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Tech Talk: The Future of Video?

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by Eli Ungar

With Sony’s introduction of its new line of reasonably priced high definition video cameras, it seems that HDV is well on its way to replacing DV as the standard consumer video format. But is it time to make the move to high definition? The answer to this question is far from obvious. When DV revolutionized the world of video back in the early 90’s, the real innovations were both the compression technology, which allowed it to fit onto a MiniDV tape, and its ability to be decompressed and recompressed efficiently in a computer-based editing program. With HDV, the innovation equation is heavily weighted towards the ability to get so much information on to the same MiniDV tape and what is sacrificed in the codec is its computer efficiency.

The technology is so data intensive, compared to standard definition digital video, that even the fastest computers around aren’t powerful enough to handle it nimbly. It is, for example, still impossible to edit HDV footage in real time. What this means is that while it has become cheaper to capture high definition, what one does with said captured footage is a whole other story. In addition, as a result of the miraculous squeezing of HDV on to the standard consumer MiniDV format, there is a new problem that didn’t exist in standard definition DV. Because HDV squeezes so much information into such a small tape, any dropouts that occur are disastrous. In standard definitionDV a dropout might effect a few frames here or there leaving those characteristic blocky artifacts for a brief instant. In HDV a dropout effects up to 15 frames at a time. This is the equivalent of half a second of footage, which can become extremely problematic if you are shooting something important.

Panasonic has announced that it will be introducing its own consumer HD format called DVCPRO-HD. Not much is known yet, but they are going to show a mystery camera at this year’s NAB conference that should capture 24p in DVCPRO-HD and be competitive with Sony’s Z1. The really exciting thing about this new mystery camera is that it will be tapeless. Panasonic seems to understand the problems that a tape-based HD system poses and their solution is to eliminate tape all together in favor of a solid state system called P2. If Panasonic is successful in this migration to solid-state technology, it will be nothing short of revolutionary for the industry. For by going in that direction, they would become independent of the necessity to build their cameras around the constant of tape speed. This would allow for all sorts of innovations and upgrading the functionality of the camera would be as simple as plugging it in to an internet-enabled computer.

Whoever wins the new consumer HD format wars, it certainly seems premature to invest in the technology. If for nothing else, only about 10% of U.S. households have HD-capable TVs. So even if all of the other problems were surmountable, showing your beautiful HD footage, would not be easy. The future of video is definitely HD, it just hasn’t arrived quite yet.

May 2005

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