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New Camera "Gadgets" Network & Edit
by Jon Leland
Originally published in Videography Magazine, December 1999

From what I've heard from this year's Comdex, the show was not about the convergence of TV and computing as some pundits had expected. Rather, it was about "divergence," the birth of a new generation of PC-free "gadgets." Rather than trying to do everything, these small devices (sometimes also referred to as "information appliances") focus on doing one thing extremely well.

Interestingly enough, I was already working on this month's column when I heard this news. My subject (although I would not have said it this way earlier) is "camera gadgets."

This concept rides on the idea that we're moving beyond the age-old "platform wars." In my opinion, the future is that the Network will be the ONLY platform and there will be a HUGE variety of devices that plug into it for both content creation as well as for distribution and "viewing."

In case you haven't noticed, we're living in a world where six-figure post-production suites morph into desktops, and where computers are transitioning into "appliances." In this new electronic environment, we're also seeing video cameras that are not only digital, but which are now taking on new varieties of configurations.

Just as terms like "multimedia" and "digital video" have so many valid meanings that they can no longer mean anything specific, the same is becoming true of computers and cameras. Most of us already recognize that there are more and more variations on what a "computer" means (i.e. PC's, Palm Pilots, notebooks, network appliances, set top boxes, digital VCR's like Tivo and Replay, etc.). Now, specialized video cameras are becoming more network-capable as well as non-linear.

In fact, recently, I became intrigued with a selection of these new devices because I believe that they point to new trends in the divergence of the videographer's profession and of the video Web. This column will cover examples of three new camera types: a self-contained webcam that incorporates a "thin (video) server," a videoconferencing system that is digitally "married" to a pre-configured streaming video server, and a "prosumer" camera that records to disk including an built-in, abbreviated form of non-linear editing.

Axis Communications of Chelmsford, MA has produced a computer/camera/server combination that weighs only half-a-pound. The drinking flask size and shaped device includes a video camera (with no sound capabilities) and an "embedded system" (i.e. a specialized CPU with components on a customized computer board.)

Unlike "tethered" video webcams that require a computer in order to be connected to the Web or to an Intranet, the Axis 2100 Network Camera has what Axis calls a "thin server" built-in and delivers high quality and video performance. To configure the camera on a network, you enter an IP address via a web interface that calls up web pages that are resident in the systems RAM. In this way, your network can identify the device, and then you can use a similar web interface to set preferences. Then, "voila!" Bandwidth permitting, you can serve up to 15 frames of 640 x 480 motion JPEG video to web browsers anywhere. And all this from a web camera whose list price is under $500.

It also simplifies the delivery of its streaming video frames because the Axis Network Camera pushes motion JPEG frames without the need for a browser plug-in. Instead, the system uses Netscape's support for server push or a Microsoft Explorer ActiveX command (depending on the user's browser). Instructions, which appear on the Axis web site, appear to be relatively straight-forward. This functionality means that this camera's video streams can be incorporated into any web page and should appear correctly in any relatively current web browser.

I was so intrigued by what I saw in the demo that they gave me in my office that I'm planning to wire a demo Axis Network Camera into our facility. Using our DSL line, you should be able to see this camera in action from our office via the Internet by the time you read this. Please check in with me over the web and see if our office has gone "live in cyberspace." If you see us, please say "hi" via the e-mail link on that page.

More commercial and corporate applications include a webcast radio program that is adding video via the Axis Network Camera, America's True racing sailboat and a construction company that is monitoring construction sites for both security and investor relations.

This kind of compact camera gadget also raises the question, why tie-up a camera, computer and other resources when you can improve your online video quality with a dedicated professional gadget?

Another way to do almost instant webcasting (this time with audio) is the new Polycom Streamstation. As their marketing material says, " You can turn a conference room into a ­webcasting studio.'" Like the Network Camera, this approach certainly does not replace the more creative aspects of our profession; however, it does define a new production style for ad hoc and relatively spontaneous video communications, especially for the corporate world.

The Polycom system builds on the audio of the company's almost ubiquitous conference room speaker phones and its increasingly popular video conferencing systems. Like everything else, professional video conferencing systems are increasing in quality, coming down in price and learning how to connect to the Internet, all at the same time. In fact, Polycom has become a new leader in this industry with high performance yet increasingly cost effective systems.

Now, Polycom has added a new dimension with the StreamStation. Built to be integrated with their ViewStation video conferencing systems, the StreamStation includes a built-in streaming video server. Initially, RealNetworks compatible, Polycom is also planning to make the StreamStation compatible with the Windows Media Player.

Again, this system vastly simplifies the process of putting video on the web. In the StreamStation's case, unlike the normal streaming video production, you do not need to capture your video onto a separate computer, and then compress it, and then post it to a server. All of that process happens automatically within the StreamStation. If you want to reach a larger audience than the dozens of simultaneous streams that the StreamStation supports, you can also configure the system to post your event to a higher bandwidth video server.

Polycom ViewStation/StreamStation systems start in the $10,000 range.

I've been impressed with many innovations from Sony. Among others, the VX-1000 was a mini-DV standard setter. The integration the VAIO sub-notebook's micro-digital camera with custom software is quite cool. And their new Digital8 format is perhaps the best value even in low-end digital video acquisition.

Their latest innovation is something that I don't think many people thought that they would see so soon: a camcorder that records to disk and offers built-in editing capabilities. Sony Electronics' VP of digital imaging marketing, Jay Sato described the new Sony MiniDisc (MD) Discam (DCM-M1) as "an all-in-one video capturing and editing camcorder that offers a fast and easy PC-free editing experience."

Hey, there's my definition of a "gadget." It's must be "PC-free."

This unit turns its viewfinder into a full-featured interface that includes touch-screen controls for indexing and sequencing video scenes complete with the necessary thumbnail reference images. Among many other features, this camera also includes titling and special effects scene transitions and touch-screen, pen-based handwriting for "instant titling and paint-type graphics." Each MiniDisc can record up to 20 minutes of video, but only "up to 10 minutes" at full resolution.

The DCM-M1 also includes an Ethernet port, but it's network-ability is limited. While the Discam's video is MPEG2 and can be transferred to a hard drive via Ethernet, its audio uses Sony's ATRAC or the MiniDisc codec; and those files are not yet PC or Mac compatible. I suspect that in the future this camera will be more useful for digital acquisition; however near-term, it's digital video output lacks audio which severely limits its usefulness in any professional context. MD Discam is expected to be available in January at consumer electronics retailers and through Sony VAIO Direct.

Not only is the video Web changing in almost every way imaginable, but it is also now clear that the world of "input devices" for web-based video content creation and acquisition is changing and will continue to change quite rapidly as well. In the process, once again, the definition of the video Web is expanding and morphing right before our eyes.

Next month, an overview of the video Web as we move into the new Millenium; but for now, more than ever, I must insist that you...; Stay tuned.

Jon welcomes feedback and suggestions via e-mail at [email protected]


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