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July 02, 2009

Table of Contents

The Moving Picture: Everything You Always Wanted to Know About H.264 but Were Afraid to Ask
Blackmagic Design Releases Software Update for all Videohub Routers
Matrox MXO2 Mini Now Provides Inexpensive HDMI Monitoring for AVCHD Editing with Adobe Premiere Pro CS4 and CineForm NeoScene
Zacuto Releases Handgrip Rig for iPhone 3Gs Video
Blackmagic Design Releases Linux SDK for DeckLink, Multibridge and Intensity
Sony Creative Software Releases Vegas Pro 9 Academic Edition

The Moving Picture: Everything You Always Wanted to Know About H.264 but Were Afraid to Ask

I recently taught an H.264-specific class at Streaming Media East in New York. Though the class was 3 hours long, I can distill a bunch of useful knowledge into this column if you don't mind missing the sample videos and example screens, not to mention the insightful and surprisingly compelling lecture. Let's begin.

H.264 is today's "it" codec because it was jointly created by the ISO and ITU, two standards bodies that together control the cell phone, television, and computer industries. Throw in the fact that Apple, Adobe, and Microsoft (for Silverlight) have all adopted H.264, and you've got a technology with lots of mojo.

One unique characteristic of H.264 is that unlike WMV and VP6, which are controlled by single vendors (Microsoft and On2, respectively), many different vendors have produced H.264 codecs and their quality varies significantly at lower bitrates when you're pushing the ragged edge of data rate efficiency. At the risk of increasing my hate mail by 400%, I'll state that at aggressive bitrates, Apple's codec in Compressor is clearly the least efficient H.264 codec, especially for HD output. On the other hand, the MainConcept codec in Sorenson Squeeze, Adobe Media Encoder, and Rhozet Carbon Coder and the Dicas Codec in Telestream's Episode line of products are roughly equivalent for both SD and HD output.

When producing H.264 video, you'll have a number of unique encoding options. First is the choice of profile. Briefly, profiles define the types of encoding techniques that can be used to produce the H.264 bitstream. The simplest Baseline profile uses the most basic techniques, which produces a stream that can be played back on low-power devices such as iPods. The Main and High profiles use more advanced encoding techniques, resulting in better quality but a stream that requires more CPU power to decode. The rule here is to use the Baseline profile for devices and the High profile for computer playback.

The next choice you'll face in the typical encoder is the number of B-frames and "reference" frames (B-frames and P-frames being the incomplete frames in a group of pictures used in a compression format such as H.264 or MPEG-2). As you may know, B-frames are the most efficient frames in the group of pictures (GOP), since they can benefit from interframe redundancies found both before and after the B-frame in the stream. P-frames can only look backward for interface redundancies, so are less efficient, while I-frames (also called key frames) are wholly self-referential, making them the least efficient frame. The magic number I recommend for B-frames is three, which creates a sequence such as this: IBBBPBBBPBBBPBBBP, which then repeats. By the way, as with all streaming files, I recommend one I-frame every 10 seconds, or one every 300 frames in a 30 fps file, and always enable the option to add I-frames at scene changes.

Reference frames defines the number of frames within which a B-frame can find redundancies. As you would guess, B-frames find redundancies in the nearest frames, so any value beyond five seems to inflate search times (and the resultant encoding time) without improving quality. Use five for reference frames when given this option.

The final H.264 encoding option that I'll address is entropy encoding, with two techniques available: CABAC and CAVLC. CABAC creates a higherquality, harder-to-compress stream, while CAVLC offers less quality but lower decode requirements. If you're producing for devices, CABAC isn't an option, since it's not available for the Baseline profile. If you're producing for computers, I recommend enabling CABAC and will point out that YouTube uses both the High profile and CABAC in its 720p H.264 encoded videos (check out the example here: www.youtube.com/watch?v=VJ5KJVCc5C4).

As mentioned, H.264 is now compatible with QuickTime and Flash and will be compatible Silverlight when Microsoft releases Silverlight 3.0 sometime during the second half of 2009. If producing for QuickTime playback, you can create either MOV or MP4 files. The Flash player can play these formats plus files encoded into an F4V stream, and Johnny-come-lately Silverlight promises to play files created with all three extensions. Note that all three players can play files produced using the High profile with all advanced encoding options enabled, so no worries there.

How about general configuration options such as resolution and data rate? Largely due to the historical work of a big company that only recently adopted H.264, there's a general impression among streaming producers that H.264 video files don't play back smoothly on low power computers. In my comparison tests, I found that H.264 required less CPU horsepower to decode than either VP6 or VC-1, which you can read about here: www.streamingmedia.com/article.asp?id=10776. Basically, if you're converting from the VP6 or VC-1 codecs, you should be able to use the same resolution and data rate for your H.264 files and produce better looking video that requires less CPU horsepower to play back.

