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The Promise Of The All-Digital Video Chain

The explosion of consumer interest in plasma displays, HDTV, digital cable television, and Internet video is indisputable evidence that the proverbial digital video train has left the station. And Bruce Kaufmann, president of Professional Products, a Gaithersburg, MD-based AV design-build firm, is already onboard.

Still, some clients are rooted in a mindset that puts video quality lower on the list of priorities in managing video assets, says the firm's Director of Technology Jim Hatcher. “The bigger challenge has simply been how to manage video over a network, and for some customers, while quality is important, it's not the primary concern; that's been more along the lines of how to get video over IP at 30 frames a second in simply usable form,” Hatcher says. “But quality will improve as compression algorithms are further defined and refined.”

That broadening of the quality definition is key to understanding how customers in the pro AV space will evaluate digital video solutions, says James Dias, vice president of marketing for Sonic Foundry, a Madison, WI-based provider of rich media solutions. Though they're moving slowly to adopt digital solutions, partly because of a heavy standing investment in analog technology, Dias says clients increasingly understand the ultimate value they'll bring.

“For non-entertainment applications, video plays a very different role than most people perceive,” Dias says. “Infusing video with other data and visual elements, synchronizing them, providing interactivity, and giving a completely new, richer media experience in the process is becoming more important in business and education applications. So our focus is on looking at how video is actually used and working toward providing richer content, not just video with more pixels and better color.”

The conversion challenge

If and when a configurable DSP solution arrives for video, the task of routing a variety of video content to different display devices, from plasma and HDTV sets to projectors and desktop computers — all with different native resolutions — will be an important function to incorporate. But that challenge is being addressed now via the incorporation of various interface technologies into source and display components.

Unveiled in 1999, digital video interface (DVI) is rapidly becoming the digital interface of choice. Its most basic form, DVI-D, eliminates the analog conversion process that's needed to get visual data from a video card-equipped source device to a display such as an LCD or CRT. Utilizing a DVI port on an output device to transmit video produces an improved connection and a higher-quality image.

Another emerging interface is high-definition multimedia interface (HDMI). It's designed to transmit uncompressed digital video up to 500 meters to display devices such as HDTV displays and digital projectors, rendering a high-quality image. In addition, it incorporates high-definition content protection (HDCP), a security feature that addresses piracy issues of concern to original content creators.

Dave Barnes, president of TV One, an Erlanger, KY-based manufacturer of video conversion products that's especially active in the broadcast space, where adoption of digital video processing has been more complete, says the advent of interfaces like SDI and HDMI is an important milestone along the path to the pro AV industry's adoption of digital video processing. That path is now obstructed, in part, by a lack of video signal standards.

“Unlike the broadcast industry, which has become standardized on a couple of formats, the pro AV market is at the mercy of display manufacturers,” Barnes says. “In pro AV, it's become much more complex because the destination for a digital signal is a display unit, whereas for the broadcast market the ultimate destination is a transmitter that only accepts a particular standard. As long as display manufacturers continue making products that accept a variety of different standards, it will be difficult to make a lot of progress.”

In recognition of the growing need for a “single-box” solution to video processing and routing, Barnes' company has been developing products that come close to the “all-purpose” ideal. Though not a true DSP solution, TV One's C2-770 universal video scaler, is described as coming nearer to the ideal of “anything in-anything out” than any other conversion product on the market, according to company marketing materials. The nine-input, four-output unit combines features like scaling, up and downconversion, seamless switching, standards conversion, picture-in-picture, and frame synchronization.

Digital's role in distribution

One of the promises of the digital video chain is the ability to more efficiently distribute a variety of content to a large number of users using everything from Cat5 to fiber to IP. The latter is the focus of VBrick Systems, the Connecticut company that markets a VBrick MPEG video appliance that allows video content to be streamed over an Ethernet connection.

A recent application gave New York's Beacon City School District an alternative to its aging analog video distribution system. With VBrick's Ethernet TV system, the district, headquartered in Beacon, NY, is now able to store video digitally on a server, retrieve it, and then stream it to computer desktops or networked television sets.

Using a portable VBrick media appliance that interfaces between a video camera and a connection on the existing campus data network, events or student productions can be readily broadcast in real time. The video feed is compressed into MPEG-2 format IP video and sent across the network. “This implementation represents the cutting edge of IP video for use in large institutions,” says Michael Baker, vice president of business development for VBrick. “VBrick's EtherneTV solution takes advantage of the existing high-bandwidth networks that are ubiquitous on educational campuses and yields a cost-effective way to quickly implement high-quality video broadcasts at a fraction of the cost of traditional cable.”

The Beacon project is the first of what the systems integration company that installed the VBrick solution envisions as a possible flood of interest in similar video-over-IP applications. Rich Horowitz, founder and chief operating officer of TekConnect, a Cherry Hill, NJ-based educational technology and consulting firm, says as school districts build out data networks, interest in using it for video, in addition to voice, will grow.

“Video over IP is a natural progression from voice over IP, and with the help of the VBrick EtherneTV solution school districts can distribute digital-quality video around LANs or WANs with very little quality degradation,” Horowitz says. “Video can be stored in digital quality and rebroadcast at will and can be seen at the same quality and speed as if it were being seen live.”

Another similar digital-based video distribution product unveiled last year is the Soloist 3 Digital Media Server from Nashville, TN-based Adtec Digital. Also billed as a digital media appliance, the product combines the functions of a digital video recorder, player, switcher, and server. It provides real-time MPEG-1 and 2 encoding from analog or serial digital sources as well as real-time transcoding of DV formats from nonlinear editors through IEEE-1394.

“The box is designed to create MPEG-2 compressed bit streams from composite video and SDI for use in stored and forward applications,” says Kevin Ancelin, Adtec's president. “It allows for scheduled playback over local area network infrastructures of analog and uncompressed digital video.”

For all of its potential advantages, video processing and distribution using digital components still faces hurdles in the pro AV arena. The technology is still in its early developmental stages — something systems integrators should bear in mind as they look to develop effective client solutions, says Kaufmann, maintaining that analog equipment and processing still has a place.

“We preach to many of our customers that just because you may be distributing content via the Internet or moving to high-compression formats doesn't mean you can bypass the content creation side,” he says. “You have to start with good quality before it's compressed, or you end up with images that can look soft and blocky. To get good quality at the back end, you need good quality at the front end.”

Tom Zind is a freelance writer and researcher based in Prairie Village, KS. He has written for a variety of business-to-business publications and can be reached at tomzee1@earthlink.net.



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