Opposites Attract

What do NAB and E3, two seemingly diverse shows, have in common?
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Looking at them from the surface, you probably couldn't find two trade shows that are further apart than the annual National Association of Broadcaster's (NAB) convention and the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3).

NAB is the showcase for video and audio production, editing and transmission hardware of all kinds. Many of the products and services on display have large price tags, and while the attendee base has changed in recent years to include non-broadcast types, there is also a hard-core group of TV and radio station engineers who have to approve the hefty capital expenditures needed to buy what is on display at NAB.

E3 is, in some regards, a polar opposite. It is loud, the products on display are game consoles priced under $149 and software that tops out at a third of that and it seems as though the average age of attendees is low enough that most would have a hard time buying a drink at the Convention Center bars. The attendees here are assessing products that are sold at retail, rather than programs that are distributed via broadcast, cable or satellite.

What do these two seemingly diverse shows have in common that make the opposites attract? It is that they are, at their cores, about programming, though clearly in different forms and with different types of distribution. For the output of what is made by the attendees at either show to make a profit, someone has to watch and listen to it, and that requires audio/video playback devices along with an increasing reliance on connectivity and home networking. As the markets served by the two shows compete for eyeballs, you are in the center as the key piece of the puzzle that services the upscale installations into which the programming is taken.

Getting inside the tent of the production world and the video game universe is more important than ever, despite the fact that those two worlds seem as apart from each other as they do from our task as designers and installers. What goes on at those shows will have a great influence on the expectations for viewing and listening environments throughout the house.

That being said, the big news at NAB that affects home video installations was the movement by equipment manufacturers and software suppliers to make HD video production more affordable at the lower end of the spectrum, and more complete and available at the high-priced side of the world. Two themes that support the former come from JVC and Apple, and those also seemingly diverse companies were more aligned in their direction than one might think.

Through its products, JVC was promoting the notion that any broadcaster or program producer that can afford decent quality "SD" video production is now able to shoot in HD. JVC, Sony and Panasonic are introducing camcorders and other key pieces of video production and editing gear that may well cut the cost of HD "shoots" in half. With this newfound affordability, the last missing piece of the HD puzzle-local program origination-may finally begin to take off.
Apple mirrored the cause of spreading HD where it hasn't gone before with a straightforward message in the signs above their massive booth. "HD for Everyone, Everywhere" was the message, and it was hard to miss. Thanks to the availability of an HD version of Apple's popular Final Cut Pro editing suite that is $999 on its own, $399 as an upgrade or available in a package with a PowerPC Macintosh for under $5,000, one now has easy and inexpensive ways to edit, as well as shoot HD.

Tie the offerings from these and other companies who showed modestly priced HD gear at NAB, together and all sorts of opportunities appear. For those with the urge to produce, you can use an HDV camcorder and Apple's (or other similar) HD editing program to shoot and edit your own HD demo material for under $10,000. That same gear can produce spots that you can run in HD on the local TV stations as long as you are able to dub it over into a playback format that they are able to handle. In many cases, that is more than they may be able to do themselves. Remember, the more HD, the merrier. The more HD, the easier it is to sell your mid to low-end jobs with HD sets in rooms other than the theater or main home recreation area.

At the other end of the spectrum, equipment suppliers were announcing gear that fills in the missing picture for high-end sports and entertainment production. Specifically, Thomson's Grass Valley brand showed off a "Super Slo-Mo" camera that works in conjunction with HD disc drive systems to replace standard definition equipment that still must be used for the most popular of sports video production techniques, the instant replay. Fox will use this gear for their full slate of HD football broadcasts this year, and the mobile units being built to cover those games will also mean that more sports and entertainment shows will be able to shoot in HD year round.

Perhaps the only thing missing from the HD equation coming out of NAB was a firm announcement as to which Olympic events NBC will broadcast in HD from Athens. Nothing has been said yet as to how much will be over the air, and how much (if any) will be available via cable. While we don't have the answers at this time, talking about this subject serves as a reminder that you will want to make certain that all of your HD installations have the requisite off-air and/or cable tuners and connectivity needed for what is sure to be an "HD Must See."
The mention of "Games" is good transition to E3, where games of all sorts are the topic of interest. By now you have undoubtedly read the high points as reported in the popular and business press. Yes, Sony has lowered the price for PlayStation2 to $149, and introduced a new portable game unit, the PSP. Yes, Microsoft has announced a November release date for the next version of Halo, and they have added the very popular sports games from the Electronics Arts to their list of Xbox Live offerings. Yes, Nintendo did introduce its dual-screen, hand-held game, the "DS", but no, Nintendo still doesn't have an online solution for Game Cube. On a more global, industry-wide basis, none of the three major console suppliers did anything more than dance around what their plans are for their "3rd Generation" consoles, such as PlayStation3 and Xbox2.

While all of this may be the news that your clients read in the consumer press, there is the "news behind the news" that you need to be aware of so that you can...stay ahead of the game.

If there was one common theme to the presentations by all three console combatants, it was their statements that increased attention will be given to bringing the "casual gamer" into the tent. That, dear reader, means that they will introduce games and promotions that will try to lure your clients, not their children or grand children into buying a console and playing games for an hour or so, as opposed to the hours on end that the "hard core" gamer spends in front of the set. If those efforts are successful, that means that you will always want to remember to suggest that a game console (or two) be part of the home theater or office system, complete with a broadband network connection for the now mandatory online gaming experience.

