NAB Show 2009 Through My Ears, Eyes and Sore Feet, Part 2
OK, second installment for my NAB impressions. In the first, I discussed highlights from the editing and camcorder world. Here, I''m back with some thoughts on the streaming side of the house, where some interesting trends are coming together.
On the delivery front, Microsoft is really pushing Smooth Streaming as Silverlight''s key competitive advantage over streaming via Adobe Flash. What''s this all about? It''s interesting and something you need to at least know about, so take a deep breath and stay with me for the next four or five paragraphs.
The problem Microsoft targets with Smooth Streaming is how to deliver different streams to different viewer based upon their connection speeds and device playback capabilities, and how to adjust to changes in the viewer''s effective bandwidth. Here''s a blurb from the Microsoft website:
"Smooth Streaming dynamically detects and seamlessly switches the video quality of a media file a Silverlight player receives based on local PC conditions. Consumers with high-bandwidth connections can experience true HD (720p+), and others with lower bandwidth speeds receive the appropriate stream for their connectivity, allowing the audience to enjoy a consistent high-quality streaming experience without buffering or stuttering."
There are several aspects to this technology: first, the ability to choose the best stream for the target viewer, and second, to adjust to changes in the delivery or playback environment. These capabilities have been available, more or less, since the late ''90s when it was pioneered by RealNetworks and popularized by Microsoft''s multiple bit rate technology. The same basic feature set is also available from Adobe''s Flash Media Server as dynamic streaming.
What''s unique about Smooth Streaming? To borrow another blurb from the Microsoft site, it''s that it “enables adaptive streaming of live and on-demand media to Silverlight clients over HTTP.” In contrast, Adobe Flash uses Real Time Messaging Protocol (RTMP). What''s the difference?
HTTP is the hypertext transfer protocol, the lingua franca of all web servers that''s used to transmit the images, text and PDF files delivered over the web. Adobe''s RTMP is a streaming protocol that requires a streaming server to communicate with each Flash Player, which means additional cost and additional IT expertise.
Microsoft can implement Smooth Streaming with an extension to its Internet Information Server (IIS), which means less dollars and less expertise. In addition, because Smooth Streaming uses HTTP, it''s more firewall friendly. It can also take advantage of proxy servers found in many organizations to cache data locally and serve multiple viewers from that cache, which is more efficient than transmitting a separate stream to each viewer.
Good question. If you look at the streaming market as the prototypical pyramid, with the mass market on the bottom, and large companies on the top, only those companies at the very tippy top care about the ability to dynamically switch between files, or performance through a CDN or cache server. Still, these companies are very large broadcasters who represent a disproportionately high number of video streams, as well as significant reference account opportunities.
What''s interesting is that these companies have at least two other alternatives to consider, Move Adaptive Stream from Move Networks, which is available today, and H.264 Scalable Video Coding (SVC), which H.264 codec vendor MainConcept showed off in its booth at NAB. Briefly, where the Microsoft and Adobe approaches require separate video files for each connection speed, SVC creates customized streams using a lowest-common-denominator “base” layer, incremented by additional resolution, quality, or frame rate by “enhancement” layers. This structure is more efficient because it involves only a single file that''s easier to administrate and much smaller than the combined size of the multiple files created by Adobe and Microsoft.
In the photo at right, I''m showing three video streams from the same SVC file. The smallest player is the base layer only, the next largest is base plus one enhancement layer, the largest the base plus two enhancement layers.
To make SVC work, you need an encoder, which MainConcept has; a streaming server of some kind; and playback compatibility from players such as Adobe's Flash Player or Microsoft''s Silverlight Player. At least for Adobe, which I asked, support for SVC is not on its short term roadmap, and I would assume the same for Microsoft since it's pushing Smooth Streaming as the solution for this problem.
Nonetheless, to paraphrase John Cougar Mellencamp''s “Authority” song, when a proprietary technology fights a standard in the streaming world, the standard always wins, especially when devices such as set-top boxes and cell phones are in the mix, as they are here. It may take a while, but in my humble opinion, SVC will be the ultimate solution, and MainConcept will be one of the most important codec vendors.
