strong publicly stated position on the topic, like Chick-Fil-A or Hobby Lobby, I would expect that my belief should have no impact on either my employment or how I do my job. By forcing Brendan out, supporters of gay marriage have paradoxically given more power to opponents of gay rights, women's rights and a host of other issues, who want to force people who don't share their beliefs out of companies.

I'm also clearly disappointed by Mitchell Baker's blog post today announcing Brendan's resignation. Here's a quote:
We didn’t act like you’d expect Mozilla to act. We didn’t move fast enough to engage with people once the controversy started. We’re sorry. We must do better.
Mozilla believes both in equality and freedom of speech. Equality is necessary for meaningful speech. And you need free speech to fight for equality. Figuring out how to stand for both at the same time can be hard.
Free speech, of course, cuts both ways. As a lawyer, Mitchell knows that Brendan had a perfect right to make that contribution. If Mozilla had dismissed Brendan on the grounds of his contribution, the company would have been guilty of religious discrimination under Federal law. So, Brendan had to "voluntarily" resign, for the good of the organization, to correct the "mistake" of appointing him CEO. However, the appointment wasn't a mistake--the people who made the appointment knew all about his contribution. Baker and the Mozilla Foundation board should have stood behind him. Now, however, we know how Mozilla will respond to external pressure in the future--with cowardice.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

The Earthquake Channel: Who's in?

California has had two moderate earthquakes in the last week and many aftershocks from the most recent one that was centered near La Habra. Earthquakes in Southern California have been more frequent recently, which leads residents to consider whether the next earthquake will be the "Big One." Frankly, EVERY earthquake makes Californians worry about the Big One.

Earlier today, someone that I follow on Twitter suggested that earthquakes should be given names, like hurricanes. That got me thinking. The Weather Channel now names storms, not just hurricanes. If we're going to name earthquakes, why not create a cable channel for them: The Earthquake Channel? Spoilsports might suggest that there aren't enough earthquakes, and we still don't know how to predict them in advance. In fact, there are plenty of earthquakes; the USGS reported 42 worldwide in the last 24 hours with a magnitude 2.5 or greater, of which 26 were located in North and Central America. As for not being able to forecast them, that just adds to the excitement.

One of the problems with reporting earthquakes is that it would be nice to have someone like Jim Cantore standing in a vulnerable location (next to an unreinforced masonry wall, for example) when the earthquake hits, to give live shots of the earthquake's impact. Unfortunately, since we can't predict earthquakes with any reasonable level of accuracy, we would have to have people standing all over the country, 24 hours a day. While it would be an interesting exercise, it would be both expensive and extremely boring. So, the next best thing would be a national network of cameras hooked up to seismometers; seismic activity above a certain threshold would start the camera recording, and would also capture the data from the seismometer. In some locations, the camera could be pointed at an animatronic dummy positioned in a vulnerable location (with a robotic voice saying "THIS...IS...JIM...CANTORE...AND...I'M...AARGH!"); in less important locations, the cameras could be pointed at chandeliers or glasses of water.

Some party poopers may raise another objection: How can an earthquake channel have enough content to run 24 hours a day? If you've watched any cable news channel ever, you know that's not a problem. CNN has gotten several weeks of content from Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 with almost no solid information. When things got slow, CNN speculated about "supernatural causes" and black holes. Just imagine what we could do with earthquakes.

Earthquake coverage would cover the following stages:

  1. Fear-mongering: Here's the fault map for your local area. Any of these babies could break loose at any moment and trigger a devastating earthquake. Here's what you should do to prepare. Here's what you should do in the event of an earthquake. Here are the places that you shouldn't live. Is your earthquake insurance paid up? You DO know that your householder's insurance policy doesn't cover earthquakes, don't you? DON'T YOU?
  2. OMG, there's been an earthquake: Massive overcoverage of the earthquake. Interviews of people who felt the earthquake. Interviews of people who know people who were told things by people who felt the earthquake. Experts to discuss where the earthquake occurred, how long it lasted, which faults were involved, and how many aftershocks are likely. Throughout all of this, show every available video of the earthquake you can find. If there aren't any, show cheesy computer-generated simulations of what it might have looked like had there been a camera.
  3. How do they recover: Experts discuss how to repair the damage, and when the next earthquake might occur. Say how sorry we feel for the people hurt by the earthquake, while implying that they're idiots for not properly preparing.

