1 March 2017
4K Video and a New Generation of Drones Take Flight at US A/V Expo
The rise of 4K video, the growing use of 360-degree VR systems and the liberation of drones from restrictive legal requirements were the dominant topics at the NAB Show New York, one of the US' leading audio-visual showcases.
The recent NAB Show New York set out to showcase the very latest innovations in the audio-visual sector. It also welcomed a wide spectrum of exhibitors, ranging from well-established big-brand international manufacturers to recent start-ups targetting particular niches.
Overall, one of the most widely debated issues at the event was the impact of 4K, the increasingly popular high-definition video standard. Looking to capitalise on the wide uptake of the system, Canon – the Japanese-headquartered tech giant – was showing the C700, its new 4K-enabled camera.
With the company clearly having high hopes for the product, Professional Market Specialist Paul Hawxhurst said: "The C700 is the big thing that we are showing this year. It's our flagship camera and has been designed strictly for cinema-quality production."
With 4K resolution of increasing importance in the sector, more and more companies are looking to produce content in this ultra-high-definition format, a development that has seen a surge in demand for the required equipment. Acknowledging this, Hawxhurst said: "The industry is looking for a 4K ALEXA [a popular digital motion-picture camera introduced by Arri in 2010]. The people who are looking for 4K are the likes of Netflix and Amazon – all of these companies now have a 4K mandate."
High quality, of course, does not come cheap, as Hawxhurst readily pointed out, saying: "Starting out with the body alone, it is going to cost you US$28,000, with the additional accessories coming in on top of that. The camera's viewfinder, for one thing, is unique. It's 1920 x 1080, which makes it the highest resolution viewfinder you can buy.
"One good thing is that it also works on the C300 Mk2. It's great for rental houses, as they can buy one viewfinder and get multiple use out of it on different cameras."
Once 4K video has been created, of course, it then has to be distributed, with its enhanced resolution placing considerably greater demands on bandwidth. Identifying a number of the early adopters of the system, Bill Cassidy, Associate Vice-president for Sales for Vitec, a Massachusetts-based video distribution company, said: "We see 4K as very much the emerging standard. While it's still at an initial stage, we already have some 4K products and we are starting to see people looking for that. We've already seen it used in sports stadiums for projecting on large displays. The obvious appeal is the higher resolution it offers."
Although high resolution, 4K video is still lacking a dimension compared with the other innovation currently taking the sector by storm – 360 degree virtual reality (VR) filmmaking. Unsurprisingly, then, several exhibitors at the event had a wide variety of 360 VR equipment on offer.
Looking to take a lead here was New York-based Freedom360, with Alvin Ho Young, the company's Chief Marketing Officer, keen to point out the capabilities and reliability of its latest generation of 360 video cameras. He said: "What we want to demonstrate to buyers is that our products are already being used for large-scale projects – rockets blasting off with two and half million tons of thrust, that kind of thing.
"One of the great things that we are now experiencing is a whole new level of engagement with the broadcasters here in New York. As with a lot of other content creators, they are very keen to learn how they can bring their shows, their properties and their IP into the VR space in a creative way."
According to Ho Young, 360 VR is now starting to mature as a filmmaking technique, a development that has seen content producers looking to move beyond the novelty factor to find out how they can exploit its unique potential. Expanding on this, he said: "The next step is how to make content that's compelling and episodic, things that people will come back to two, three or even 10 times and see something new on every occasion. These are the kind of exciting possibilities that a lot of companies are now beginning to understand. People are not shooting VR just for VR's sake any more. They want to tell a great story using the medium.
"As VR production techniques and equipment are now more sophisticated than people could have imagined, story has become incredibly important. Most people, when they go on vacation, for example, don't want to just fall asleep. They want to go horseback riding, they want to be part of the festival down in the small village next to the resort. They want to do things and, in a similar fashion, having an actual story, a compelling narrative, acts to hold your attention."
Another to note the evolution in the way this immersive technology is now being utilised was Justin McLaughlin, Marketing Director for 360Rize, a California-based VR-camera manufacturer. He said: "Not so long ago, people were just shooting stuff because it looked cool. There wasn't, however, a lot there to hold an audience's attention.