While you are at it, don't forget to add a component video and digital audio output adapter to the game. Those connections are easily forgotten by the casual, do-it-yourself installation, but when contemporary games are viewed on a large screen via a component connection the results can be stunning. (WARNING: Don't forget to remind the user to avoid long-term gaming with static images on CRT or plasma based displays so that there is no risk of burn-in.)

While including the game console, connectivity package and broadband connection with a game, another message from E3 tells you also to include provisions to add a USB connection so that an EyeToy (for PS2) or standard USB camera (for Xbox) may be connected to the game console's location. If the game is in a theater installation, this is also an opportunity to add some special lighting that allows the camera to view its subject with sufficient clarity without distracting from the theater's ambience. If anything, play this up by creating a spotlight's pool of light and a "mark" on the floor that gives a stage-like atmosphere to the camera-involved games.

Sony was first with their introduction of EyeToy, and it has been wildly successful. New games built around the technology move beyond simply placing you in the game to using color and body recognition so that with games such as AntiGav your body becomes the game controller as you duck, bob, tilt and weave to guide your hover board through a series of courses and adventures. This type of stand-up, interactive game may be just the type of thing to turn a home theater into a new entertainment experience that is far removed from the image of a teenage couch potato lying in front of the TV for hours on end. More importantly, it allows you to provide true added value by building a serious part of an installation from a seemingly inexpensive, under $50 game accessory.

For their part, Microsoft is taking a different approach to integrating a camera into the game world. First, when the software enabling it is ready for download to Xbox Live connected consoles later this fall, Xbox will be compatible with most simple "web cam" type devices, rather than requiring a platform-specific camera as is the case with EyeToy. Next, Microsoft's view of video integration goes beyond more than using it inside the game, but as a key part of the Xbox Live service they will use the camera to enable two-way video conversation and "video messaging" between gamers. If nothing else, this becomes the latest incarnation of videophones, perhaps leading a client to have you install an Xbox, broadband and the camera for grandparents. That would clearly help their goal to raise the demographic profile of "gamers," while giving distant relatives an easy way to see and talk to other members of the family.

Moving back to industry hardware leader Sony, it might be too easy to dismiss the noise generated around Sony's PSP hand-held game as something not relative to home installations. But, looking closer it also will present some interesting opportunities for the systems integration world. That is due to Sony's positioning of PSP as more than just a game, but also as an audio and video playback device.

No, it doesn't have a hard drive, as that is left to Apple's iPod and Sony's possible contender in the form of the VAIO Pocket device with a color screen and hard drive that is now on sale in Japan and perhaps soon to be available in North America. However, in addition to a new "UMD" (Universal Media Disc) optical disc and a slot to accommodate Memory Stick Pro Duo cards, the unit also has both 802.11b and USB 2.0 connectivity. Both of those figure into Sony's intentions to not only allow the PSP devices to stream or download audio and video content from the internet or a host PC, but to allow for PSP gamers to not only play against other PSP owners, but to also play against gamers on a PC or at a remote location when connected through the internet.

Again, while wireless is intended to be easy to install and configure, we all know that isn't always the case. The connectivity PSP will offer in both peer-to-peer and peer-to-host applications will require a bit of network fine tuning that may simply be beyond what your clients have the skill, patience or merely the time to do themselves. After all, isn't that what you want them to think of your company's purpose? In particular, when the host game or PC is installed in a home or location that has no wireless access, you will need to use your networking skills to select, install and configure a wireless access point, bridge or repeater that, in combination, bring the desired PSP connectivity throughout the house and out into the backyard.

A final piece of PSP related news is that you don't have to worry about getting all of this installed overnight, as PSP will not be available in North America until some time during the first quarter of 2005. As to its price, none was announced during E3. Best bets place it as probably being in the $299 to $399 range, perhaps a bit less, possibly even a bit more. Whatever the price, it is unlikely to be in a range that will make it a toy for teens. Like iPod, which is similarly not inexpensive, it will be an "aspirational" product that teens and "Gen Xers" hope to get as a holiday or birthday gift, while your clients quietly snap them up to play in a rare moment alone on a plane or when no one is looking. So much the better for you, and yet another cog in the wheel that goes to involve a slightly older, higher income demographic in the gaming experience.

Once again, the major take away from many of the hardware and interactive related handheld and console game news at E3 is not in the cost of the actual hardware itself, particularly since the distribution channels for game consoles typically makes it difficult for the custom installer to have first hand access to them. Rather, it is in the way that you use your skills to integrate them into the home theater or greater residential environment along with other gear you sell to provide not only additional revenue, but the creation of jobs that show you are the expert and seamlessly integrating all kinds of technology and making them easy to use and view with the highest quality.

Going back to our theme for this month, it appears that as you learned back in science class, opposites do, indeed, attract. Seemingly inexpensive games can lead to big installation add-ons for you. More modestly priced HDTV production and post production gear can lead to more programs, which means more HD set (and set top) sales and installations for you. Now, if we can only get to really put the opposites of the NAB crowd and the E3 crowd together to create more video games that render out in true 720P or 1080i high definition we would have video nirvana.

Having heard here about what will be available in the months ahead to view on HD screens and how some of it will be created, one might easily ask what will be in your arsenals this "season" to sell into your customers' homes. Many of those products are being previewed as you read this by many of the major brands during what is known as "line show season."

Michael Heiss (CaptnVid@aol.com) is a technology and marketing consultant based in Los Angeles.

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