Okay, all three stages involve fear-mongering...and that brings me to my last point: Who would advertise on The Earthquake Channel? There's a surprising number of potential advertisers:

  • Contractors to strengthen building against earthquakes and perform earthquake repairs
  • Hospitals and urgent care centers to provide emergency medical services
  • Moving services to help people relocate away from earthquake country
  • Cars for getting out of Dodge quickly when an earthquake hits
  • Bottled water for when water pipes are broken
  • Freeze-dried, powered, shrink-wrapped, bubble-packed survival foods
  • Small arms, rifles and ammunition for when society breaks down and anarchy reigns supreme
  • Insurance--lots and lots of insurance
So there you have it: The Earthquake Channel. Any takers?

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Facebook buys Oculus VR: What now?

Earlier today, Facebook announced that it had acquired virtual reality headset maker Oculus VR for $2 billion, in the form of $400 million in cash and 23.1 million shares of Facebook common stock worth $1.6 billion. Oculus VR's shareholders could earn an additional $300 million based on achieving several unspecified performance objectives. Oculus started with a Kickstarter campaign in 2012 that raised $2.4 million; last year, the company closed A and B rounds worth a total of about $93 million.

Ever since the announcement, comments about Oculus's acquisition have been flying around the Internet. The general tone is that Facebook will destroy Oculus's independence and load its software up with links to Facebook content. Some game developers have gone so far as to say that they've either stopped or won't begin software development for the Oculus Rift. My take is that Facebook's acquisition will be good for Oculus and its third-party developers, although a few years down the road, Oculus's shareholders may wish that they had kept ownership of the company.

But first, why did Facebook acquire Oculus? Facebook's not a hardware company, and when it's tried to specify smartphone hardware or design smartphone user interfaces, it's come up short. It'll take years for Oculus to become a meaningful generator of revenues and profits for Facebook, if it ever does. However, Facebook believes that VR is the next big hardware platform after mobile devices. VR is Facebook's "blue ocean," an undeveloped market opportunity that could be the basis of tens of billions of dollars in revenues. And, Facebook is buying the recognized market and technology leader: Even though there have been VR devices for almost two decades, the Oculus Rift is the first device that can truly begin to exploit virtual reality without all the physical discomfort that's come to characterize VR systems. As I've written previously, Oculus is six months to a year ahead of Sony and other VR headset manufacturers. And, Oculus is already generating revenue: Some 75,000 developers kits have been sold, at $300 each. Most other VR developers have only dozens or a few hundred developers working on their platforms.

As for Oculus and its shareholders, Facebook's $2 billion represents a nice return on their investments (Spark Capital and Matrix Partners are said by to both have received a 20-times return on investments made from a year to just a few months ago,) although I believe that if Oculus had remained independent and had become successful, the company's valuation would have easily been ten times what Facebook paid. However, Facebook brings to Oculus enormous financial resources. The company will be able to expand its development facilities and hire more aggressively. It will also have more influence on component manufacturers, because Oculus will be able to commit to much bigger purchase quantities and bigger non-recurring engineering costs than it could before Facebook. This is critical, because Oculus doesn't have the ability to build its own displays, camera and sensors, and some of the components it needs simply aren't yet available as off-the-shelf products.

Oculus's hardware development is likely to dovetail nicely with Facebook's rapid software development philosophy. At Sony's announcement of its "Project Morpheus" at GDC, the company said that it's been working on VR longer than Oculus, but most observers would agree that Oculus is still significantly ahead of Sony. The combination of Oculus and Facebook should be able to iterate hardware and software faster than Sony (and most other big companies) can even imagine. So, Oculus will most likely be able to get its first consumer version of the Oculus Rift out faster, and possibly at lower cost, with Facebook's backing.

