Business, Video

Digital in the Desert: An overview of NAB 2015.

“Wireless 4K drones over IP.” That’s how one of my colleagues summarized the annual NAB trade show this year. And although that characterization sounds a bit absurd, it wasn’t far off the mark. Indeed; the show this year featured 4K (UHDTV and DCI), wireless connectivity, drones everywhere and tons of video streaming.

Fascinating Show
NAB continues to be a fascinating show. For the few readers who don’t know, the letters “NAB” stand for National Association of Broadcasters, a Washington DC-based trade organization that goes all the way back to 1922. NAB has been hosting this annual get-together in Las Vegas since the late 1970s and this year’s event drew well over 100,000 attendees.

What makes the show “fascinating” is that it has been able to change with the times as the traditional focus on broadcasting diminishes. My first NAB show was 20 years ago when manufacturers of transmitters, antennas, satellite links, audio mixers, video switchers, cameras and microphones dominated the Las Vegas Convention Center.

Back then, it was nothing to pay $30K to $50K for a good composite video camera. HD cameras were still waiting in the wings, with early analog models selling for well over $100,000. Non-linear editing was in its infancy, with the likes of Avid, Media 100, Boxx and others promoting their very expensive systems for high-end production. Digital Betacam had launched a few years earlier and proprietary digital formats such as DVCam and DVCPro grabbed everyone’s interest.

What a difference two decades makes! Now, you can buy portable 4K (4096×2160) cameras for less than $3000. Almost all video is recorded to inexpensive, removable flash memory. And what it took an Avid system to edit back in ’95 can be done on your laptop with a $100 copy of Adobe Premiere today.

Some readers may remember the Streaming Video pavilion in the Central Hall at this show back in 1999. There, dozens of small startup companies had booths showing how they could push 320×240-resolution video (“dancing postage stamps”) over 10 megabit and 100 megabit Ethernet connections, and not always reliably. (Not surprisingly, most of those companies were gone a year later.)

Today, companies such as Harmonic, Elemental, Ericsson, Ateme and the Fraunhofer Institute routinely demonstrate 4K (3840×2160) video through 1GigE networks at a data rate of 15Mb/s, using 65-inch and 84-inch 4K video screens to demonstrate the picture quality. 4K file storage and editing “solutions” are everywhere, as are the first crop of reference-quality 4K displays using LCD and OLED technology.

In some ways, the NAB show resembles InfoComm. Many of the exhibitors at NAB have also set up shop at InfoComm, waiting for the commercial AV channel to embrace digital video over IP networks. (It’ll happen…just be patient.) In the NAB world, video transport over IP using optical fiber backbones is quite the common occurrence, although it’s still a novelty to our world. (Haven’t you heard? Fiber is good for you!)

Today’s NAB
So what is NAB all about now? The traditional broadcast-related exhibits have largely retreated to the north end of the Central Hall and part of the North Hall. In their place, you’ll see companies as diverse as GoPro (portable “action” cameras, even with 4K resolution) and DJI (drones, drones and more drones). Stalwarts such as JVC, Sony, Hitachi and Panasonic still exhibit, although with smaller booths and a different focus.

The largest booth at the show was occupied by Canon, which says a lot about being in the glass business! Canon’s exhibits were so large that they actually straddled an aisle and featured everything from long lenses to reference LCD monitors, projectors, cameras and even file storage. Blackmagic Design also had a mammoth booth in the South Hall, selling value-priced gadgets, such as camcorders, video switchers, format converters and LCD monitors.

Across the way, Grass Valley (Belden) was showing cameras, production tools and streaming in its humongous booth. To show you just how much this industry has changed in even a decade, Grass Valley is now owned by Belden. Yup, those cable guys from Indiana have done very well for themselves, and also picked up Miranda (multiviewers) a few years ago.

