All In On NDI
Networked video is the next wave in production. IP video is part of the ATSC 3.0 specification for broadcast delivery, so there will be no escaping the migration away from video signals to data packets anywhere in the broadcast chain.
Network Device Interface (NDI), developed by NewTek, is a standard that enables the use of high-quality, low-latency video on existing and standard IP networks. With NDI, video becomes data that can be shared over a network using off-the-shelf computer networking hardware. In the short run, this doesn’t change much, because you can run an Ethernet cable to each camera or converter box just as you’d run an SDI cable. But NDI enables much more.
It could be as simple as running just one cable to the front of a conference room where a switch connects it to six different devices, as opposed to having to run six SDI cables. It could be as complex as leveraging your existing network and deploying dozens of cameras across multiple campuses, all of which feed back to a central production center. This means no one needs to cart all of that gear around anymore. It also means you can call up any camera, any audio source, or any mixing device to produce any number of programs at the same time.
Moreover, this capability extends to the internet itself. A producer could leverage a graphics artist in another city and cameras from around the world in a live show that would otherwise require a dozen outside broadcasting trucks, expensive satellite time, and a wide range of experts in each aspect of the production chain to help make it come together.
Case Study Lessons
Leveraging NDI today can start as simply as adding some on-camera converters to cameras you already have. Software-based video mixers have quickly moved to incorporate NDI, so your TriCaster, vMix, Wirecast, OBS, Livestream, etc., are all ready to add NDI sources into the mix. There are also numerous converters available from the likes of BirdDog, NewTek, Magewell (Figure 1, below), and Kiloview. If you need a pan-tilt-zoom (PTZ) camera head, these have had NDI-enabled models available for some time already. These NDI heads also accept Power over Ethernet (PoE), so with one cable, you can have power, video, audio, camera control, and additional capability. For instance, BirdDog has software to offer crew communications (coms) across the NDI backbone as well.
Figure 1. Magewell Pro Convert NDI to HDMI
I was tasked with putting together a forward-looking solution for GM Financial’s in-house video production team (Figure 2, below). We settled on the TriCaster as the mixer because it has a similar operational look and feel to the hardware video mixers they already use. We picked the new 4K TriCaster Mini, which offers four built-in PoE ports, as well as two other Ethernet ports for networking. Each port is its own network interface card (NIC), so there’s no communication between them. While the TriCaster itself can see all of the connected devices, you’re not able to utilize the built-in PoE ports for, say, a BirdDog coms system to each camera.
Figure 2. Components of the NDI-driven rig I built for GM Financial
Realizing this brought to light one key aspect of NDI that you might not expect: It is as liberated, and as limited, as any network device and network infrastructure you have in place. As a result, you need to become a lot more knowledgeable about networking, IP setup, DHCP, or manual addressing. For the traditional “plug-and-play” video pro, this is a whole other world, so moving to NDI has a bit of a learning curve. That said, the advantages far outweigh the additional understanding required.
For this kit, we bought three of Panasonic’s AG-CX350 camcorders (Figure 3, below). These are the first camcorders to offer built-in NDI capability (with an additional license purchase and activation). As networked camcorders, there’s a lot they can do, and NDI is just one networked feature, so they’re not set up to do NDI out of the box. You have to adjust several in-camera networking settings before you even attempt to activate the NDI on the camera. Again, it’s not as simple as plugging in an SDI cable and getting video out.
Figure 3. The Panasonic AG-CX350
Additionally, in a corporate setting, you’ll have the further hurdle of a locked-down networking environment. This affected us as soon as we turned on our TriCaster Mini. We had to register the license in order to be able to use the TriCaster at all. To do that required an internet connection. We couldn’t just plug the TriCaster into the GM Financial Ethernet network because it was not an approved device. For security and protection of all of the devices within the company, unknown devices get nothing. I know other companies that had to send their TriCaster to the IT department to have the corporate software installed on the machine so they could plug into the corporate network for internet connectivity. This corporate software can have an adverse effect on the performance of the tools.
We managed to get ours activated by using a smartphone USB tethered to a new router we purchased, which then shared the connection to the TriCaster and to the other connected devices. This is key, because getting the NDI license for the Panasonic cameras also requires an unrestricted connection to the internet.
You’ll need a computer with NDI Tools and NDI Studio Monitor to access the Panasonic over your own local area network (LAN). Then, when you click the Register button, it will take you to the NewTek online store, where you can purchase the NDI license. Next, in NDI Studio Monitor, you navigate to the window for the CX350 and enter the activation code there. It will again reach across the internet to reverify everything. Now your camera is activated and able to deliver NDI video without an internet connection.
The takeaway is that you should be prepared to spend some time setting things up initially with any of the new network-reliant tools. Have a direct connection to the outside internet in order to get your gear set up to work within your intranet.
Live-event video production during COVID has rapidly accelerated the use of NDI output from popular conferencing tools such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams, particularly for one-to-many broadcasts in which remote contributors are the norm. This article will explain how to enable NDI in Zoom and Microsoft Teams for higher-quality input sources into your live-streaming workflow.
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