All of this sounds great, but H.264 does have one significant negative, which is an as-yet-undefined royalty obligation starting in January 2011 (www.mpegla.com/avc/avc-faq.cfm). No one knows what the charge will be, and it's at least likely that there will be some de minimis exceptions for small websites. However, if you recommend that your major corporate clients adopt H.264, whether for producing podcasts or general web use, you need to advise them that they'll probably have to send checks to the MPEG LA for the privilege.

Jan Ozer (jan at doceo.com) is currently working on a book on using video on social networking and content aggregation sites to grow your business.

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Blackmagic Design Releases Software Update for all Videohub Routers

Blackmagic Design Inc. today released a major software update for all Videohub routers. Videohub 4.0 adds support for  a revolutionary "button view" control screen that is designed to be easy to use  on touch screen computers. Button view features an attractive design where users can choose from a number of icons of popular video equipment and the button layout is fully customizable.

Traditionally other routers have used very complicated software control that's often Windows only, and has too many router management features that make it hard for creative users to route video connections in busy television broadcast and post production facilities. Videohub 4.0 solves this problem, as router control is as simple as clicking large easy to understand buttons with custom icons the user can set to help make selecting the correct source and destinations quick and simple.

There are three Button View control panel windows that can be selected in Videohub 4.0. Two of these button views are designed for dedicated full screen use on 24 inch and 20 inch monitors when customers dedicate a computer as a router control panel. The new HP Touchsmart all in one desktop computers with touch screens are perfect as a low cost router control panel when used with Button Views. Users only need to touch the attractive buttons on screen and router cross-points are changed instantly. Videohub software is available for both Windows and Mac OS X, so iMac type computers can also be used.

The third type of Button View control panel window is a smaller 8 source x 4 destination size, and is designed to allow a fast to use control panel window for editors and designers on their desktop. Previous versions of Videohub software were limited to a popup menu design for changing router connections, however this Button View window features the same interface as the full screen button views. This view can be quickly minimized and opened so it's available when needed. Videohub 4.0 software also retains the previous popup control windows for users who want to keep using the router as before.

"I think the one weakness Videohub routers had in the past is the control software," said Grant Petty, CEO, Blackmagic Design. "We have been working on this issue for a long time, and finally we have provided software that's just as good as the Videohub routers themselves, and we now have the world's best looking router software that's just so fun and easy to use. It's really fantastic, and I cannot wait to see customers' reactions!"

Availability
Videohub 4.0 is available now as a free download for all Videohub router customers from the Blackmagic Design web site at www.blackmagic-design.com/support/.

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Matrox MXO2 Mini Now Provides Inexpensive HDMI Monitoring for AVCHD Editing with Adobe Premiere Pro CS4 and CineForm NeoScene

Matrox® Video Products Group today announced Matrox MXO2TM Mini support for the popular CineForm NeoScene editing workflow that streamlines AVCHD editing with Adobe Premiere Pro CS4 on the PC. The Matrox MXO2 Mini I/O device provides inexpensive HDMI monitoring with 10-bit 4:2:2 color precision. It turns an HDMI screen into a professional-grade video monitor with Matrox's unique color calibration tool. Controls for hue, chroma, contrast, brightness, and blue-only are provided. Users get accurate color representation so that an inexpensive HDMI monitor can be used even for color grading. Matrox MXO2 Mini even provides 1:1 pixel mapping on HDMI displays that support this feature so video will not be stretched and distorted by the monitor.

"CineForm users appreciate the high visual fidelity and realtime editing capability NeoScene brings to their AVCHD workflow but until now, they have not been able to enjoy full-screen previews of their work," said Francesco Scartozzi, Matrox sales director. "Matrox MXO2 Mini provides an affordable, high-quality, video output solution that greatly improves the AVCHD editing experience."

"The AVCHD camera format is designed for recording, not editing, but now with a few simple steps editors can benefit from professional realtime editing performance," said David Taylor, CineForm co-founder and CEO. With NeoScene, users can easily convert difficult-to-edit AVCHD files into CineForm's professional 10-bit Wavelet compression format for faster editing performance, plus conversion to 24p (24 progressive frames) for users who desire a cinematic presentation. We're excited about our collaboration with Matrox because of the enhanced editing experience that results; users can now drop their CineForm content on a CS4 timeline using a Matrox project preset and enjoy realtime playout through MXO2 to their preferred monitor or television.

