Amsterdam's High-Def Jam

Tech innovations and mobile video wow IBC attendees
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Europe's strides in making high-definition television widely available was the big story at the International Broadcasting Convention last week, as more than 41,000 attendees from across the globe trekked to Amsterdam to discuss the latest technology trends.

While the gear on display was designed to help broadcasters send content to everything from the smallest cellphone to the largest HD plasma screen, it seemed every exhibitor had the same goal: to offer the smartest, fastest, most versatile and least expensive device.

The show also gave U.S. attendees a chance to see working versions of gear they saw in prototype at last year's NAB show, including the much anticipated Panasonic P2 HD mini-camcorder.

MORE TAPELESS OFFERINGS

Talk of tapeless gear was prevalent. As was reported here last week, Grass Valley introduced its Infinity camera and deck. Not to be outdone, Sony offered details about the first products in its next-generation XDCAM HD Blu-Ray disk lineup. Available next year, the PDW-F330 camcorder and PDW-F30 and F-70 decks use the MPEG Long GOP technology to record HD images at 18, 25 or 35 megabits per second (Mbps).

“That lets the user maximize the picture quality and recording duration,” says Olivier Bovis, Sony Europe, marketing manager, business development, Professional Solutions Europe.

Sony's camcorder will cost around $22,000, the decks $18,000-$22,000. Bovis says the gear is more user-friendly than Grass Valley's new line. “Right now, we have 30 companies supporting XDCAM,” he says. “We think that shows that it isn't a 'proprietary format.'”

Ikegami joined the tapeless crowd as well, displaying its HDN-X10 Editcam HD. The device will have three 2/3-inch CMOS sensors, which the company says have a wider dynamic range than other chips, meaning better images. Recording media isn't cheap (it records on hard-disk drives that start around $300 or on compact Flash at $2,700), but it's an option for those working with Avid editing systems, as it incorporates Avid's DnxHD uncompressed video recording technology.

Panasonic's mini-camcorder also got its share of eyeballs. The AG-HVX200 has two slots for 8-GB P2 cards, giving it the capacity to record 16 minutes of HD material at 100 Mbps. Its variable-frame- rate recording makes it possible to shoot in slow- or fast-motion in all formats. It should sell for around $10,000.

“The images are so close to film quality that some producers are asking, 'Why go through the long process of working in film?'” says Marc Irwin, Panasonic Broadcast marketing manager, UK.

Seeing such gear take center stage shows just how far Europe has moved toward high-def broadcasting. Much of that is due to technologies like MPEG-4 AVC, which can deliver twice as many channels and content as MPEG-2, which U.S. HD standards are based on. Faced with limited spectrum, European broadcasters see MPEG-4 as an enabling technology for HDTV services.

So do the Americans. DirecTV is working to deploy MPEG-4 h.264 so it can add 150 high-def networks and deliver local signals for more than 1,500 HD stations by 2007. Tandberg was selected by DirecTV in the U.S. and BSkyB in the UK to provide h.264 encoding technology to ready content for distribution to set-top boxes. The company is also providing an HD video headend with statistical multiplexing and EN5990 HD MPEG-4 AVC encoders.

“The multiplexer encodes a channel, creates statistics related to the channel and then uses those statistics to figure out how much bandwidth the channel needs,” says Matthew Goldman, Tandberg Television CTO. “It creates a feedback loop to optimize delivery.”

MPEG-4 ADVERTISING INSERTION

While cable operators, telcos and satellite operators will use MPEG-4 to add more channels, they'll also use it to insert local commercials. That's why an MPEG-4 advertising-insertion system from Terayon and INVIDI Technologies raised lots of eyebrows. Dubbed “Localization on Demand,” the system can be used to insert graphic overlays for local advertisers on national spots.

Harmonic's DiviCom Electra 5000 got the attention of multi-tasking–content distributors, as the system makes it possible for them to simultaneously encode channels in multiple formats—high-def, standard-def, mobile video—with multiple compression standards, such as MPEG-2, MPEG-4 or 3G. That allows up to nine channels to be viewed on one screen, so viewers can keep on top of their favorite channels.

Notably, h.264 seemed to be the pick over Microsoft's VC1 among MPEG-4 AVC technologies. “H.264 has better quality and a wider variety of vendors offering equipment,” says Nimrod Ben-Natan, Harmonic Convergent Systems division VP, solutions. “Plus, the h.264 toolset is better.”

Broadcasters also caught a glimpse of technologies that haven't made the jump to the U.S., such as a camera from Japanese broadcaster NHK that records full HD video at 300 frames per second and Visual Radio, a Nokia system that delivers traffic reports and sports results to mobile phones via FM radio signal.

But it was DVB-H, a mobile video standard that delivers live video to cellular phones outside the network, that dominated the mobile category. Crown Castle is testing it in Pittsburgh and will roll it out across the U.S. by placing transmission gear on its 11,000 cellular tower facilities. In Europe, the technology is expected to be in place for next summer's soccer World Cup.

The IBC show gave broadcasters a chance to see and operate items that previously were no more than concepts. Look for this year's attendees to be the first to embrace the likes of tapeless high-def, DVB-H and other technologies.

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