Streams of Thought: Everything Old Is New Again

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Many of us are just back from the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) show as I write this. Attendance was down a bit—quite a bit if you ask the cabbies—but word from the vendors is that the quality of booth visitors was up.

"Traffic through our booth was better than ever, both in quantity and quality," says Mike Nann of Digital Rapids. "Overall our qualified leads were up, and [there were] lots of people very serious about buying in the near future."

There were several trends at the show, including the continued ascent of H.264 for both standard-definition and high-definition content. Although one of the lead pioneers in the format—Apple—wasn’t there, numerous companies showed off live H.264 encoding solutions.

Broadcast International, a satellite service provider, has been working on a technology for about 6 years that will provide the ability to transcode between multiple codecs. This idea came about a few years ago when the company created its own decoder, which was designed to handle almost every compression so that set-top boxes could receive any content and decode it. But the rise of H.264 has caused the company to shift gears and focus on transcoding rather than decoding in a system named CodecSys, which Broadcast International calls a "video operating system."

"We have our own decoder that would enable us to even compress farther down," said Broadcast International’s CEO Rodney Tiede. "We are staying in an H.264 standard just because that’s what everyone is looking for today."

Two rival compression approaches were also touted at NAB. Microsoft continued its push forward with VC-1, buoyed by its Silverlight 2.0 demonstration, while Sun Microsystems announced it was building what it called a "royalty-free and open video codec" H.264 equivalent.

"There are key markets like the web that need, for the Web 2.0 experience, a foundation of royalty-free for the media element," said Rob Glidden of Sun’s TV & Media division. Given the fact that Sun’s Open Media System is based on an H.26x implementation, it would have the potential to be somewhat compatible with H.263 and possibly baseline H.264 profiles.

Another trend at the show was toward HD content, which isn’t surprising given NAB’s emphasis on broadcast technologies. The continued rollout of disk-based and other tapeless systems means that content acquisition and editing in HD will continue to become faster.

Focus Enhancements even showed off its FireStore FS-5 hard disk recorder, which has the ability to add metadata to shots on-the-fly via the use of a USB Wi-Fi card plugged directly into the FS-5 and linked to an iPod Touch for shot logging and metadata insertion. I was delighted to find this addition to the FireStore line, as I’d been reminiscing at dinner the evening before with Mark Randall—now with Adobe but also a founder of NewTek, Play, Inc., and Serious Magic—about Play’s old Pocket Producer shot logger.

"I’ve always said I would have never created tools like Pocket Producer if I were a better filmmaker, but I found that some of my crutches were also helpful to other people," said Randall, adding that the Palm-based product may have been ahead of its time.

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