Key features of Matrox MXO2 Mini

  • Works with Mac and PC, laptops and desktops
  • Small, lightweight, external box that's easily connected to cameras and monitors
  • Capture high definition video via HDMI or analog component; NTSC and PAL via analog component, S-Video, or composite
  • Playback high definition video via HDMI and analog component; NTSC and PAL via HDMI and analog component or HDMI and S-Video and composite
  • Output HD and SD video simultaneously
  • Turns an HDMI screen into a professional-grade video monitor with color calibration tools including blue-only
  • High-quality 10-bit hardware scaling engine for realtime upscaling, downscaling, and cross conversion on capture and playback
  • Stereo RCA and up to 8 channels of HDMI audio input and output
  • 5.1 and 7.1 surround sound monitoring on the HDMI output
  • Easily edit AVCHD footage by capturing into an edit-friendly compressed or uncompressed format
  • Works with leading applications including Final Cut Pro, Adobe Premiere Pro, Adobe Photoshop, and many more
  • Also available with Matrox MAXTM technology for faster than realtime H.264 encoding
  • Three-year hardware warranty and complimentary telephone support

Price and availability
NeoScene is available from www.cineform.com for $129, or can be purchased through CineForm's network of resellers and distributors. NeoScene is also available as a fully-functional trial download from CineForm's website.

Matrox MXO2 Mini, priced at $449 US (£338, €382) not including local taxes, is available through a worldwide network of authorized dealers. Each MXO2 Mini comes with the customer's choice of either an ExpressCard /34 laptop adapter or a PCIe desktop adapter. Additional adapters may be purchased separately at $99 US (£69, €83) each.

About CineForm Inc.
CineForm Inc. develops compression-based workflow solutions for the post production marketplace. Offering the industry's highest fidelity compression technology, CineForm is trusted among Hollywood filmmakers, television producers, videographers and digital media artists who rely on high image quality, high performance and innovative compression-based workflow solutions with up to 4k spatial resolutions for their online content creation projects. Available on both Windows and Mac platforms, CineForm workflow solutions are optimized for direct-to-disk camera recording, high-resolution post production and long-term content archives. For more information, visit www.cineform.com.

About Matrox
Matrox Video Products Group is a technology and market leader in the field of HD and SD digital video hardware and software for H.264 encoding acceleration, realtime editing, audio/video input/output, DVD/Blu-ray authoring, capture/playout servers, clip/still stores, and CGs. Matrox's Emmy award-winning technology powers a full range of content creation and delivery platforms used by broadcasters, post-production facilities, project studios, corporate communicators, and videographers worldwide. Founded in 1976, Matrox is a privately held company headquartered in Montreal, Canada. For more information visit www.matrox.com/video.

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Zacuto Releases Handgrip Rig for iPhone 3Gs Video

In rapid response to the release of the new iPhone 3Gs, Zacuto USA, leading indie camera accessories maker in the professional market, has released a handgrip iPhone rig, the Zgrip iPhone PRO. This rig attaches to the iPhone while shooting video and is the first serious solution for shooting video with the iPhone 3Gs.  

"We have had dozens of requests to create a product like the Zgrip iPhone for the new 3Gs iPhones that shoot video," explains Steve Weiss, Product Designer for Zacuto USA. "This handgrip rig is the ideal solution for unsteady iPhone video, it's easy to use and is quick to attach. Once you hold it, you'll see what we are talking about. It changes a phone to the form factor of a video camera and is necessary if you want to shoot real video."

The Zgrip iPhone PRO is a completely adjustable, quick releasable handgrip system for shooting professional stable video using the iPhone 3Gs. The handgrip fully articulates, and all of the red levers allow adjustment for every angle to get interesting, creative and smooth shots. Zacuto USA also has great accessories to help you shoot better sound, lighting, reach those high places and much more.

Zacuto USA has also put their words into action by creating a video to demonstrate the Zgrip iPhone PRO capabilities. All Zacuto products are designed and made in the USA and have a lifetime warranty.

 To learn more about the Zgrip iPhone PRO or watch the video go to: http://www.zgripiphone.com.  

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Blackmagic Design Releases Linux SDK for DeckLink, Multibridge and Intensity

Blackmagic Design Inc. today released support for software developers who want to use DeckLink, Intensity and Multibridge products on the Linux platform.

Support includes the software driver and an SDK for developers, and can be downloaded now from the Blackmagic Design web site, free of charge.

