Technology

3D: Hot Tech Ticket at NAB

Networks focus on pushing visual envelope in wake of Avatar’s runaway success 3/22/2010 07:06:00 AM Eastern

The big thing at this year’s National Association
of Broadcasters convention in Las Vegas:
3D technology. The need to go 3D was
amped up by the stunning success of James
Cameron’s film Avatar, which used stereoscopic
3D effects to create a highly immersive
film experience. Just after Avatar
reaped huge box-office dollars over the holidays, ESPN
and Discovery, in partnership with Sony and IMAX,
showed up at CES in January and announced they were
working on two new 3D networks.

Offering 3D will take plenty of new equipment and
technology, both of which will be a focus for networks
at this year’s NAB. The convention is lending a hand by
providing its Content Theater for the third year. There,
creators will talk about designing stereoscopic 3D effects
in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland and DreamWorks’
How to Train Your Dragon, while ESPN will host its own
session on how to produce sports content in 3D.

Besides 3D, networks have plenty of other needs, from
the mundane—automated quality control equipment and
cheap storage—to high-end and customized gear.

NAB runs from April 10 to 15, but networks are making
their plans for the show now. Says Bob Zitter, HBO’s
chief technology offi cer: “Typically, we have pre-NAB
meetings with major suppliers so that by the time we’re
at NAB, we’re only looking at items we’ve already been
turned on to.”

CBS: HD REWIND

Bob Ross and his CBS engineering team will be taking a fresh look
at high-definition studio cameras and graphics systems, as several
smaller internal studios at the CBS Broadcast Center in New York
still need to make the move from SD to HD.
In many ways, it will be a repeat performance
of NAB visits from five to seven years ago.

“We’re going to renew the database on
where everybody is, and see what’s really
changed in the landscape,” says Ross, CBS’
senior VP of East Coast operations. “We’ll
look at what’s new, what’s broken, and what
the cost/benefit ratios are with the new gear.”

Ross notes that some of today’s smaller HD
cameras “can make absolutely gorgeous 1080i
pictures.” But he still wants to make sure that
any camera CBS purchases will accept a large
studio lens and will be substantial enough
to be driven by a standard camera operator.
“There are a variety of ways of satisfying
those requirements,” he says.

CBS has a range of graphics systems, including
Vizrt template-based graphics, and continues
to evaluate changes in that marketplace.
Ross has looked at online-based systems like
Chyron’s Axis product, which renders graphics at a remote server and
then delivers them over the Internet, but hasn’t found any of them to
be a good fit for CBS’ needs. He does like the overall trend in graphics
hardware, though, which is for more power in a smaller package.

“It wasn’t so long ago that you needed multiple frames of equipment
to render a graphic,” Ross says. “Now, a single rack-mountable
PC allows you to do template graphics.”

Elsewhere on the news front, Ross will be taking a look at production
automation systems from several vendors on behalf of the CBSowned
stations. Snell and Sony both bowed production-assist systems
at last year’s NAB, entering a market controlled by Grass Valley and
Ross Video, and Ross expects more new entrants this year.

CBS won’t be looking at much master-control
gear, as it has begun using parts of its new
Media Distribution Center (MDC), a 32,000-
square-foot, multi-million-dollar file-based
origination facility that the network began
building in January 2007. The MDC architecture
uses Harris Nexio servers to ingest
content at Television City in Los Angeles and
sends it via fiber to New York, where it is held
on NetApps storage arrays for a short period
before being played to air off the Nexio servers.
Software vendors for the MDC include
Pilat Media for program scheduling and OmniBus
for playout automation.

“It’s so big, it’s the project that will never
be completed,” Ross jokes. “But it’s on the
air in various dayparts, and we’re finishing
up training of some people. There are parts
that are fully operational, like ingest of commercials
and ingest of material from the West
Coast. We’re very happy with the overall system
architecture and design, and it’s working.”

