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Apple and Intel’s Thunderbolt Could Revolutionize Portable Live Streaming Production

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Formerly known as LightPeak during its two-year testing phase at Intel, the Thunderbolt 10 gigabit-per-second optical transport technology available today on new Apple MacBook Pro laptops may significantly change live field production streaming.

Jan Ozer provided a good overview of laptop production in a recent StreamingMedia.com article, showing how a portable machine could be used for encoding of a single video input stream.

For video mixing, however, the use of a laptop has been limited by both connectivity options and the processing required for HD production. The advent of Thunderbolt, along with the joint release of quad-core i7 processors in laptops, though, has enough throughput to allow multiple uncompressed HD streams to flow in to and out of the laptop. The potential for video mixing and streaming, plus external connectivity to multiple cameras and monitors can't be understated, given the throughput and multiple-protocol basis for Thunderbolt.

The new Intel technology is so small that it fits a 10Gbps electrical connector within the same Mini DisplayPort connector that Apple added to its previous-generation MacBook Pro and iMac line of personal computers.

The Mini DisplayPort connector itself was a much smaller version of the DisplayPort connector, yet was able to drive external displays with images up to 2560×1600 pixels (typically used in high-resolution 27-30" monitors). Licensing of the fee-free mini DisplayPort connector has seen slow, but consistent adoption over the past few months, thanks to the Video Electronics Standards Association's (VESA) adoption of the technology, with Dell, HP, and Toshiba launching laptops in the past year that use the Mini DisplayPort connector.

Intel, for its part, had been making progress with an optical connector for laptops and desktops, capable of supporting FireWire, USB, eSATA and-it now appears-multiple monitors. The company sees the potential of aligning this very-high-speed optical technology with a variety of connectors, including as an extra optical slot on a power connector, which could allow it to travel to a wall power supply and then break out into Ethernet, allowing laptop manufacturers to eliminate another large connector on the side of a laptop.

An attempt to marry the Thunderbolt optical transport with the USB connector met with resistance from the USB Implementers Forum, which is pushing the alternate 5Gbps copper connector of USB 3.0, which is a larger connector than today's ubiquitous USB 2.0 connector.

"USB connectors are not general purpose connectors," the Forum wrote in a statement several months ago, "and are not designed to be used in support of other technology applications or standards or as combo connectors."

While it's unlikely that one would use Thunderbolt just as a basic break-out dongle in place of multiple USB or FireWire connectors-the two most prevalent connections for external cameras-it is likely that Thunderbolt will drive a slimming-down of ultraportable laptops for this purpose: if the thickness of a Mini DisplayPort connector, about 2/3 the thickness of USB, becomes the common denominator, laptops with flash-memory storage could continue to slim down.

Also, for computers with a robust graphics processor, the combination of the Mini DisplayPort and Thunderbolt will certainly support the connection of a single monitor and its multiple USB or FireWire connections, eliminating the need for Apple to use a dual USB and Mini DisplayPort cable for its upcoming monitors.

The question arises, though, as to whether a modification to newer AMD-based graphics cards can also be used to drive multiple monitors from a single Thunderbolt-equipped laptop. With the advent of the newer MacBook Pros, which use AMD graphics cards supporting OpenGL, the potential exists for connection of multiple monitors to a single laptop via the Thunderbolt connection. AMD last year created a graphics card with multiple Mini DisplayPort connectors-the Radeon HD 5870 Eyefinity 6 Edition-that topped out with 2GB of graphics memory (GDDR5) and six mini DisplayPort outputs (up to 5760x2160 pixels).

Beyond the ability to connect to external monitors, the optical connector may eliminate the bottleneck faced on many laptops today: the ability to only connect one FireWire or two USB cameras to the computer. This limitation is as much an operating system issue as it is a connector real-estate issue, and the limited number of USB and FireWire connectors has remained constant over the past five years.

If Thunderbolt can help eliminate these bottlenecks, or even allow 3-5 uncompressed HD cameras to be connected directly to the laptop-or a near-field breakout box that also allows attached external storage-then the technology will significantly change the way that live video and streaming production from a laptop is accomplished.

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