And it’s probably no surprise that Adobe occupied a football field-size booth in the South Hall that was continuously jammed with spectators eager to see the latest in Photoshop, Premiere and other software packages found in post-production suites. A stone’s throw away, Red packed them in with demos of its 4K cameras and a preview of its Dragon 8K camera system (body only).

Product Breakthroughs
So, what were the big product breakthroughs at NAB? I spent 3½ days wandering around the aisles and managed to find some gems among the crowds. Here are a few of them.

-Panasonic unveiled its first laser-powered three-chip DLP projector, and it’s a doozy. Using a short-throw lens, the Panasonic guys lit up a 10-foot-diagonal screen with 12,000 lumens at WUXGA (1920×1200) resolution from the PT-RZ12KU. It uses a blue laser to excite a yellow-green color wheel and create white light, which is then refracted into red, green and blue light for imaging. The projector weighs just 95 pounds, and the demo used an ultra-short-throw lens positioned about 12 to 16 inches in front of the screen.

-Vitec had what may be the world’s first portable HEVC H.265 encoder, the MGW Ace. Unlike most of the H.265 demos at the show, this product does everything in hardware with a dedicated H.265 compression chip (most likely from Broadcom). And it is small, at about three-fourths of a rack wide. Inputs include 3G/SDI, composite video (yep, that’s still around), HDMI and DVI, with support for embedded and serial digital audio. Two Ethernet ports complete the I/O complement.

-Canon took the wraps off a new reference monitor. The DP-V2410 4K reference display has 4096×2160 pixels of resolution (the DCI 4K standard) and uses an IPS LCD panel that is capable of showing high dynamic range (HDR), usually defined as at least 15 stops of light. It supports the ITU BT.2020 color space, can upscale 2K content to 4K and will run off 24 volts DC for field use.

-Arri showed a 65mm digital camera, resurrecting a format that goes back to the 1950s. The actual resolution of the camera sensor is 5120×2880, or “5K” as Arri calls it. This sensor size is analogous to the old 6cm x 6cm box cameras made by Rollei and Yashica, and there is quite a bit of data flowing from this camera when it records! (Can you say “terabytes of storage?”)

-Blackmagic Design drew a crowd to see its Micro Cinema Camera, and it is indeed tiny. The sensor size is Super 16 (mm) and is capable of capturing 13 stops of light. RAW and Apple ProRes recording formats are native, and Blackmagic has also included an expansion port “…featuring PWM and S.Bus inputs for airplane remote control. (Can you say “drone?”) And all of this for just $995….

-JVC Kenwood still does a robust business in video cameras, and announced three 4K models. The least expensive of the group is the GY-HM200, which uses a 2/3″ sensor with a 12x zoom lens that becomes 24x when recording 2K footage. JVC says it will deliver 3840×2160 video frames with 4:2:2 color at 50Mb/s. There’s also a streaming processor onboard that will work with WiFi and 4G LTE networks, and can stream directly to websites. (Recall what I said earlier about how inexpensive cameras have become: This model will retail for $2995.)

-RED’s booth showed the prototype of a new 8K (7680×4320) camera body that will capture video at 6K resolution from 1 to 100 frames per second. In 4K (3840×2160) mode, the Dragon can record footage as fast as 150 frames per second. (Both of these are in RAW mode.) Data transfer (writing speeds) was listed at 300Mb/s, and the camera has built-in wireless connectivity.

-Over in the NTT booth, a demonstration was being made of “the first H.265 HEVC encoder ever to perform 4K 4:2:2 encoding in real time.” I’m not sure if that was true, but it was a cool demo: NTT (aka Nippon Telephone & Telegraph) researchers developed the NARA processor to reduce power consumption and save space over existing software/hardware-based encoders. And it comes with extension interfaces to encode video with even higher resolution.

