NAB 2012 Reflections: Promise for the Future

Last week’s NAB Show in Las Vegas is now history, and, for more than 90,000 attendees, this week is all about catching up on projects that sat idle during the week, combing through notes and new-product brochures, and sending e-mails to exhibitors whose products are worth a second look.

This week is also the time when upper-management types ask the big question: how was the NAB Show? The short answer? It depends.

This year’s conference and exhibits, more than any to date, reflected a broadcast-technology universe beholden to the Big Bang Theory: expanding in nearly limitless directions simultaneously, meeting the needs of everyone from action-sports producers with smaller budgets (with offerings like the GoPro POV camera and developments from Newtek) to those looking to develop a technology roadmap for the next multimillion-dollar production-facility upgrade.

There was definitely a hot new technology at the center of the action: 4K. There was definitely a not-so-hot technology that made gains in production efficiency to guarantee that it will one day be a market reality: 3D. And then there was the hot gossip, as the professional marketplace’s frustration with Apple Final Cut Pro X seems destined to make Final Cut Pro a thing of the past sooner rather than later.

And, finally, there was a continued evolution among nearly all product developers to offer more–cost-effective HD-based systems that rely more on software development and less on hardware development. For NAB Show attendees, the end result could mean the ability to upgrade facilities much more easily in the future because there will be less need to replace hardware and cabling infrastructure.

The 4K Buzz
The 4K format, which delivers images with four times the resolution of HD images, was never far from view on the show floor. Sony and Canon were at the center of the 4K buzz, and the format transformed the Canon booth, which was not only larger but felt more complete with the addition of cameras. And the continued buzz around the use of Canon DSLR systems for video acquisition didn’t hurt.

But the 4K momentum at the NAB Show was about more than just the format: it really signals the complete acceptance of digital-based filmmaking. In years past, those who believed in 4K or digital acquisition were in a defensive posture reminiscent of those who believed in nonlinear editing in the early 1990s. At that time, users needed to be persuaded to give up an incumbent linear-based workflow. And NLE vendors spent hours (if not days) explaining how nonlinear editing was a more efficient way to edit even if it required three hours to ingest one hour of material.

By 1995, the industry understood the value proposition, and the long hours of arguing the merits gave way to long hours of discussing how to make the systems better. The same can be said of 4K in 2012: a convinced user base is now ready to give the kind of critical feedback that could speed the pace of next-generation enhancements. And, with a large number of vendors — Arris, Astro, Canon, Delsa, Hitachi, Ikegami, Lockheed-Martin, Meduza, JVC, NHK, Olympus, Panasonic, Red, and Sony — already involved in the market, there are likely to be plenty of advances.

That quickened feedback loop will prove critical for one market: broadcasters. Primetime programming seems certain to embrace digital cinema. But Sony’s booth offered a demonstration of how 4K could apply to sports productions. In the demo area, two flat-panel displays showed separate 4K camera feeds that, side by side, created a single image of a football pitch. A collection of smaller monitors nearby displayed 720p and 1080i images extracted from the larger image, proving that 4K camera systems will be able to ensure that a sports production never misses a play.

Whither 3D?
As for 3D, this year’s show offered many more improvements for those looking to cost-effectively produce 3D content. But many attendees cast a wary eye because the current 3D distribution model, which requires passive or active glasses, simply is not gaining traction with viewers because of a variety of issues. A lack of content (let alone compelling content), rights issues, the inability of retailers and distributors to market it properly (think back to HD marketing in 1999-2000 but even more muddled), and other issues are stalling the 3D market.

But there is one major reason for 3D optimism. Even the biggest 3D naysayers usually concede that the problem is not the format itself but rather the need to wear glasses. And four booths on the NAB Show floor indicated that a glasses-free future is much closer than expected. Sony’s booth gave attendees a chance to see the glasses-free sets that made their debut at CES and are expected to hit the market in 2014, if not sooner. Vizrt’s booth offered a compelling glasses-free demo of Stergen 2D-to-3D converted material on HTC handhelds that featured content from Wimbledon, the French Open, and more. And Japan’s NITC (National Institute of Information and Communications Technology) demonstrated a 200-in. glasses-free 3D display that made use of 200 individual projectors. The result? As the viewer moved, the perspective changed, enabling the viewer to peer behind a partially opened door, see around an object, and more. For venues or theme parks, the NITC technology could be a game-changer.