On a different subject, MainConcept will also be selling versions of its codec that you can use in Apple Compressor as a QuickTime Export Component, and as a plug-in for Adobe Media Encoder (AME). Prices aren''t firm yet, but they sound like they''ll be in the $500-700 range, available sometime during the summer. This is a huge deal for Apple Final Cut Pro producers, because the Apple codec is slower to encode and of lower quality than the MainConcept codec.
Though AME already uses the MainConcept codec, because it takes so long for codec enhancements to flow through Adobe''s quality-control and product-release functions, the codec MainConcept releases this summer could be a year or so ahead of that in AME, and much more configurable. I hope to get a copy of the plug-in for testing before it''s generally available, so stay tuned.
One of the coolest codec-related ideas that I encountered at NAB came from Broadcast International (BI), whose CodecSys encoder uses multiple H.264 codecs to compress video more efficiently than a single H.264 codec (at least that''s BI''s claim). Why multiple codecs?
According to the company, it has fine-tuned different H.264 codecs for different types of footagehigh motion, low motion, pans to the left, tilts downward, and so on. During encoding, the company analyzes the footage, applies the codecs as necessary and then produces a single standard H.264 encoded file that should be compatible with any H.264 player.
Why hadn''t we heard about the product before? Because of the complexity of its approach, the company requires serious hardware to encode its files, like blade servers from HP or IBM. Not something even a reasonably serious streaming producer could afford.
Interestingly, however, the Fixstars of Japan ported Broadcast International''s codec to the Sony PlayStation 3 of all things, apparently because the PS3''s CPU is well suited for encoding the CodecSys codec. BI is offering two levels of software: a prosumer version for $100 per year, and a pro version for $1,000 per year. I''ve got the PS3 inhouse while we speak, and hope to run some comparisons in the next few weeks.
The first product that I saw at NAB was CompressHD, a $495 H.264 accelerator card from Matrox. It''s based upon an Amberella chip, and Matrox plans to sell both a standalone encoding card and the chip added to various iterations of its popular MXO products. In all forms, the H.264 accelerator integrates with Compressor on the Mac, and Adobe Media Encoder on Windows (but not on the Mac, at least for the first iteration). It accelerates only H.264 encoding for Apple devices, Blu-ray, or general streaming.
I saw a demo on the Mac, and I think it will have its greatest success there, at least in the short term. Wayne Andrews, the product manager, first encoded a 35-second test clip using Compressor''s own H.264 codec on an 3.2GHz eight-core Mac Pro, which took 56 seconds. Then he substituted in the Matrox hardware codec, and it took 8 seconds. It''s tough to do side-by-side comparisons in a demo room, but from what I saw, Matrox''s encoding quality was noticeably better than that of Apple which isn''t a surprise, because Apple''s codec has dropped to the bottom in terms of quality over the last couple of years.
One caveat: You won''t have complete flexibility in the first release in terms of target resolutions, as the card supports only standard resolutions such as 320x240, or 640x360. For example, if you want to produce at 440x330 or 480x270, you''re out of luck. In addition, early iterations will produce only .mov files, no .mp4 or .f4v, which shouldn''t be a problem for most applications. But check the final specs before buying.
This could be a totally killer product for the Macreplacing Apple''s low-quality codec, speeding encoding by 7X, and eliminating the need to work through Apple''s confusing and often slow scaling and deinterlacing controls. For Adobe, it''s all about speed, because Adobe''s licensed MainConcept H.264 codec delivers very good quality, with straightforward and relatively speedy scaling and deinterlacing.
By “enterprise encoding tools,” I mean high-end batch-encoding tools that cost upwards of $5,000 and incorporate sophisticated file retrieval, multiformat encoding, and file delivery. Many of these same tools allow you to join multiple encoding stations into a high-performance rendering farm.
The awesome new feature that appeared at NAB is integrated quality control, which is now integrated (or soon will be) into Inlet Technologies Armada, Rhozet Carbon Coder, and AmberFin iCR 4.5, with third-party options available for Digital Rapids Transcode Manager. These tools check the encoded files for a variety of issues such as dropped frames, excessive blockiness or quantization, audio over or under selected volume thresholds, and other potential maladies, and they either pass the files or flag them for review. They then present the errors in an interface that lets the reviewer quickly see the offending frames to evaluate the problem and either override the objection or send the file back for re-encoding.