Side-By-Side Demo
-Sony had side-by-side comparisons of standard dynamic range (SDR) and high dynamic range (HDR) footage using the new BVM-X300 30-inch HDR OLED display. This is the third generation of OLED reference monitor products to come out of the Sony labs, and it’s a doozy, with 4096×2160 resolution (3G-SDI Quad-link up to 4096×2160/48p/50p/60p) and coverage of the DCI P3 minimum color space. The monitor can also reproduce about 80% of the new BT.2020 color gamut. Peak brightness (scene to scene) is about 800 nits, and color reproduction is very accurate with respect to flesh tones and pastels.

-Drones dominated the show, with powerhouse DJI setting up in the central hall and an entire section of the rear south hall devoted to a drone “fly-off” competition. Nearby, a pavilion featured nothing but drones, cameras, accessories and even wireless camera links such as Amimon’s Connex 5GHz system. (You may recognize this as a variant of the company’s WHDI wireless HDMI product.)

The FAA has released revised rules for flying drones that allow a maximum height of 500 feet and maximum speed of 100mph, with daylight-only visual line-of-sight (VLOS) operation. A drone (or, more accurately, unmanned aircraft) can’t weigh more than 55 pounds and is not allowed to fly over people “not involved with the operation.” It’s not certain that last restriction would rule out using drones to get high-angle aerial footage at concerts and sporting events; we’ll have to wait and see.

Fine-Pitch Displays
-Fine-pitch indoor and outdoor LED displays are a growing market. Both Leyard and Panasonic showed large LED displays with 1.6mm dot pitch, which isn’t much larger than what you would have found on a 768p-resolution plasma display from 15 years ago. The color quality and contrast on these displays was quite impressive and you have to stand pretty close to notice the pixel structure, unlike the more commonly-used 6mm and 10mm pitch for outdoor LED displays. Brightness on these displays is in the thousands of nits (talk about high-dynamic range!).

-Speaking of HDR, Dolby had a demonstration in its booth of new UHDTVs from Vizio that incorporate Dolby’s version of high dynamic range. Vizio showed a prototype product a year ago at CES and it now appears close to delivery. The target brightness for peak white will be well over 1000 nits, but the challenge for any LCD panel is being able to show extremely low levels of gray, near black.

-For interfacing challenges, Corning once again set up show in Las Vegas, this time to exhibit long fiberoptic cables for extending USB 3.0 signals. In addition to 50-foot and 100-foot USB extensions, Corning also showed 200-foot Thunderbolt (PCI Express over DisplayPort) extenders. All of these products use multimode fiber and LED light emitters, taking power from the DP or USB connections.

-While we’re on the topic of fiber, thinklogical took the wraps off its TLX uncompressed 4K signal distribution and switching system. TLX can carry a 4K/30p signal over a single multimode fiber cable and 4K/60p over two multimode fibers. (The need for a second fiber is due to the interface speed, not the limitations of multimode fiber!) A unique input connector accepts both HDMI 1.4/2.0 or DisplayPort 1.2 and converts TMDS signals to packets for transmission through a TLX 640 optical router.

Just For Fun
-Just for fun, NHK was back again with its extension demo area of 8K acquisition, image processing and broadcasting. (Yes, NHK is broadcasting 8K in Tokyo, and has been doing so for a few years.) Among the cooler things in the booth were a 13-inch 8K OLED display (which almost seems like an oxymoron) and an impressive demonstration of 8K/60 and 8K/120 shooting and playback. On the 120Hz side of the screen, there was no blur whatsoever of footage taken during a soccer match. And NHK also has a compact four-pound 8K camera head that can be fitted to a Steadicam rig. (And you’re just getting your head around 4K?)

The third day of the show featured the notorious John McAfee (yes, that John McAfee) as the keynote speaker at the NAB Technology Luncheon. Escorted by a security detail, McAfee walked up on stage and proceeded to warn everyone about the security risks inherent in loading apps onto phones and tablets. (Come to think of it, why does a flashlight app for my phone need permission to access my contact list and my camera?) As quickly as he appeared, McAfee disappeared and provided a nice finish to the show.

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