Ross will evaluate new 3D hardware at NAB, though he doesn’t
expect to worry about storing and playing out 3D programming for
some time, as early 3D efforts have focused on live events like sports.
He’ll also be looking for innovative solutions to old problems, such
as an app that one monitoring company has already created for the
Apple iPhone that allows an operator to remotely monitor terminal gear. Another vendor has created an iPhone app that uses the unit’s
internal camera and compass to indicate how to align a satellite dish
to pick up a particular satellite.

“That used to take three or four pieces of equipment, including
an inclinometer and a compass,” Ross points out. “Now there’s an
iPhone app that literally allows you to hold the phone up and see the
satellite you want. Having struggled with that stuff for years, I found
that one particularly interesting.”

ESPN: 3D RAMP-UP

ESPN is getting ready to launch its 3D network on June 11, starting
with the broadcast of the FIFA World Cup from South Africa.
Two months before that, ESPN
will produce back-nine coverage
of The Masters golf tournament
in Augusta, Ga., in 3D that will
be telecast by Comcast on a special
channel.

“We have a slate of 85 events
over the next year on our schedule,”
says Kevin Stolworthy,
ESPN’s senior VP of technology.
“We’ve produced a couple
of events so far, and we’re gearing
up to do a lot more. It’s a big
learning curve for everyone.”

That learning curve starts with
production, according to Stolworthy:
“3D is about being immersed.
In 2D, you throw a lot of graphics
and fast cuts at the viewer. In 3D,
if we cut too fast, it’s overwhelming. We want you to feel like you’re
a part of the action.”

While ESPN already has relationships with Sony and other wellknown
3D vendors, “at NAB, we are looking for vendors with whom
we are not as familiar,” Stolworthy says. “We think there’s going to
be a lot more people out there with new 3D equipment, software and
production tools after the announcements at CES.”

Beyond 3D, ESPN also is looking for better ways to automate its
production, while producing higher-quality content. “We’re looking
at automated tools, such as automated control rooms, to shrink the
amount of personnel that we need to produce content,” Stolworthy
says. “We’re also looking at low-cost master control solutions. We
want to produce more content for digital platforms or other opportunities,
and we want to do it as cost-efficiently as possible.”

That also means investing in new editing and transcoding equipment,
as each piece of content has to work a little harder. A single
clip is likely to end up on one or more of ESPN’s cable networks,
its Websites or its mobile offerings.

“We produce a lot of product here, so we’re always looking for next-generation
tools to speed up that process,” Stolworthy says. “What we
would like is to be able to do the transcoding and distribution of any
given clip in real-time. That’s what we’re really looking for.”

Last year, ESPN built out its new Los Angeles plant around a
1080p infrastructure, and ESPN is still seeking more 1080p production
tools to flesh out that facility. “From switchers to edit tools to
graphics to routers, you name it, we’re looking for it,” he says.

ESPN’s commitment to converting to 1080p coincides with its
plans to offer 3D. “1080P eventually gives us more bandwidth
for 3D, which should allow us to give consumers a better experience,”
Stolworthy says. “I’m not predicting that everything we do
will be in 3D, but it’s an exciting way to offer marquee events.”

HBO: ON THE GO

Premium network HBO is focused on building an internal architecture
that, among other things, supports its rollout of HBO Go, the
network’s anywhere, anytime online offering for subscribers that’s
currently in beta testing.

“We’re building a mezzanine-level system to handle all of our
content,” says HBO CTO Bob Zitter. “That includes everything
from workflow management systems
to digital asset management
systems, as well as the infrastructure
that’s required to tie all that
equipment and software together
at high data rates. In this case,
that means 5-gigabit Internetprotocol
and fiber systems.

“Putting all of that at the mezzanine
level lets us ingest and
store our content at a higher level
from which we can create broadcast,
home-video and Internet
assets,” Zitter adds. “This way,
we’re doing it at a higher quality
using native frame rates and
resolutions. Doing that makes
everything come out better and
work more efficiently.”