But the most interesting (and potentially impactful) announcement was a Dolby 3D glasses-free technology that can turn any 3D set into a glasses-free set, provided the content is passed through the Dolby 3D encoding and decoding process and a lenticular screen is mounted in front of the TV. The demonstration was not flawless, but viewing angles were solid, and another year or two of development could lead to a product that could turn tens of millions of 3D sets in homes across the U.S. into glasses-free displays.

There is, of course, a more pressing issue for the adoption of 4K and 3D on a grand scale: moving 4K and 3D content throughout a broadcast facility today is difficult if not downright impossible. The pieces today are simply not available. But that does not mean they won’t be. Each year, there are two NAB Shows: the one for the public and the one in the private meeting rooms, where top customers are given a sneak peek at next-generation developments. And while no specific details are available, it’s believed that this year’s peek behind the curtain of certain exhibitors suggested a future that will fundamentally change the industry and solve issues related to moving 4K and 3D content easily and efficiently.

Whither Apple?
And then there was the palpable unhappiness with Apple’s Final Cut Pro X from professionals who rely on Final Cut Pro to make a living. Apple has not exhibited at the NAB Show since 2007, and its stock has climbed from $200 a share to more than $600 a share. There is no relationship between the decision to not exhibit at NAB and the stock growth, but it is fairly clear that Apple’s focus on consumer products rather than professional-level editing systems is paying off. Simply put, how can a company that sells $10 million of iPads an hour be counted on to care about a high-maintenance professional marketplace?

The first version of Final Cut Pro X last year left out many critical features for professional editors, and a subsequent upgrade addressed some of the concerns. And, in private meetings at the NAB Show, the company said future enhancements will include multichannel-audio editing, dual viewers, MXF plug-in support of native MXF wrappers, and RED camera support.

But Apple also said it could not commit to when those features will hit the market, bringing up another criticism of the company: lack of a future roadmap. In hindsight, it’s clear why there is a lack of transparency: a two-year roadmap in 2009 would have concluded with a statement along the lines of “And, in 2011, we will stop supporting the Final Cut Pro server you just bought. And, if you think that is bad news, wait until you see our next generation of Final Cut Pro. We have spent countless development hours making a product that we are sure will disappoint you in ways you never thought possible.”

So that brings us to the 2012 NAB Show. Those looking to improve their editing and postproduction operations have no choice but to look to Adobe, Avid, Quantel, or Grass Valley (and to EVS and Vizrt, whose systems offer editing functionality). The result? The Adobe booth overflowed with potential customers checking out the new version of Premiere Pro CS6.

Looking Ahead to the 2013 NAB Show
The movement away from Final Cut Pro is only one of the issues that will fundamentally transform the professional-video marketplace in the next 12 months and, in turn, the NAB Convention next April. The continued improvements to 4K and having a glasses-free-3D marketplace within reach will also change the tone of the show and remain the carrot that the broadcast industry may be reaching for in an attempt to differentiate its service from eyeball competitors like Apple TV, Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, and Google TV. With many of those services expected to make the leap to 1080p, broadcasters, who have always led the technology march, may be laggards.

It may very well be that the 2013 NAB Show will feel very much like NAB 1998. The equivalent then to 4K and 3D was a roadmap to HD for national networks, one that then had $200,000 cameras and $200,000 tape decks and no return on investment. A local-broadcaster community was still trying to connect digital islands, selecting an SD tapeless format (most overheard phrase on the show floor? “HD is great, but it will never have a role in local news”), and figuring out how video servers could replace CART machines. And then, a slew of companies with “new money” like Pseudo, DEN, and others believed that their deep pockets of private capital would soon have them creating original content and streaming it at a whopping 256 kbps that would put the national networks and TV stations out of business.

Well, we know how that turned out. The Pseudos and DENs went out of business, HD became standard operating procedure, and any concerns over server-based infrastructures vanished. But new questions have arisen. Will 4K and 3D follow a similar adoption curve to HD’s? Will server-based infrastructures make use of cloud services to create working environments that span thousands of miles? Will plant infrastructures need to make the move to all-fiber to provide a technical bedrock more adaptable to future format needs? And will the online threats that had no real bite in the late 1990s have a real impact on the bottom line of traditional networks and broadcast stations as linear-based TV service becomes as antiquated as a dial-up modem?

The 2012 NAB Show lacked a singular theme for the future of content creation and distribution. In the end, that is its greatest strength as a show and the greatest strength of the industry itself. The nature of the content-creation business is changing and expanding in ways never dreamed of just four years ago, and the same can be said for the consumer-electronics industry. The NAB Show, rightfully, reflects those new realities. The question for all is, will the technical promise of the next 10 years be matched by a vision that turns promise into reality?

For those with the blinders off, the 2012 NAB Show was a first step.