Letter from America: Eating Where the Natives Eat - a flavour of SMPTE and HPA events
By Michael Heiss, HiddenWires.
There's an old saying that when looking for a good ethnic restaurant, you should look for one where peo...
By Michael Heiss, HiddenWires.
There's an old saying that when looking for a good ethnic restaurant, you should look for one where people of that nationality are already patrons. After all, 'Eat Chinese food where the Chinese eat,' right? Surely you have thought or done that somewhere along the line. Of course, that might not always be a good metric as the night you go to that restaurant may be the night where those native folks are tired of their own food and have gone to where YOU eat. After all, as an Armenian friend of mine once said when I asked him for a good Armenian restaurant, 'Why go to one of those? I eat that stuff at home all of the time. I want something different!'
While those of us on the residential side of the market have our own events, sometimes we want to eat, or more precisely 'drink' from the fountain of knowledge in another related, but still relevant, area. For that reason, as these Letters relate, I often attend conventions outside of our direct area of interest to see what I can 'drink' or absorb that has relevance in the residential entertainment/automation/systems integration field. So it was with the SMPTE (Society of Motion Picture & Television Engineers) Annual Technical Conference (ATC), held in mid-October in the heart of Hollywood. Giving a show-biz flavour to the otherwise somewhat geeky proceedings, the Hollywood Post Alliance (HPA) symposium was held one day before the ATC took place in the famous El Capitan Theater, while the ATC's sessions and exhibits were across the street on Hollywood Boulevard in the Ray Dolby Ballroom of the Hollywood & Highland complex, where the Governors Ball is held each year after the Oscars are handed out, with some also in the historic TCL Chinese Theater.
[caption id="attachment_7080" align="aligncenter" width="600"] When was the last time you attended a technical conference where the opening session featured the 'Theatre Organist of the Year' playing show tunes on a massive, old-fashioned organ? (Source: Ryan Miller, Capture Imaging).[/caption]
For almost a century, SMPTE has, literally, set the standards used in film and video production. The ATC is where the geniuses and 'bit-heads' who invent things and then figure out the best way to use them present papers with esoteric and often mind-numbing titles. These might include 'Applying AXF Tools from the Set through Production Workflows', or 'A Tutorial on Photometric Dimensions and Units'. Actually, the latter was interesting, almost understandable and useful; the former, not so much.
[caption id="attachment_7081" align="aligncenter" width="600"] During the Monday exhibits in the basement of the El Capitan, standard video was compared with HDR (High Dynamic Range). HDR won, hands down. (Source: Ryan Miller, Capture Imaging).[/caption]
Regardless, listening to four days of papers was, on one hand, like drinking from a fire hose, but on the other hand it was like looking over to the next table at that ethnic restaurant to see what people were eating, ask about it, and then having learned something, perhaps order it yourself. In that spirit, this month's Letter will give you a taste of the SMPTE ATC by quoting some of the comments that were relevant to our part of the world, particularly as the SMPTE gear-heads influence how 4K video and immersive audio content is captured, stored, edited/mixed and ultimately distributed and displayed/listened to. What we heard there has more impact on what we will provision and both when and how we install it than you might think.
[caption id="attachment_7082" align="aligncenter" width="600"] SMPTE is a just a few years short of its centenary. No, I haven't been a member THAT long![/caption]
There are those among us who always complain about standards, the lack thereof, or the fact that they change too frequently. It may not make you feel better, but our industry is not alone in that regard. Thus, when you are confronted with a question about which standard to use for a particular application, while thinking it over, why not toss out this pearl from one of the speakers at the HPA symposium a day before the main ATC event: 'SMPTE has a lot of standards; pick the one that works for you!' Sometimes good advice - sometimes probably not when the success of a job depends on compatibility with a standard such as HDCP 2.2 or similar.
A few other morsels in the form of quotes from the sessions that are food for thought: 'A standard does not guarantee interoperability.' Isn't that the truth! When a client installs something in a system on their own, and tells you it adheres to a 'standard' but it still doesn't work, kindly remind them of that sage comment.