HBO is a bit ahead of its time in terms of its platform needs, so the
network is waiting and watching for some equipment to come online
while it’s customizing its own software in other cases.

“Some of this technology is just coming into place for the JPEG
2000 format we’re planning on using,” Zitter says. “We’re just now
seeing equipment be produced that allows us to operate at that level.
We’ve been doing on-demand television for about 10 years, and
using asset and workflow management systems that we developed
in-house because there weren’t any 10 years ago.”

That doesn’t mean HBO isn’t interested in new software-based
management solutions, but it doesn’t expect one package to come
along that will be able to handle all of the network’s needs.

“By the end of this year, we will have implemented a system
where we have all of our content in its native highest-quality form,
and then we’ll have all the transcoding and management systems in
place to create the different versions we need,” Zitter explains. “We
have as many as 16,000 assets a month representing different versions
of HBO programs that need to go on different platforms.”

A bit further off, HBO is eyeing 3D. “3D is something that
we’re looking at technically, but it’s very early in the game,” Zitter
says.

Because HBO has output deals with major film studios such as
Fox, Universal and Warner Bros.—producers of films such as Avatar,
How to Train Your Dragon, Clash of the Titans and the Harry Potter
franchise—HBO likely will be forced to get on the 3D bandwagon
sooner rather than later. As Zitter puts it: “We’re looking at what’s
necessary to make 3D happen in our broadcast distribution plant.”

TURNER: MOVING FAST
Turner is “moving full speed ahead” on 3D, says
Ron Tarasoff, Turner’s VP of broadcast technology
and engineering. “We see it as a viable way of
transmitting in the future.”

That said, Turner is starting out by testing and
waiting for 3D standards bodies to set some guideline
before jumping in with both feet. “There are
many different possibilities in how you produce
and distribute content in 3D,” Tarasoff says. “We
need to look very carefully at what will help us
with 3D delivery. We’re almost at the same point
we were many years ago with HD. There’s this big
push toward 3D, and there’s very little 3D equipment
out there. There are still many different possibilities in how
you produce and distribute content in 3D.”

In the meantime, Turner has more immediate and practical needs,
almost all of which revolve around how to automate processes more
effectively. For example, Turner is looking at better, faster ways of
transcoding its file-based content so it can play on an array of platforms.
“We’re working on ways to do that more efficiently and at
a larger volume so we can get it out to content partners almost immediately
after it airs,” Tarasoff says.

Turner also is seeking equipment that more efficiently performs
up- and downconversions of content from HD to SD and vice versa,
as well as automated quality control equipment that reliably checks
incoming programs and commercials for errors
before content ends up on-air.

“Commercials represent money,” Tarasoff points
out. “You don’t want to put a commercial on-air if
there’s something wrong with it.”

Tarasoff also is looking for equipment that automatically
regulates sound quality and video formats.
“Surround sound is getting more important as
people get better TV sets,” he says. “We need to do
a very good job of monitoring that on our end.”

Similarly, Tarasoff would like to automate converting
video to a 16:9 or 4:3 format. Turner still operates
SD and HD feeds, so a movie might air in 16:9
on TNT HD while it’s in 4:3 on TNT’s SD net.

And the House of Representatives last year
passed the Commercial Advertisement Loudness Mitigation Act
(CALM), which now awaits action in the Senate. Should that pass, it
would force Turner and all networks to look into gear to help comply
with the new law.

“We take a look at everything, and we want to be involved with
everything,” Tarasoff says. “The marketplace is really going to decide
what succeeds and what fails, so we want to gain experience with every
one of these things. If one of them succeeds more wildly than another,
we will already have the ability to move ahead in that particular
area. If we didn’t do that, who knows? Five years from now, we could
look back and say there was this one technology we weren’t involved
with and now we aren’t in that game.”

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