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All In On NDI

NDI in the Field

To gain a broader perspective for this article, I spoke with several video pros who are currently deploying NDI out in the world for different uses.

Marty Jenoff of Focal Point Productions in Maryland loves his NDI PTZ cameras and NewTek Connect Sparks. He uses them regularly in his productions. He notes that he uses DHCP, in which a router assigns the IP addresses to all of his devices. His best practices approach for NDI deployment at an event is to first power up whatever network hardware he’s using. Next, he connects all of the NDI devices to the network and powers them up, then lets them be assigned IP addresses. Finally, he fires up his TriCaster, which, when booting up, will poll the network for NDI devices. This provides the smoothest setup.

Similarly, I’ve found that in my own experience, the “self-discovery” aspect of NDI is sometimes not as smooth as we are used to seeing from other electronic devices, such as Bluetooth headphones and the like. I’ve added an NDI device at a podium late in the setup, and when I already have had cameras and other gear set up and running, I’ve looked at the TriCaster inputs for the Spark, and sometimes it just doesn’t appear automatically. This might occur because the device is not seeing the network in enough time or because it started up before it was plugged into the network, so it self-assigned an IP address that has nothing to do with the network everything else is on.

Again, it becomes a networking issue, instead of the simple plug and play of a video cable that we’re used to. Jenoff says that he has a few BirdDog devices he’s planning to add to his kit for video output. He’s also looking forward to Canon offering NDI prosumer camcorders because he prefers his Canon cameras operationally and for the images they deliver. If he were to add new cameras to his kit, he’d like to stay with Canons so the look of the new camera versus the older camera and NDI converter wouldn’t change. He’d then have less hardware to set up
for each production.

Josh Chesarek of Simple Thought Productions in Orlando, Fla., utilizes both Wirecast and a TriCaster in his productions. Given that he started with wired connections for cameras, he still prefers that setup, but NDI has enabled him to have more cameras and inputs than the physical limitations of the hardware he uses. It’s also useful when he adds his BirdDog P200 PTZ cameras. “With just one PoE cable,” he says, “I’m able to deploy a camera and have video, audio, camera control, and power. That saves a lot of setup time.”

Even more, Chesarek likes leveraging NDI for his integration with NewBlueFX Titler so that, with macros, he can initiate the current graphics to animate out, bring in the replay, and bring in replay graphics over the top of the replay—and have it all happen easily on the TriCaster, with no need to execute each step of the process. He says he has to leverage the NDI out to provide video to BirdDog converters in overflow rooms. His workflow benefits from the convenience of low-latency delivery and not needing to send it to the cloud and then come back down from the cloud to be viewed in a room a few hundred feet away.

Chesarek agrees that the networking issues are indeed something to pay attention to when moving from a traditional video background. Topics like QoS, which ports are needed for device discovery, and non-blocking switches are all IT-type issues that new NDI users need to get acquainted with as they begin to try to deploy NDI setups using existing networks. Chesarek mentions that for the future, he’d like to see in-device recording come back for the converters. The NewTek Connect Spark had a microSD card slot for internal recording in case of a cable break or another networking issue.

In-device recording enables a producer to go back and get a clean recording from the device and rebuild the show for later delivery if needed, especially if used for computer playback from a podium, etc. Also, Chesarek notes the trade-offs required to get NDI running in cameras: Other features and in-camera recording capabilities may be reduced or disabled if NDI is activated. He’d like to see NDI as a separate add-on that doesn’t limit a given device’s existing capabilities.

Brett Beanan of Intuitive Technology Solutions in Las Vegas would best be described as a “power user” of NDI. Aside from being one of the first to deploy NDI on a live broadcast, he regularly uses it for the Barrett-Jackson Car Show, involving as many as 75 different NDI feeds. He says that what used to be 2 miles of SDI cable is now a fiber data network. Every input and output is NDI. He’s even looking at distributing signals throughout the show with 50 BirdDogs to the various TVs all around the facility and event. With NDI and some software, an individual TV can pick from the signals available on the network.

Beanan’s workflow also leverages the failover aspect of the BirdDogs, with a secondary networking structure and even a still store for situations when the network goes down. With a show this big, redundancy matters. But using NDI and an established networking backbone reduces the hours and hours it takes to test all of the rental SDI cables a producer would receive to ferret out the bad cables before deploying them around the event. Thus, NDI has actually increased the reliability of the video compared to individual failure points with a traditional SDI setup.

Beanan echoes my other interviewees in saying that networking knowledge is the challenge most producers will face coming into NDI. What is multicasting, and what does it offer? How is it deployed? What does it mean to the bandwidth needs of the network? Networking can be a bit of a mystery, and Beanan cites the example of when his crew connected their network to another production truck to share some video packages over the network.

The other truck had its switches set to use “jumbo frames” so that more data could be passed with each packet. But it turned out this seldom-used feature messed up their system. After hours of trying to figure things out, they solved the problem, but the issue indicates a growth point for NDI: troubleshooting hardware and software. 