All developers now have a full featured Software Developer Kit (SDK) that allows any software developer to build custom Linux solutions. With products such as Blackmagic Design's DeckLink SDI at only US$295, customers now have a true 10 bit SD and HD-SDI capture and playback solution with tri-sync/black burst reference, low SDI jitter and RS-422 deck control that's extremely affordable. When combined with low cost PC hardware, Linux developers now have everything they need to build high end broadcast solutions.

"Using the Blackmagic DeckLink Linux SDK, we've been able to quickly add SD and HD-SDI capture to our web-based video editing platform, FORscene," said Jeremy James, Forbidden Technologies plc. "The affordable DeckLink SDI will allow us to offer integration without requiring unnecessary hardware features or external converters."

Availability
Linux SDK support is available from the Blackmagic Design web site at http://www.blackmagic-design.com/support/.

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Sony Creative Software Releases Vegas Pro 9 Academic Edition

Sony Creative Software, a leading provider of professional video and audio editing software applications, announced the winners of its second national student film contest, Technology in Motion: Community of the Future, at an awards ceremony last night during the National Educational Computing Conference in Washington, DC which is being held through July 1, 2009 at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center. Sony Creative Software is also announcing the release of a new Vegas Pro 9 Academic Edition which includes additional tools for classroom educators.

Technology in Motion is an educational program with a contest component that is designed for teachers to engage students in grades 6-12 in professional video and audio production. Each school that submitted an eligible entry received one launch kit, which included a free copy of Vegas Pro 8 (Promotional Edition) video and audio production software and CinescoreTM professional soundtrack creation software, along with video tutorials and a curriculum guide to structure the production process. All entries were required to address the theme "Community of the Future."

Each school uploaded their film submissions to the Technology in Motion website (www.techinmotioncontest.com) for judging by an expert panel comprised of professionals from the film and music industries. The panel ranked each qualifying film submission of which the top three were posted online for public voting which determined the final grand, second and third place winners of the contest.

The top three films were selected from hundreds of entries, with Pacific Coast High School in Tustin, California chosen as the grand prize winner for its submission, Full Circle. Second place was awarded to the film, The Future, from Lomas High School in Walnut Creek, California, and 2048: A Rock Opera from Red Bank Middle School in Red Bank, New Jersey won third place.

The Winning Films
Following is a description of the winning films:

* Full Circle explores the dichotomies of technology advancements, demonstrating that no invention could "make life easier without making it worse."

* The Future takes us into a world where everything is interactive and automatic, showcasing the potential dangers of being overly dependent on technology, especially when there's a glitch.

* 2048: A Rock Opera portrays the stages in which the human race could be affected by robots - both good and bad.

"Sony Creative Software is pleased to support this second national Technology in Motion competition. The program provides students and teachers with the latest software tools for video storytelling projects and effectively invigorates video education curriculums," said Dave Chaimson, vice president of worldwide marketing for Sony Creative Software. "We are proud to support educational initiatives, such as Technology in Motion, year round and congratulate all the students and faculty for their hard work and production achievements."

The prize packages awarded to grand, second, and third place winning schools include over $400,000 in retail value of Sony hardware and software products including, Vegas® Pro 8 Promotional Edition software, Sound Forge® 9 software and site licenses, ACID® Pro 7 software and site licenses, CinescoreTM software, Sony® Handycam® Camcorders and accessories. Twenty-five fourth place winners' prize packages include Vegas Pro 8 Promotional Edition software and Sony Handycam camcorders. Twenty-five fourth places winners were also identified and awarded prize packages.

Vegas Pro 9 Academic Edition
The new Vegas Pro 9 Academic Edition provides students and educators with an efficient and intuitive environment for video and audio production, as well as DVD and Blu-ray DiscTM authoring. Comprised of Vegas Pro 9 software, DVD ArchitectTM Pro 5 software and a Dolby® Digital Professional AC3 encoder, this collection supports nearly all video formats including popular HDVTM and AVCHDTM devices. With a full complement of effects and transitions, Vegas Pro 9 Academic Edition provides a truly creative environment in the classroom. In addition, the new Academic Edition includes user-friendly video tutorials to help quickly learn the software and an electronic Curriculum Guide with lessons, tests and sample media for easy integration into any classroom setting.

About Sony Creative Software
Sony Creative Software inspires artistic expression with its award-winning line of products for digital video, music, DVD, and audio production. The company develops applications that integrate with and enhance use of Sony cameras and other hardware devices. Sony Creative Software customers span the globe and include seasoned professionals in the film, television, video game, and recording industries, as well as students, educators, hobbyists, and enthusiasts. For more information about professional and consumer products, visit www.sonycreativesoftware.com.

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