Last year I attended both the on-going conference and the exhibition which was a very time consuming process, with only a few of the technical sessions being of interest. This year I visited the exhibition only, which was held at the RAI Congress Centre to the south of the centre of Amsterdam. I was considerably impressed by the volume and diversity of software and hardware products displayed.
The National Museum of Photography, Film & Television was exceptional in that it was one of the very few which included TV cameras and other studio facilities of the current time and of the recent past. The overall impression of the Exhibition was one of new technologies, in terms of digital systems, and also new software products to interface to them. Certainly the displays were dominated by special effects, and there were some very unusual stands (more of this later!). This is, as stated earlier, a very sharp contrast to a few years ago. Even earlier, in 1975, I attended one of the original IBC exhibitions which was held at the Grosvenor Park Hotel in London. There were around 400 delegates, and the emphasis was on hardware and acquisition of signals plus recording equipment.
|Figure 1: National Museum of Photography, Film and Television|
This year AVID had a comprehensive stand and the hall in which it was placed was dominated by a huge inverted cone onto which was projected a pink sky scene with the AVID logo wondering over it. This was very eye catching, and inevitably drew ones' attention to the products underneath. Much information was available, which described how AVID's Matador 2D paint software was used in the creation of Dragonheart, Industrial Light and Magic's latest special effects film for Universal Pictures. An 18 foot high, 43 foot long computer generated dragon was produced in this software and integrated with live filming. The literature also discussed many other packages including Elastic Reality (a morphing package) and Fusion (full resolution digital editing on SGI indigo IMPACT work stations). Silicon Graphics itself had a stand presenting the hardware, but other companies' software products were used to demonstrate its capabilities. Interestingly, Silicon Graphics has just launched a new business unit, the objective of which is to develop technology bridging the world of analogue and digital media and imaging in the entertainment's industry, in conjunction with Philips, BTS and others who worked on the Time Warner Interactive TV project.
There were many stands showing much equipment, some of which I will describe later. An overall impression gained was that the virtual studio and virtual actors had come of age. One company, Digiwarp, was putting on demonstrations every half hour, of various people in different background settings against a blue screen background. The computer generated backgrounds varied, from halls with maps coming out of the floor, pillars which appeared from nowhere, to seats which came up out of the floor on which the actor was apparently able to sit. This was due to some clever muscular contortions! Another interesting sight was that there were several stands on which there were actors wired up to all sorts of sensors. Signals from these sensors were then fed into a unit which converted them into movements of an animated character on the screen, put against a computer-generated background. This allowed the movements of the animated character to look totally natural. The voices were produced by other people, so it was quite a strange set-up, but the image on the screen was apparently a totally-natural cartoon character.
As was said earlier, there was an increasing emphasis on software at the exhibition and Adobe were demonstrating various packages, including the "After Effects" package which allowed Apple Macintosh computers to be turned into motion graphics studios, and it allowed Photoshop files to be incorporated within the special animations created. ORAD was demonstrating its Cyberset, which was one of the virtual studio demonstrations around IBC, and gave conducted interviews of notable film personalities such as Roman Polanski and Angelica Houston, in the Venice Opera House, which was destroyed by fire only last year, but had been recreated in the software domain.
|Figure 2: An Animated Body Suit|
Also in evidence was an increasing amount of hardware concerned with MPEG coding and decoding. A typical product was the Zapex 2000, which featured real-time MPEG-2 quality encoding. The pictures I saw were indistinguishable from the original source material, and this was even more indicative of the rapid replacement of analogue systems by digital ones. Optivision was another company demonstrating MPEG video recording equipment, to both the MPEG 1 and MPEG 2 standards. There were various other novel features on this particular stand, including the "high speed Quad" multichannel MPEG playback equipment, which allowed up to 60 channels of MPEG video to be controlled from one SCSI port of a PC. Clearly the computer video age is here. The problem which faces companies now exhibiting their hardware and software at IBC is that there is very little to choose between them; for the most part they have to rely on gimics, such as a live TV/virtual set demonstrations, in order to pull in the crowds.
