NAB 2014: The year everything changed

I have been back from NAB 2014 in Las Vegas for a week now and I am still a bit overwhelm. This is strange for me as I had became a bit blasé by those trade shows through the years. Usually, progress is incremental and doesn’t change things fundamentally.

There have been time when you can feel that something is making a difference. Big changes were more noticeable in the 90s when we made the move from analog to digital, from tape-based editing to disk-based and when virtual sets appeared.

Since then, it has been mostly incremental. Not this year. We reached an inflection point, the moment in time when it became easy to transmit uncompressed, baseband digital video over ethernet. With standard network topologies reaching connection speed of 40 and 100 Gigabits per second, transmitting a stream of HD (1.5 Gbps), 4K (6 Gbps) of even 8K (24 Gbps) is now possible and in some cases simpler than with dedicated SDI type interfaces (I have simplified the bit rate since it varies with factors such as pixel depth and frame rates).

There was a number of demonstrations that did showcase just that on the show floor. Imagine Communication (former Harris Broadcast), Snell/Quantel and Evertz where all presenting their version of that demonstration. Snell was presenting it in collaboration with Cisco and I think that Imagine was doing it with Brocade but I am not sure (and could not find any mention of it with a quick search on the Internet).

A friend of mine working for a large vendor that did not present such a demo was telling me that it is not yet economical to do that. In terms of cost, an HD-SDI port is just over $10 while an high speed ethernet one is still runs for a few hundreds dollars. That of course doesn’t take into account the video routers and the complexity of control when you have distinct architecture for video data and control but it is still a significant gap. Still, he admitted that now it was just a question of cost and that it was not a matter of “if” it will all go on the Internet but a question of “when”. And you can bet that with the mass production technique of the computer industry, this point can’t be too far away in the future.

An executive from a large vendor of production technologies who also didn’t have such a demonstration believed that this was still a bit early for an “all ethernet” television facility but that it was something that they were welcoming. Their production switcher technologies is already dealing with bit stream and receiving and sending signals through ethernet was only making things simpler for them and not reducing the value of their offering.

I agree with him that for mainstream application it may be not practical yet. For one, there is no production camera yet that output baseband. Sony has control over ethernet and there is some JVC camera that output a compressed stream through ethernet but not yet a true full quality studio camera that has all signal available on a high speed ethernet port.

A company that was exhibiting at NAB wants to bridge the gap by offering glue products to link HD-SDI equipped device to ethernet and that company is Embrionix and while their offering is still limited in the IP world they are moving quickly in that direction.

Regardless, whether we use glue to integrate legacy equipment or if we gradually integrates fully networked products to the television workflows, we are clearly beginning a new era. Once we leave behind dedicated technologies, we are free to delocalized totally the production workflow. As long as we have enough bandwidth and good management tools, the complexity of linking people that are not co-located disappear. No longer do we have to restrict the production environment to a physical space, we can explode it in any ways we think it’s best for a particular situation.

This is true not only for a single organisation but this can extend to anyone that wants to collaborate. Avid and Adobe have begun notable effort to enable worldwide collaboration by adopting models that are similar to Salesforce.com. It may still not be to the level that we want to achieve but it is clearly moving in that direction.

The commoditization  of the uncompressed video signal by the transition from a purpose-built infrastructure (SDI/HD-SDI) to a general network topology (ethernet/IP) also lower considerably the barrier to entry to those who wants to provide production tools. Basically, everything is becoming software. NAB 2014 marks an inflection point, this is the dawn of a new era, hang-on tight, it’s going to be a wild ride!

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