But what about Facebook's influence on Oculus? After all, Facebook is hardly a benign presence. In Boing Boing, Dean Putney wrote a scathing takedown of the Facebook-Oculus deal; here's a quote:
The problem isn't that Facebook is going (to) ruin Oculus, by plastering it with ads and making it a pain in the ass like everything else they've shat all over. Although that wouldn't be a surprise. The problem is that this was an opportunity for something different. And it just died.
I don't think that the acquisition is as "soul crushing" as Putney believes; Facebook has said that Oculus will be run independently, and its offices will likely remain in Orange County, at least for a while. In addition, we're unlikely to see the consumer version of the Oculus Rift until next year, and that gives competitors an opportunity to catch up. However, paradoxically, the same funding that makes the Oculus Rift less risky as a development platform increases the risk that Facebook will turn it into a platform that you wouldn't want to develop for. I don't have a good counterargument to give to the people who believe that Facebook will "shit all over" Oculus, other than you should be okay if you develop for multiple headsets, not just the Oculus Rift.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Games are just the tip of the VR iceberg

At last week's Game Developers' Conference, Virtual Reality (VR) was front and center, led by Oculus VR's second (and likely final) developer's kit, and Sony's prototype Project Morpheus VR headset. At Sony's launch event, a company executive noted that there are a number of applications for VR, but that games are the biggest opportunity. Games are an obvious application for VR; existing 2 1/2 D games, such as first person shooters, can be modified to enable the player to be immersed in the field of play using a VR headset. However, while games may be the first application for VR, in the long run, they're not the biggest application.

VR, which places the participant in an immersive environment, has the potential to recreate real-world environments much more successfully than technologies such as CAVEs that project an environment on multiple walls of a cube in which the participant stands. VR can be used for a variety of simulations; for example:
  • Military and police training, where recruits learn how to differentiate friend from foe and both how and when to engage with an enemy or suspect.
  • Medical training, where medical students can perform tests and try out surgical techniques.
  • Flight training for pilots and trainees.
There are also many applications in education. Students can be transported into ancient Rome or Greece and participate in activities as the people who lived there did. They can run science experiments that would be dangerous or deadly if they were to do them in real life, and they can observe processes at scales that would otherwise be impossible (from sub-atomic to galactic.) Students can do these things today with PCs and tablets, but the addition of VR makes them much more visceral, which should help students to learn more and retain more of what they learn.

There's also an opportunity for VR in television and movies. We think of these as passive media, but VR has the potential to immerse the viewer in the action to a much greater degree than has been possible with 3D. However, there are many questions that need to be answered, especially for live (non-computer-animated) content:
  • Can the viewer participate in the action, or are they merely an observer?
  • How much freedom does the viewer have in participating--can they move freely, or are their movements limited?
  • How do the characters in the production interact with the viewer? Can the viewer's actions change the production's course of action? (For example, in an action/adventure production, could the viewer's character kill the hero? What happens next--roll the credits?)
I believe that ultimately, these applications with be much bigger than gaming. However, gaming technology will be very important for creating these applications, and game developers will be in an excellent position to be early developers of these applications. Gaming engines that have been adapted to support VR will be the basis of the first generation of new applications, while production and development systems built specifically for VR will come along later. In short, VR's first big opportunity will be gaming, but the application set and market opportunities will ultimately be much bigger than gaming alone.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Oculus VR releases DK2, its second VR headset/software development kit

Just in time for GDC, Oculus VR has released its second Oculus Rift development kit, called DK2. Engadget got a look at the new hardware, and it's a mild improvement over the Crystal Cove prototype shown at CES in January. Here's a summary:

  • Oculus now supplies its own user-facing IR camera to track the headset's position.
  • It's made the IR-reflective dots on the headset used for position tracking, which were visible on Crystal Cove prototype, invisible and harder to damage.
  • There are USB 2.0 and headset ports above the user's left eye.
  • A single cord breaks out to connect the headset to a computer's HDMI and USB (power) connections.
  • The display resolution is 1920 x 1080 (1080 x 960 for each eye.)
Oculus has priced DK2 at $350, $50 more than the original development kit. The company notes that the the final consumer version of the Oculus Rift will have higher resolution displays, a faster refresh rate and lower latency, and will be physically lighter than the DK2, but it's significantly closer to the final product than the original development kit was.

Even with the announcements from Sony and several other VR headset vendors at GDC, it's likely that Oculus is still significantly ahead of the pack. However, the company's one potential weakness is that it's dependent on third-party manufacturers for much of its technology--displays, sensors and cameras. For example, DK2's display has a 72 Hz refresh rate, which is as fast as Oculus could find in a 1920 x 1080 OLED display, but it needs at least a 90 Hz refresh rate to eliminate visual artifacts that can cause motion sickness. Sony manufactures image sensors and many of its own displays, so it may be in a better position to source the necessary components.