Quality control is the Achilles' Heel of most encoding shops, since it''s time-consuming and expensive, and god-awful boring. Any level of automation should improve overall quality and cut QC costs, and this type of feature will quickly become essential for any purportedly high-end tool.
Otherwise, most vendors in this space had a significant announcement or two. For example, Inlet announced that its soup-to-nuts encoding workflow tool, Armada, is now available, and the launch of Spinnaker 80, a multichannel live audio encoder that can input eight separate streams, and output 32 streams.
Telestream announced FlipFactory 7, which should be available by the end of the Summer, 2009. New features include increased format support, compatibility with Avid TransferManager, Avid MXF file compatibility, ITU-R BS.1770-1 loudness correction, and generally improved performanceincluding multithreaded encoding of VP6 files, which is a first as far as I know.
Newly renamed Grab Networks (nee Anystream) announced Agility 2G (for second generation), which has been completely redesigned from a standalone application to a web-based interface. Other new features include increased reliability with automated fail-over and recovery and enhanced scalability.
Rhozet announced a new version of Carbon Coder to be delivered in May, 2009. New features include enhanced H.264 quality and faster encoding, as well as two new filters, video deblocking and motion-compensated temporal filtering. I saw a demo of its new quality control tool, which looked great, but the company isn''t committing to a specific ship date.
Amberfin''s iCR 4.5 release includes native support for Avid DNxHD and Final Cut Pro; MXF support of native Panasonic P2, Sony XDCAM, and Avid OP-Atom MXF; simultaneous ingest and transcoding;and new broadcast-quality sharpening and softening preprocessing filters.
One of my favorite new toys was Digital Rapids TouchStream live video-streaming appliance, which is about 16in. long, 6in. tall, and 5in. wide. Inputs vary by configuration, but can include composite and component analog video with XLR or RCA audio inputs, and SDI inputs up to full-rez 1080p. Outputs include VP6, H.264 for both QuickTime and Flash, and VC-1/Windows Media.
You control operation via a touchscreen interface with integrated live video monitoring and VU meters. Designed for live events such as concerts, sporting events, and news, the new unit looks like a great alternative to notebook or computer based streaming products.
Speaking of notebook based event streaming products, Kulabyte introduced XStreamCast Traveler, a luggable touchscreen computer for live event H.264 streaming. Produced by NextComputing, the computer can be configured with either four or eight cores, and a Blackmagic Design Decklink HD Extreme card. Operationally, the unit ingests HD SDI and outputs up to four or eight H.264 streams maxing out at 720p.
In the CD/DVD/Blu-ray printer/recorder space, both MicroBoards and Primera Technology announced support for VideoWrite DVD copy protection, which resists the ripping techniques used by common disc-copying programs. Avoiding these techniques allows the systems to prevent copying. You buy per-disc licenses from MicroBoards, with pricing starting at $225 for 100 licenses and scaling to $3,750 for 5,000 licenses.
MicroBoards also debuted homegrown Mac software for its line of printer/recorders, which really looked great. The program merges a sexy, cover-flow based label selection function with a unique WYSIWYG print preview that should eliminate the most frustrating problem encountered with disc printers, which is incorrect printing around the inner-ring diameter.
For its part, Primera debuted a tapeless video production workflow based upon ShotPut Pro, a software program from Imagine Products. When you install ShotPut Pro, you can designate up to three archive locations, which can include the Primera printer.
When you insert your P2, AVCHD, Sony SxS, or Red One cards into your computer, the software takes over, automatically copying the video as designated, and firing up the Primera recorder to burn the disc backup. If you''ve got less than a full DVD or Blu-ray disc, you can leave the disc open for incremental writes. If you''re archiving a 32GB or 64GB card, the software can span multiple discs. Another option from Imagine Products is ProxyMill ($189), which copies the video, creates preview-quality QuickTime movies, and then archives the video like ShotPut Pro.
I''ll conclude with a brief mention of Avocent''s Digital KVM Extension over LAN product, which lets you share a single keyboard, video monitor, and mouse over a LAN. The unit works by digitizing the graphics output sent to the digital monitor and transmitting that over the LAN. I saw a demo over a gigabyte network, and there was no noticeable latency or quality loss. You really couldn''t tell that you weren''t attached to the computer. If you have computers scattered around your facility that you need to control from one central location, this product could be absolutely fantastic.