In a similar vein, one speaker reminded those present, 'Don't confuse standard names with the actual technology.' Also true, as he pointed out that, for example, 'Wi-Fi is NOT a technology - it is a marketing/compliance body.' Very true, and something worth using when clients or prospects pose technical questions. Indeed, Wi-Fi is not only 'not a technology', it really isn't a standard. Wi-Fi, when appropriately applied, is a validation that a product is compliant with the applicable IEEE 802.11 a/b/c/n/ac standard.
[caption id="attachment_7079" align="aligncenter" width="600"] SMPTE's work on Standards and other activities over the course of almost 100 years has won it an Oscar and multiple Emmy awards, as displayed here outside the Ray Dolby Ballroom during SMPTE’s recent Annual Technical Conference. Oh, to have one of those on my mantelpiece…[/caption]
When faced with a choice of which standard, or in general which technology approach to use in solving a design or installation problem, we often see ourselves as the oracles with the wisdom to choose. Sometimes that is the case, but in tricky situations where the chosen solution will have an impact on room design, the dreaded 'significant other acceptance factor' or more practical issues, such as cost and degree of difficulty, are we really the ones who should make the final decision? Even the learned SMPTE members face that problem as they, the 'engineers', have to provide options to what they call 'the creatives'.
A wise quote on that point was offered by Mark Schubin, multiple Emmy-winning broadcast technology consultant, historian and all-round guru, who reminded attendees in his keynote address that 'It's not up to the engineers to tell the creatives what to do. Give them the tools and let them make the decisions.' We, of course, often wear two hats as both 'engineers' who have to give the 'tools' to our clients and their architects and designers, while at the same time serving as being 'creative', ourselves as we struggle with how to design a system using technology and standards. Wearing two hats at the same time is a challenge, but if we remain aware of that being our place in the grand scheme of things, it will help us to not only do our jobs better, but develop better client relationships.
[caption id="attachment_7083" align="aligncenter" width="400"] Technology consultant, Mark Schubin. If you have ever watched a broadcast of the NY Metropolitan Opera or Live from Lincoln Center, he is the true genius behind the audio systems. (Source: Ryan Miller, Capture Imaging).[/caption]
A Realistic Approach
Sometimes, what you hear is obvious, but it reminds you of something forgotten and worth remembering. No comment needed on this quote from the SMPTE stage by Steve Poster, ASC, a noted cinematographer, "There's a big difference between what we CAN do and what can AFFORD to do." He was talking about shooting in 4K and taking the somewhat expensive route to go all the way through the post-production path in 4K. But the principle could apply to how we design systems according to what the client wants and needs as opposed to what might look good to us.
For marketing materials and presentations, many in the custom world have struggled with how to describe the totality of a home theatre with 4K/UHD video and immersive audio via Dolby Atmos or Auro-3D. The speaker who called it 'The Next Generation Content Experience' may have hit it right on the mark, though I might change that to the 'Next Generation Immersive Entertainment Experience'. Either way, more modified to fit your needs, it is food for thought from our SMPTE ATC table.
As one might expect, there was much discussion of 4K and 8K video. High resolution is certainly important, but when evaluating the difference between displays with 8-bit resolution versus those with 10-bit or higher video, consider another quote from Steve Poster: 'I'd rather have more bit-depth than resolution.' Of course, we'd rather have both, but as creatives such as Mr. Poster push for content with great colour depth, we should look for that in displays along with the UHD resolution specifications. I certainly will!
On another practical aspect of translating the cinema experience to the home, particularly at a time when we are beginning to see products for Dolby Atmos and Auro-3D, both of which use 'height' and/or in-ceiling speakers, one quote stood out that might assist when you face client resistance to that type of placement. A scientist/engineer from the Fraunhofer Institute, the folks behind MP3 and many other well-known audio/video technologies, commented that '…tests show that four height speakers provide substantial improvement over 22 speakers…', referring to the audio system long-used by NHK in their 8K demos. The proof point there is that the likes of Atmos and Auro-3D do make a difference when compared to alternative and more expensive/expansive systems.
