Friday, April 15, 2011

NAB 2011 Part 3: Wireless ENG Backpacks, POV Camcorders, Thunderbolt and Final Cut Pro X

In this third and final installment of highlights from NAB 2011, I'll cover some of the interesting new trends and product categories, and finish with a quick look at Final Cut Pro X.
  • ENG Trucks-in-a-Backpack: LiveU pioneered the category of putting encoders and broadband wireless transmitters into a backpack for field use, but there are now many competitors and a variety of approaches. The "traditional" backpack approach was demonstrated by LiveU, TVU and Streambox. These devices take the video output from a camcorder (analog, Firewire, HDMI or SD/HD-SDI), compresses it and sends it to a receiver over the public Internet using multiple USB broadband modems and WiFi adapters (anywhere from seven to fourteen, depending on the manufacturer). The receiver (located at the television station or head-end) takes the various bitstreams sent by the modems and WiFi interfaces, reassembles and decompresses them into a single video output for streaming or broadcast. Each manufacturer has their own approach:

    • LiveU uses a conventional PC running its proprietary software as the receiver, while both TVU and Streambox have their own dedicated receivers.
    • LiveU and Streambox use channel bonding between the multiple connections in order to get the needed bandwidth, while TVU uses channel aggregation with forward error correction, somewhat similar to the technology developed by Digital Fountain and now sold by Qualcomm, which it claims provides better quality at lower bitrates.
    • TVU and LiveU both use H.264 high profile compression, while Streambox uses its own proprietary codec.
    • Streambox's hardware receiver can support one transmitter at a time, while TVU's can support as many as ten transmitters simultaneously.
    • Streambox offers a "cloud" option for the receiver--customers can transmit video to Streambox's cloud and receive bonded, decompressed video without a local receiver.
    • All three systems are priced in the $30,000-$40,000 range (U.S.) for a single HD transmitter/receiver combination.
  • Teradek demonstrated its Cube, a wireless HD H.264 encoder and transmitter about as big as a pack of cigarettes. Unlike the backpack models, the Cube can only transmit via a single WiFi or wired Ethernet interface, or a single USB port that currently works with Verizon's 4G LTE Modem. It's designed for video monitoring on-site and lower-bandwidth ENG applications, but its small size and weight may make it less visible, and certainly easier to move around, than the backpack systems.

    Teradek's various Cube models come with HDMI or HD-SDI inputs. They're paired with wireless decoders that are just as small as the receivers, and they can send directly to Livestream's streaming service for broadcast over the Internet. When using Livestream, no local receiver is necessary. Prices for the transmitters and receivers range from $1,490 to $2,190 depending on inputs and interfaces, and they're also available in matched sets for from $2,682 to $3,942.
  • Comrex showed a working prototype of its Liveshot, a video compressor and transmitter designed to be mounted on ENG camcorders. The Liveshot Portable has two USB ports for broadband or WiFi modems, and HDMI, HD-SDI and analog video inputs. The Liveshot Studio is the receiver. Both devices support intercom/IFB headsets for two-way communication. Pricing hasn't been finalized, and Comrex doesn't expect to ship the Liveshot until late 2011.
  • POV Camcorders: This was the year that low-cost POV camcorders were accepted by broadcasters and filmmakers. POV camcorders are being used to shoot athlete-perspective footage for skiing, surfing, skateboarding, car and motorcycle racing and skydiving. GoPro's booth was jammed when I was there; the company was selling its HD Hero models that are normally priced at $299.99 for $200, for delivery after the show. GoPro's 3D Hero system, which gangs two HD Heros together in a single waterproof housing and is priced at $99.99, was also a hot seller and one of the least expensive ways to capture 3D action footage. Contour was also exhibiting, showing its ContourGPS and ContourHD POV camcorders, as was V.I.O., with its POV.HD model.
  • Thunderbolt peripherals: A few companies showed peripherals compatible with Intel's and Apple's Thunderbolt high-speed interface, now available on Apple's MacBook Pros. Matrox will be building Thunderbolt ports into its MXO2 line of video capture and conversion devices starting in July, and it's making available a box that connects Thunderbolt to its existing host interface for MXO2s purchased and shipped before July. The converter box will be priced at $299, with a discount if purchased with an MXO2 device.

    LaCie was showing prototypes of its Little Big Disk, the first model that will ship with Thunderbolt interfaces. The Little Big Disk holds 2 SSD or hard disks, and comes with a total capacity of 240GB or 500GB (SSD), or 1TB (7200 rpm hard disk). At NAB, LaCie had four 1TB Little Big Disks daisy-chained together on Thunderbolt as a RAID 0 array, and they claimed that they were getting better throughput than a comparable Fibre Channel array.

    Promise Technology's 4- and 6-bay Pegasus disk arrays were displayed in a number of booths, and it appears that Promise is the first company actually shipping Thunderbolt peripherals. As I reported yesterday, Blackmagic Design displayed its UltraStudio 3D video capture and display device with Thunderbolt, priced at $995, for July delivery.
  • Final Cut Pro X: I didn't attend the FCPUG SuperMeet on Tuesday night, and there are plenty of other reviews of what Apple previewed at the event on the web, so I'm going to limit myself to a few points. First, the new FCP X demonstrates that Apple has been very serious about improving Final Cut Pro; there are many performance improvements (including 64-bit support and GPU acceleration) and new features. Apple also says that FCP X should work on any modern iMac, 17" MacBook Pros and Mac Pros running OS X 10.6 or greater; Thunderbolt isn't necessary (although it will make editing much faster.) In addition, the $299 price through the App Store was a shocker--right before NAB, Avid announced that FCP users could buy Media Composer for $999, which looked like a great price until the SuperMeet.

    At the same time, it's important to keep in mind that the version shown in Las Vegas was the same version shown to a small group of outsiders by Apple in February, and the final version isn't scheduled to ship until July, so a lot of work on the product remains to be done. In addition, Apple said nothing about Motion, Color, Soundtrack Pro or Logic, what (if anything) is being done to these programs, whether Apple will still offer a bundle, etc. There's a lot that we still don't know.
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