Another interesting thing on display was by Thomson Sun Interactive based at Mountain View, California. This took the shape of an open TV decoder that gave user access to the WEB via a TV set. The idea of this was to allow cost-effective Internet availability. It utilised a mix of communication via phoneline and broadcast reception via satellite. The broadcast TV giants, Sony and Panasonic, were competing strongly against each other and, in particular, Sony were demonstrating their Betacam SX hybrid editing video tape recorder. The objective of this particular equipment was to interface to both analogue and digital systems as the latter gradually take over from the former. An interesting quote was made by Dr John Forrest of Drake, saying that he had a vision of the future, in terms of the increasing use of automation systems in broadcast TV: "Each one will be run by a man and a dog" he said, "The man is there to feed the dog, the dog is there to make sure the man doesn't touch any of the equipment"! In terms of research, rather than in ongoing development, on one of the stands there was a demonstration of work by the Eureka 1187 project, on Advanced Digital Television Technologies (ADTV). An HT MPEG 2 broadcasting television chain was demonstrated, within which were three sub-products concerned with non-broadcasting applications as follows:
Another first at IBC was the demonstration by Kodak of their Cineon workstations, named Breeze, Storm and Tornado. Each has more or less the same software tool kit, but they operate on different platforms to give greater processing power. Film is used considerably within the film industry as source material into which special effects are incorporated via computer power. The two media are interchangeable, but the impression gained was that nothing beats film! Another company demonstrating software, with regard to the film industry, was Cambridge Animation, which makes cartoons, or rather software systems to support animators so that the latter can concentrate on the creativity. Typical platforms include the PC and, more recently, Silicon Graphics workstations.
Cable TV made a quiet entry at this year's IBC. I had a very interesting discussion with Bill Trevelyan, the European Sales Director of Techniche. He was able to demonstrate fibre optic video going up to several hundreds of megabits per second piping down both MPEG 1 and MPEG 2 coded video in digital format. Fibre video has been until recently a niche area within the broadcast TV industry, as in this field, radio is sacrosanct ! However, we had a very fruitful discussion about an increasing quantity of traffic being put into optical fibre video networks, because of the saturation of the RF domain. Clearly, there seems to be much opportunity for the cable TV operator to capitalise on the inadequacies of the satellite/radio domain, and certainly there will be an increasing presence of the cable operators at IBC in the future.
IBC has changed radically since its early inception. The trend is now towards the converging technologies of analogue source material, digital processing, digital transmission and digital decoding, combined with computer graphics, animation and other software tools. The objective of all digital systems is to provide a transparent medium through which video and audio signals pass without hindrance. From what I have seen at this year's IBC, there is no doubt that this is already upon us, and it is only a matter of time before a very considerable infrastructure is in place, which will allow computer technology to be fully merged with other entertainment sources of information, including broadcast television and audio programmes. The whole field has become exceedingly competitive, and it is difficult for absolute differentiation between one particular company producing software suitable for special effects, and any other company. In spite of the pressures by manufacturers and sources of software, clearly much work needs to be done, in terms of developing new production techniques using these advanced tools and facilities. Wide screen television was not so prevalent in the general display area as one might of expected, but IBC runs the Nombre D'Or awards, which show very high quality wide screen television productions. These, of course, show off the advantageous aspect ratio (16 : 9) to full effect. All in all, IBC is a very entertaining event, although the technical sessions are increasingly dominated by the manufacturers of the state-of-the-art equipment available for observation there. It is an event well worth visiting every few years, to keep tabs on what is produced compared to what is researched. I thoroughly recommend anyone who has never been, but interested in the new digital video/audio media and equipment, to visit at the next opportunity, which will be in September 1997 in Amsterdam again.
R. J. Green