[caption id="attachment_7085" align="aligncenter" width="600"] Next time your client asks for 22 speakers, remind them about the findings of the Fraunhofer Institute: that four height speakers (left) are better than the two-layer 22.2 system shown here (right).[/caption]
Sometimes what you overhear at a restaurant of any cuisine is something you can then throw out as a great cocktail party quote for both emphasis and, well, because it sounds good when you want to really impress someone. Consider this SMPTE ATC session quote from Jeffery Riedmiller, Sr. Director of the Sound Group in Dolby's 'Office of the CTO'. To further drive the value proposition for 'immersive' and 'object-based' audio, he opined that 'the world is converging on Cartesian (X/Y/Z) audio.' Doesn't expressing the concept of 3D audio that way make you sound smart?
Or, when you're at the restaurant yourself and are just looking for a cinema-related factoid to break the ice, how about this one, brought up in a paper on 'Making Do With More'? Question: name the most viewed film that is not a theatrical movie. Answer: the Zappruder film of JFK's assassination.
We Still Need to Compress
Your dining companions at our technically-based buffet probably know 'Moore's Law', a famous comment dating back to 1965 when Intel co-founder Gordon Moore observed that the number of transistors on an integrated circuit will double approximately every two years. On the other hand, I'll bet that few can answer this question posed by SMPTE Fellow and video engineering legend Yves Faroudja: 'How often does the bandwidth demand for video double?' The answer, at least at this point in time, is about every three years. To make the point as to why we need compression, then ask how long it has taken to double compression scheme efficiency. The answer, at least according to Faroudja, has been ten years!
It's almost time for the next seating at our technical restaurant table, so I will leave you with some final thoughts from a session on 'Design Considerations for Cinema Exhibition using Laser Illumination'. The first is a quote where the speaker suggested that the goal of improved quality for cinema presentation is 'Anything to get people out from sitting in front of their big 4K screen.' Nice to know that what we do is setting a high bar for cinema theatres. A great proof point to offer your clients and prospects!
[caption id="attachment_7084" align="aligncenter" width="600"] During the HPA Symposium, the engineers were the 'stars' on Hollywood Blvd. (Source: Ryan Miller, Capture Imaging).[/caption]
On the other hand, a cautionary note from the same seminar track for those of us who use 'Isn't this image and sound just like the real thing – doesn't that make the cost worthwhile?' argument to justify system choices. Perhaps that works for a music-only system, but for movies keep in mind a somewhat rhetorical question posed to the attendees: 'Is a glass window to reality really the goal (of high-quality image presentation)?' Careful – it is somewhat of a trick question.
The answer, at least from the speaker's perspective, was 'no'. 'Focusing attention is key…they don't want reality, they want to shape an experience.' Hmm, that's interesting given further debate and commentary over whether High Frame Rate (HFR) presentations such as the recent Lord of the Rings film 'looked too real – like video'. Reality, the speaker suggested, has NO frame rate. Indeed, throughout the week's events one was left with the impression that the end-game of the 'frame rate debate' will be techniques and technology that will allow directors and their cinematographers to vary the frame rate within a film to use what best suits the nature of a specific scene. Video is what makes that possible and we'll all benefit from it.
All in all, the 2014 SMPTE ATC and HPA Symposium presented, if you will, a great meal. There was much to soak in, and were it a restaurant and I a reviewer, the events would be given five stars. However, the waiting staff is hovering and I have to pay the bill and give up my table. Eating in a restaurant where the 'locals' eat can teach you quite a lot. I will certainly be back when we gather for the HPA's Tech Retreat in February and the SMPTE ATC next October. Rest assured, I will do more than send a postcard!
SMPTE Member Michael Heiss is a technology consultant and journalist, CEDIA Fellow, CEDIA ESC 2 Certified, and US correspondent for HiddenWires. You can contact Michael by leaving a message below, or via the HiddenWires LinkedIn group, or follow him on Twitter @captnvid. for regular industry updates.