16 Jan 2014

New year, new world for video, film and TV. This may be the most important article you read this year.

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This is about the future This is about the future RedShark

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 This will be the year when everyone realises that our industry (and, for that matter, every industry - but especially ours) is on an incredible journey. It's as if you only have to wait a year or so for your wildest technology dreams and fantasies to come true

The white heat* of the revolution that we're currently in really will change everything. It's already started. But the current is getting faster and if we don't take drastic measures, we'll get swept away.

Does that sound alarmist? Of course it does. But if you're not prepared to think about it, you definitely should be alarmed. The world is changing and it will keep changing, until we can't ignore it.

What can we do about it? We can try to understand it. We can look for and anticipate the changes. What is a threat for someone that doesn't "get it" is an opportunity for someone else that does.

I do hope that everyone "gets it" because this is the best chance we'll ever have to benefit from the biggest changes the world has ever seen. If we get it right, it will be a wonderful thing for everyone. If we get it wrong, well, at the very least it will be the biggest missed opportunity in history

A computer in your pocket

A computer in your pocket? Yes. It's what we used to quaintly call a telephone. There's just room for that and - wait for it - a cinema quality video camera as well (minus the lens). Driverless cars? They're just around the corner, probably parking themselves in a tight spot and making a better job of it than you ever could.

Do you remember years ago - actually only about five years back - when it was easy to predict, say, three years into the future? Not any more. Would anyone care to tell me what new consumer electronic products will be released in a year? I reckon we're on about nine months now, and the timeframe is getting shorter all the time.

And it's not just the familiar Moore's law that's at play here. With social media, an idea can traverse the globe in seconds. And the end point of an electronic idea is no longer someone's desktop computer but their phone, or, tomorrow, perhaps, their wristwatch - or even their retina.

Products can live or die by the merest whiff of information, whether it turns out to be right or wrong.

Ever since it started, RedShark has been talking about this stuff, but years before RedShark, I've been fascinated by the way that technology changes. For people like me, it's intriguing and exciting. For some people, it's somewhere between boring and terrifying. Some people love change. Others can't cope with it.

I'm old enough to remember when the pinnacle of technological achievement was a valve radiogram. And pretty clever it was too. It was everything you could want in home entertainment all crammed into something the size of a sideboard.

When you looked inside these things, as I did, often, they were pretty dusty, but there was the unmissable glow of five or six valves (tubes), some chunky capacitors and resistors, and - here's precision for you - the variable capacitor for tuning the AM was coupled to the tuning dial with a piece of stretchy string. All the interconnecting wires were like hose pipes by today's standards, and you could solder them with your eyes closed.

Alien

One of today's smartphones would have looked like an alien artifact next to one of those radiograms. There would have been absolutely no way to know how it worked or even what it was. It would just have been a piece of plastic with some miniature bits inside that could have been anything. We certainly wouldn't have known that, with it, anyone could make a video and have it visible to the entire world within a few minutes: still less that it would have been in high definition - or even 4K in the case of the Galaxy Note 3.

We've been on this exponential path for centuries, but so long ago, the curve would have been indistinguishable from a straight line: a horizontal one. It's only as we moved into the 20th century that an upwards slope would have been visible, but initially, from most people's perspective, it would still have been a straight line which would mean that you'd get the same amount of progress in a year in ten year's time as you would this year.

We now know that's wrong. We're at the stage where we can see the change in the slope. But not for long, because soon, from our viewpoint, it will be vertical. And then, things will start happening that we weren't expecting. They'll just come out of nowhere.

Does that sound implausible? Impossible, even? It's not, because it's already happening.

Just Look at the original Blackmagic Cinema Camera. That was an utter surprise. When it was launched, it wasn't like any other product launch, where a manufacturer merely surprised everyone with a new product. This was a company that was famous for making I/O cards. No-one, and I mean no-one, was expecting them to make a camera. This camera launch astonished everyone - customers and competitors alike (as they actually discovered that they were competitors!). I doubt if there would have been more surprise if Blackmagic had announced that they'd built a moon rocket.

With 20/20 hindsight, it's still not obvious, but it's less incredible (in the sense that you can see how and why they did it). They had all the antecedents in place, but no-one outside of Blackmagic added it all up and came to the right answer.

Let's have a look at what they did.

A surprising investment

There were two things they needed to make a raw camera, excluding the sensor. First, they needed to be able to process video in real time. They had studio recorders that could capture HD video as ProRes, and they also had the Hyperdeck Shuttle, which they surprised everyone with at the previous NAB. This was a battery powered HD video recorder that captured video through HDMI or SDI and converted it to ProRes, which it stored on SSD modules. (The earlier versions could not record to ProRes - only to uncompressed video). To design this must have taken a lot of work and it was, looking back on it, a surprising investment given the low price of the unit and that they must have had to sell an awful lot of them to get a Return On Investment (just speculating here).

A year or so before that, Blackmagic surprised everyone again by buying Davinci and their colour correction software Resolve. Again, this was not an obvious move for a company so focused on hardware. One of Resolve's strengths is that it is very happy to accept a wide range of video formats.

What do you need to make a raw camera? You need something exactly like the Hyperdeck Shuttle that's portable and battery powered. And then you need software to process the raw images so that we can see them in all their luscious glory.

Without wishing to diminish the business and technical cleverness that Blackmagic put into making their first camera, this was only possible because of the rate of progress. If they'd had to design (as opposed to configure) their own operating system, sensor, codec, processor, screen and memory system,  well, the product would have never appeared. As the level of integration gets higher, the surprises will get bigger.



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David Shapton

David Shapton was the Editor In Chief of RedShark Publications from 2012 to 2020. 

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