Monday, April 13, 2015

NAB 2015

It has been two years since I attended NAB.  In the previous 20 years, I had been every year since opening my business.  Frankly, I stopped coming to the show because I had grown weary of Vegas and because suppliers had become incredibly proficient at releasing all of the necessary information on their latest technological advances via the Internet.  Furthermore, many of the distributors in Houston began following up the show with hands-on events allowing local content producers to ogle at the latest hardware.  When I made the decision to attend this year, I felt I needed to approach the show from a new angle.  Instead of tackling the Bataan death march of media tech I opted to attend post-production world. 

I must say that this has been a marvelous adventure so far.  Richard Harrington and his team have designed an informative and thoughtful line-up of training within multiple disciplines.  Early in my career I lamented that nothing surprising was likely to happen with the technology of photography; I could not have been more wrong.  As attendees waited for the release of HD through the 80s and 90s, I worried that the return on my investment in SD camera systems may not be realized.  Ironically, the year NAB released HD, there was a small booth in the corner of the central hall devoted to super HD sponsored by NHK.

Joel Brinkley’s book, DefiningVision: How Broadcasters Lured the Government into Inciting a Revolution inTelevision (1998) changed the way I saw the industry for the rest of my career.  I began to realize how fear promoted a government-backed commoditization of the media industry.  Simultaneously, manufacturers of video tech realized that content producers would perpetually seek greater resolution to realize their individual visions.  As this, battle has raged on, an industry that was once isolated to a few major players in production has become a cornucopia of boutique operators.  Today, anyone can walk into an electronic retail outlet and purchase a camcorder that has greater resolution and lower light capability than any of us could have imagined 15 years ago. 

While this is a marvelous result of digital innovation, understanding the standards of the industry has become more and more confusing.  Currently, there are nine flavors of HD acquisition.  HD, 2K, 3KHD, 3K, UHD, 4K, 5K, 6K and now we face the release of 8K and countless codecs for transcoding to ingest one's dynamic footage.  Compounding the sea of visual standards are 70 documented aspect ratios in the history of film production on 70, 35 and 16mm ranging from 1.33:1 to 4.00:1 (1909 – 2013).  Within the history of broadcast, there have been over 50 helical-scan formats ranging from Quad (1956) to HDV (2001).  Currently, all of these flavors need to be packaged into 1.78:1, the HDTV standard more commonly known as 16x9.  I bring this up because I remember a sales pitch suggesting that HD would normalize the standards of television, yet it seems that the only standard will be standard one sets for themselves.  


Although the production landscape has been altered by the course of innovation, distribution has remained somewhat undisturbed, but that could radically change in the next few years.  Microsoft has long sought to encompass the distribution of entertainment to the masses and this year the lines between broadcast and computer technology have become even grayer.  Virtual reality is poised to change the way entertainment will be received and created forever. 

As the keynote address on technology began, Arthur van Hoff quickly pointed out that VR has made tremendous leaps in the last decade, opening the door to more immersive experiences for consumers.  High-resolution screens with faster refresh rates, gyroscopes, and accelerometers have made devices like the Oculus possible.   Currently, there are even a few VR devices with eye tracking technology that is so refined it can enhance the display where one is looking to create a depth of field effect for the viewer.  There is even a new generation of ViewMasters available to tantalize a generation of children with amazingly realistic VR images.  Ultimately the goal is to generate the holodeck experience for the user, allowing them to roam within the experience without the worry of reality.  However, Microsoft has counteracted this trend with the hololens, an augmented reality platform that allows the user to experience a VR/Google Glass-like platform of interactivity.


This frontier of communications is breathtaking to me.  Its potential as a training and educational platform is the pinnacle of what I have always wanted.  At the same time, the sea of technological confusion regarding deliverables cannot be ignored.  Each manufacturer will continue to maintain their proprietary hold on their creations in hopes that they will be the chosen platform.  Producers will continue to bridge the gap between technology and budgets with their projects, always chasing the greatest resolution available.  While consumers continue to buy higher resolution televisions, computers, phones, and other interactive devices to achieve what they believe is the most significant experience.

From a broadcast perspective, this is where I believe the joke is on us.  HD hit the industry at a financial level that brought many small market station owners to their knees.  The cost of transmission towers exceeded the revenues of some of these markets by more than 20 years of their earnings.  The argument broadcasters made in Congress to hold the upper bandwidth of airwaves for HD then became a scramble to maintain.  More than 80% of television viewers in the United States watch both local and pay television providers via cable, satellite, or Internet.  I suspect that someday in my lifetime, free television will all but disappear.  I wonder, what will happen to those airwaves agreements then?

In the meantime, as consumers rush to their local electronics retailer to buy that new 4K, 108” television, what will they actually see?  Oh, that’s right, some amalgamation of an MPEG format that has squeezed all the velvety goodness of my 24K video down to an acceptable packet size for transmission over the Internet via fiber.

I’m just an old dog.  I’ve seen many changes in the industry, and they all have been very exciting.  My frustration comes from the illusion we chase as content providers.  Customers are more educated, yet what they think they know is often at odds with what they need or can handle in their environment.  Finding a balance in business is an uncomfortable position to find oneself in as an artist.  NAB solidifies this for me as I drool over what I can’t afford.  My mantra has become, “Don’t buy what you want, buy what you need and only when you need it.”  More than ever, I believe there is a greater need for collaboration and leverage within the industry to meet our customer’s demands.  If we can come together as a village to share our resources and get past our egos, imagine what we could do. 

Good shooting everyone, and I hope to see you in the halls of NAB!