It probably wasn’t necessary to actually attend NAB this year to gather that it’s now possible to have a 4K camera, if you want one, and even if budgets are still a little tight – or at least it soon will be. The other big takeaway from this year’s show is that attendance, at 98,000, is up yet again, and with over 1,500 exhibitors the show floor was well-filled. No sign here of the economic maladies that continue to echo in much of the wider world.
With regard to the less obvious, let’s start at the beginning: Avid hosted events on the Friday, preempting the usual start of press involvement to launch its new Customer Association. The public seminar covering this (complete with a live band) ran first thing on Saturday morning, and was full to the point of needing to use overflow rooms with simultaneous live video of the event. Launch members of the association include the usual suspects – news and current affairs producers, big broadcasters, and so on – indicating a healthy level of support for the new organization. That said, while the company was eager to discuss the greater integration of its products under the Avid Everywhere banner, one might have formed the cautious impression that Avid is, like its competitors, struggling to excite people with new edit features in such a mature field of software design.
In the past I’ve been critical of some of NAB’s seminar tracks, populated as they occasionally are by decidedly mid-level speakers presenting material that can as easily be found for free on the internet. This year saw more of what we might prefer to see, with theoretical discussions on the subject of human vision and field trips to cover time-lapse photography. Of particular interest was the talk on high dynamic range imaging chaired by Curtis Clark, ASC, which, apart from learned discourse on the title subject, raised interesting questions about why we might pursue better images. Higher dynamic range, higher resolution and wider color gamut are all under active development by various parties, with the question being whether that’s being pursued to actually distribute the extra information and present it to audiences, or so as to ease the process of creating more usual, high-definition, standard dynamic range material. With 4K distribution much less developed even as a discussion than 4K acquisition, and with HDR and wide gamut even further behind, it’s probably best to assume that the current purpose of higher-quality images is to make really good-looking Rec. 709 HD easier to produce.
On the show floor, Sony was keen to push this sort of 4K-for-2K workflow, with the announcement of its new AX7 full frame video-capable stills camera and an interesting latch-on shoulder mount for the F5/55 series which can only be interpreted as intending to compete further with ARRI‘s Amira. Of all the new camera announcements, perhaps AJA‘s Cion is the most interesting to less well-funded admirers of Arri’s engineering, although both it and the Blackmagic Ursa reputedly use the same good-but-not-great sensor as Blackmagic’s 4K Production Camera. Perhaps ARRI was right to stick with their superb but sub-4K sensor for Alexa, especially with the announcement of imminent firmware to enable resolution significantly beyond 3K for certain models. Not, to be fair, that either Cion or Ursa exist in the same financial sphere as Alexa.
To remain briefly on the subject of cameras, it might occur to the average showgoer that JVC is sometimes a cruelly overlooked company. Their recent decision to begin using the JVC Kenwood brand might raise a few eyebrows in parts of the world where Kenwood means consumer-grade stereo systems and white goods, but otherwise there’s little to complain about. Not only have they steadfastly maintained the miniature shoulder mount form factor that debuted with the GY-HD100 HDV camera way back when, but their 4K announcements and crafty application of cell phone technology to live links are both full of good ideas. The company seems to be willing to provide things – such a wide variety of recording formats and camera layouts that work beautifully – that companies with perhaps greater political and proprietary ties to certain approaches might be less willing to give us. The use of 4G LTE cellphone technology, in a single unbonded device, to provide very solid 3mbps HD video communications without the need for satellite uplinks or more primitive multi-channel 3G technology is particularly impressive. With this in mind, and in the knowledge that JVC has recently acquired sensor manufacturer Altasens, we look forward to seeing their 4K pictures with keen anticipation.
Moving to the other end of the production and distribution chain, the Laser Illuminated Projector Association (LIPA), including some of the biggest names in projection equipment, was much in evidence at the show. The association has recently been concerned with some of the regulatory issues that arise from the application of high-power lasers to projection technology. What’s important to realize is that laser-illuminated projectors don’t, as one might assume, operate by scanning the image onto the screen with actual laser beams in the same manner as a CRT display. Instead, modern laser projectors use the lasers simply as a light source, diffusing the beam onto a DLP-style micromirror device in the same manner as a conventional arrangement illuminated by xenon or metal halide lamps. While there are efficiency advantages over xenon technology (which was never chosen for its efficiency in any case), the real advantage is in 3D projection. Certain 3D projection techniques – such as Dolby‘s – rely on projecting the separate stereo images for each eye using slightly different red, green and blue primary colors such that color filters on the glasses can be used to ensure that each eye sees only the desired image. Ordinarily, this would require color filtering on the projector to ensure that each image was projected with only the appropriate RGB primaries, representing a crippling loss of the output from a full-spectrum white light source. On the other hand, a laser-illuminated projector can be engineered with solid-state emitters producing only the desired wavelengths, requiring no filtering and with no loss of output. The price, at least for the time being, is far from competitive with more conventional systems of equivalent output, although the efficiency gains are large and, regardless of the waning popularity of 3D, Christie‘s 6-primary, two-projector laser system represents considerably better engineering than previous systems.
Finally, let’s consider what might be the sleeper hit of the show. SmallHD has been making, as the name suggests, useful little HD monitors in the four-to-seven-inch range for a while, and recently introduced its first OLED display. At NAB 2014, the company showed an upcoming firmware update for its 7-inch DP7 range which provides for lookup tables to be applied to both the displayed image and the SDI and HDMI cross-converting outputs, and also permits creative grading to be applied using a neatly minimalistic on-screen display. The alternative might be Convergent Design‘s rather pricier Odyssey 7Q, which is also a highly capable recorder, but within the price range it’s difficult to argue with SmallHD’s offering. All displays should be this capable, and I look forward to a refresh of their eyepiece viewfinder options, cautiously projected for the next year or so. Practically all small monitor manufacturers – including TVLogic and the part of Zacuto that builds viewfinders – report that their options are restrained somewhat by the fact that the display panels they use are invariably intended for smartphones and tablets, and that such things tend to be current during fairly restricted periods, pressurizing design lead times and making inventory control difficult. Even so, the advancement of that sort of portable tech has, and should continue, to make for better small monitors.
Summing up a show on such a large scale, with such international scope, and covering so many parts of allied industries, is always difficult. As ever, developments in camera, while welcome, highlight the fact that digital cameras are now more than good enough to satisfy skilled crew. Many such people – including Richard Crudo, the current head of the ASC – were in attendance at Canon‘s dinner night, celebrating, among other things, the shipping of their hundred millionth EF lens.
Stereo 3D, darling of the show as recently as a few years ago, was not much in evidence, which may be evidence either of normalization or – and this is my evaluation – a degree of marginalization. Software rental continues to be pushed by companies including Adobe, Autodesk and (optionally) Avid, to a perhaps slightly tepid reaction from practitioners. It’s nice to see Red Giant‘s Bulletproof emerging as a competitor to Pomfort‘s perhaps slightly expensive Silverstack. Overall, a good group of developments, and plenty to watch until some of the more esoteric ideas solidify in Amsterdam, at IBC, in September.