"Now, though, we're seeing sectors such as breaking news emerging as areas where people are shooting content. It has the advantage of giving the viewer a genuine first-person perspective. In this respect, news is the perfect sector, with people reporting overseas from different locations, including war zones.
"Wildlife cinematography is another area with huge potential, showing people African wild animals that they might otherwise never get to see, for instance. Then there is sport – offering a truly immersive perspective at sporting events has obvious appeal."
For Ho Young, understanding customer requirements is the key to the effective use of 360. He said: "Everyone would love to shoot with a prototype rig at night, on a car moving 60 miles an hour – everyone would love to have that flexibility. If you are shooting a training video, though, if it's about safety zones in the workplace, you don't really need to go to the extremes. We want people to strategically identify what they want from 360. They may then find it doesn't cost quite as much as they anticipated."
While the view from within events may be truly immersive, taking the view from above is also becoming more deliverable and affordable, with drone-mounted cameras getting cheaper and becoming more flexible. One of the pioneers in the drone camera stakes has been New York-based Stampede.
Explaining the company's approach to unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) photography, Sales Manager Robert Luther said: "A lot of the market focuses on hardware, the drone, the camera, but what we have managed to do is take that two steps further to command and control – asking: 'What are you going to do with that data? How you going to process it? How are you going to analyse it and how you going to store it?'
"The last piece of our puzzle is services. This involves training, teaching people how and where to fly a drone. It also means telling them how to get the proper exemptions."
Luther believes drone-mounted cameras have come a long way in a comparatively short time, moving from being a novelty to an invaluable labour-saving tool. He said: "The drone category started out with cameras, aerial cinematography if you like. The initial appeal, then, was its facility for allowing cinematographers to go and shoot from a completely different vantage point.
"Over the past two to three years, though, other markets and other applications have emerged – inspection, precision agriculture, surveying, mapping... We are now seeing companies in those sectors realising the potential ROI."
In some markets, though, the use of drones has been curtailed by regulations and safety concerns, especially with regard to flights over densely-populated areas. Believing that this may have changed, though, Luther said: "A lot of markets are restricted by a variety of regulations, making it too difficult for the general consumer or a commercial business to enter that sector.
"At the end of August 2016, though, the United States Federal Aviation Authority released Part 107, a series of guidelines that have eased the restrictions and opened up the market. As a result, the market has boomed in the US and continues to do so. Now, a lot of other countries are looking to take a similar route."
As drone-mounted cameras have become more popular and found an increasing number of commercial applications, there is now a greater need for highly efficient operating systems. This is an area where the New Jersey-based Brother International Corporation believes its latest range scores highly.
Introducing its new system, Josh Hardy, a Senior Director with the company, said: "The AIRScouter WD-200 is a 720p LCD display set in a lightweight head-mounted device. It can handle a HDMI output of up to 720p. It can be sent straight to the display and then you have it right in front of your eyes.
"Basically, we have two set-ups here, with one being for the camera operator. When using a traditional camera, you have to have your head and your camera aligned to see through the viewfinder, which can make using it more complicated, especially when it comes to low shots or high shots. With our system, you have the display right in front of your eyes and you can then move your camera around more freely.
"The other set-up we have is specifically for drone use. Drone cinematography is a growing area, as is commercial drone piloting in a number of other sectors. Our system allows you to see exactly what your drone is seeing. You can frame your shots through the AIRScouter display while leaving your eyes free to maintain control over the drone.
"We feel that the system has a genuinely commercial application. It's going to do away with the requirement for having a second person in a camera team. You don't need a dedicated handler to manage camera operations as you can always see what you are doing as you move around. Neither do you need a second spotter for any commercial drone operations, as one person is able to handle both of these roles."
The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) Show 2016 was held at New York City's Jacob K Javits Convention Center from 9-10 November. The event was attended by 362 exhibitors and more than 15,000 visitors from 87 countries.
James O'Donnell, Special Correspondent, New York