Audinate’s Dante technology has several tools that will comb the network and reveal what devices are using old firmware that might be incompatible with a new feature or if various devices might be using the wrong clock speed, etc. Software that can “sniff” basic information over the network that needs to be in place for NDI to work properly has not yet come to market to make the NDI-heavy deployment and troubleshooting a lot easier and faster. NDI vendors claim that the protocol “just works,” and it’s great when it does. But there are still many things, such as closed ports and the like, that can disrupt NDI. The industry needs robust troubleshooting tools to assist with reliable NDI deployment at scale.

Today, even high school students are getting some firsthand experience with NDI. Tom White, who teaches video at Madison High School in Georgia, has a completely NDI-based setup for the school’s two daily news shows and for sports that happen at the school. Not only do their graphics come in via NDI and their prompter data get sent via NDI, but all of the cameras leverage NewTek’s wireless Connect Spark to be used in the studio or anywhere on campus, because it’s all one network wherever they go.

“When we were looking to move in this direction,” White says, “my first phone call was to our IT department because this is all about networking. So we needed to have the discussion as to how this was going to work, what needed to be adjusted, and what capabilities we could leverage from the IT side of things.

One result of that was that they were able to assign a high QoS to the MAC address of the Sparks. We have a fully connected campus, with lots of school devices on it, laptops, everybody’s cellphone, etc. That’s a lot of traffic on there already. When we need to send a camera to a classroom and get a reliable video signal back, the network knows that this device needs 20Mbps up to push the video signal, and it will ensure that the video has the bandwidth it needs.”

That’s been one of the challenges, White admits. A video producer planning to adopt NDI needs to gain a bit of understanding about data networking. For White, that also means explaining it to students so they understand the system as well. If there’s a video glitch for a couple of seconds, the kids know that it’s momentary and they should just keep going.

White would like to see more encode and decode on one box—especially wireless. When the cameras are out and mobile, they don’t know what the program feed is. If they want to send a prompter feed to a remote camera, having a single box with simultaneous encode and decode would be the solution for that—especially with White’s goal of a completely connected school system for elementary, middle, and high school as well as beyond. To be able to have coverage throughout means the devices need to have more capabilities built into them.

Perhaps a more unusual deployment of NDI is spearheaded by Film Play’s Brian Dickson. Film Play leverages NDI to assist with the multisystem image routing for pixel-mapping and the projection of mapped video displays. In other words, Dickson uses it more for output than for ingest, which is not typical of NDI usage. He envisions NDI as a way to overcome technical hurdles with regard to trying to do the same thing with SDI video, through a router and splitter to split the signal up the same way.

Dickson sees NDI as enabling all kinds of users to ingest and output the same broadcast-quality video content through open-source solutions like OBS and produce top-level entertainment and content. NDI’s ease of use is allowing these producers, especially in the esports world, to do things that used to require expensive hardware. “The lines between livestreaming and broadcasting are definitely blurring,” he says.

When asked what he’d like to see in NDI, Dickson sounds off about having it provide better debugging tools. He wants NDI to tell us what’s not working right and to offer tools to configure the network and scan it for issues.

While networking is the new frontier for video pros, we’re not alone in having to build this new knowledgebase. “Even lighting people are now forced to learn networking these days,” Dickson says. “DMX lights have IP addresses, and are networked together for control.” Indeed, these devices have also evolved to require much of the same knowledge.

“I wonder what the limits are,” Dickson says. “Like, how many NDI devices can I have on a network before I crash it? That information isn’t really out there. I’d be curious to really run some tests in an arena and see how many cameras we can have on the network and be able to bring into a production. Imagine a live concert where everyone on the floor has a cellphone pointed at the stage. They’re running our CrowdCam app so we can see their feed, with their hashtag, and be able to incorporate them into the show for everyone else to see. Is that possible? I’d like to find out.”

Going All In

Many people have gone all in on NDI. But how they use it can be very different from how you might want to use it. It’s not just video capture or video playback. It’s not just wired or wireless. Today’s capabilities will be built on for the next version and the version after that. NDI was only introduced in 2015. Producers are already relying on it through many sectors of the industry, from high school to big broadcast shows. It’s only going to keep getting bigger.

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There is no business or monetary connection between Anthony Burokas/Streaming Media and any of the products and companies in this article. Anthony purchased and owns the Tricaster, NewTek Spark, Asus laptop, Acer laptop, Sony camcorders, Logitech keyboard, and networking hardware. vMix provided the use of their app for this article. The Panasonic camcorders are owned by a client for whom Anthony is providing setup and integration. BirdDog's US Distributor, Broadfield Distributing, provided the loaner hardware shown. BirdDog provided use of their software mentioned for this article. To find a BirdDog reseller in the US, request help with this online form: http://broadfield.services

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