NAB 2009: The Season of Their Discontent

April 27th, 2009

Last week’s NAB trade show was revealing for many reasons, the most significant being its ability to attract a better-than-expected turnout, given the tough economic climate that broadcasters worldwide are currently enduring.

On another level, NAB remains an important show because it expanded its focus beyond traditional broadcast-related exhibits and technical papers back in the early 1990s. "Multimedia" was a real buzzword back then - no one could really define it categorically - but NAB added a small Multimedia World pavilion in the Hilton Ballroom in 1995, featuring (among other things) LCD projectors and exhibits from Adobe Premiere and Macromedia Director.

Fast-forward to 2009, and the lines between "multimedia" and traditional broadcasting have long since vanished. This year’s show was jammed full of what used to be classified as "multimedia" exhibits, ranging from IPTV delivery platforms and encoding solutions to managed content playout systems that cross seamlessly between such disparate markets as television networks and digital signage.

DD colleagues Aldo Cugnini and Chris Chinnock were also in attendance. Each has provided valuable perspective on 3D and mobile ATSC demos and products in previous issues of Display Daily, and we passed each other frequently like ships in the night. My focus in Las Vegas was on a variety of technologies, including the aforementioned MPEG4 encoding solutions, fiber optic switching and distribution, and (most importantly) reference-grade video monitors.

It’s no secret that the tail (consumer TV market) wags the dog (professional monitor market) these days, and quite vigorously. The problem with that scenario is that the most popular flat-panel TV technology - LCD - is not being met with much enthusiasm by people who make a living by shooting, editing, and finishing movies and television programs.

Indeed, I had numerous impromptu conversations with colorists, editors, and chief engineers who expressed more resignation than enthusiasm about purchasing LCD monitors to replace their venerated, but now "out to pasture" Sony BVM and PVM-series CRT monitors. The consensus was that LCD technology, even equipped with LED backlights, still comes up way short in terms of black levels, viewing angles, and motion blurring.

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I was asked on more than one occasion about the chances of Canon’s SED making a comeback, something I would not have bet money on after the Nano Technologies licensing debacle. However, a source within Canon told me at the show that the SED is still very much alive as a pro monitor technology. Indeed, a Canon SED engineer from Japan was quietly making the rounds in the Las Vegas Convention Center to scope out the competition.

I was also peppered with questions about the recent demise of Field Emissive Technologies, which created plenty of buzz at last year’s NAB show with its 18-inch 720p and 26-inch 1080p FED monitors. As DD readers know, FET was a recent casualty of the economy and Sony’s inability to raise enough capital to retrofit an old Pioneer plasma facility for FED production.

The lack of an evaluation-grade plasma monitor also provided fodder for discussions. There are numerous facilities that are already purchasing and installing 42-inch and 50-inch industrial plasma monitors for post-production and monitoring applications, most notably Warner Brothers, NBC Universal, and Modern Video.

While these plasma monitors are not loaded with all the necessary bells and whistles for calibration, they do have the advantage of being considerably less expensive than most of the LCD solutions seen at NAB, some of which are priced in the five-figure range. And the 42-inch and 50-inch screen sizes - which I presumed to be too large for many edit and colorist suites - are actually preferred to smaller, fully loaded LCD monitors.

There was also a new front projection demo at the Hilton, featuring the Joe Kane-designed Samsung AE900, a single-chip DLP projector with 1080p resolution and an incredible range of adjustments to ensure precise matching of standard gamma curves and color spaces. It too is being touted as a solution for colorist and edit suites, coupled with screens at least 60 inches wide.

Summing up, while NAB 2009 demonstrated that the widespread adoption of a new digital codec (MPEG4) for multi-platform delivery of video is rapidly gaining momentum, the display technology with which to monitor that video is still a point of contention among manufacturers and end-users.

As Yogi Berra once said, "It ain’t over until it’s over." In the world of professional video monitors, we’re still a long way from "over."

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