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Q&A With Panasonic's Robert Harris

After
launching a slew of new products at last month's National Association of
Broadcasters convention, Panasonic is now looking to expand the reach of its
popular cameras and products. Robert Harris, vice president of marketing and
product development at Panasonic Broadcast & Television Systems, talked
with HD Update about the market's
reaction to their new gear and argues that the worst of the economic crisis is
over. An edited transcript follows:

Q: Coming out of theNABconvention, how do you see the economy
impacting the way broadcasters are upgrading or approaching HD?

A: We spent a lot of time with broadcasters at NAB and clearly everyone is being hit
pretty heavily by the economic situation. A lot of stations said that 25% to 30%
of their revenue was car dealership revenue, and that has been impacted by the
economy. They are clearly looking at doing things a little differently to
ensure everything they did was successful and had a good [return on investment].

It is
clearly a challenging time, but to me it felt like the worst of it is at least
bottoming out.

From a manufacturer's
standpoint, we are seeing pretty good sales. There is certainly more interest
on some of the less-expensive cameras. One of our big announcements recently
was a new P2 camcorder [the AG-HPX300 P2 HD Camcorder], a 10-bit, 4:2:2 camera with
AVC-Intra recording, but priced at $10,700
with a lens. We have a lot of stations looking at that and saying that for a
number of applications a 1/3-inch camera versus 2/3-inch may work.

But what we
are really seeing is a kind of a mix where they will buy some of the more
expensive cameras as well as these mid-range cameras.

We've also
done very well with P2. We've sold over 110,000 units worldwide and I think the
latest number in the U.S. is 340 stations. We offer a 5-year
warranty so maintenance costs goes way down and since it is a tapeless system,
there is a real savings in terms of media budgets.

I also
think there is a lot more interest in the ability to put metadata into a format
to easily catalog content and quickly access it. That's very interesting for a
lot of people, because they are looking to leverage the content they've created
on a lot of different platforms.

The other
big thing is that we've dramatically lowered the cost of P2 ownership with a new
economy card line that is, in many cases, half the cost of the other P2 cards. And
we're addressing capacity. We now have 64-Gigabyte cards. Many of our cameras
have five slots, so you are now talking about shooting for five hours at the
highest quality.

Panasonic
got there really early with the solid state, and now we see our competitors in
the industry following us. The world is going tapeless, I believe.

We've also
embraced AVC and incorporating the advantages of MPEG-4 versus the old MPEG-2
technology into our products. That not only provides exceptional bandwidth
efficiency and lowers storage costs. It also brings 10-bit 4:2:2 quality. We
have a clear direction at Panasonic for solid state and AVC.

Q: Some of your newer products have
been using a
CMOSimager, which would seem to be a less costly alternative for these
economic times.

A: HPX300 was the first product we came out with that we
call a 3-MOS imager. CMOS comes from the world of digital still photography, where it
is well-accepted and has improved steadily and we can now get some excellent
performance out of it. It gives us 2.2 Megapixel resolution.

It also
offers savings in terms of power consumption and other costs and the industry
is looking for ways to get the cost down and get the performance up, so we felt
it was ready for primetime. But we still have our higher-end cameras, a range
of cameras that use the CCD technology, which is of course excellent.

Q: But the technology has some
issues. How have you been dealing with those?

A: Because of the way the CMOS imager creates a picture you may
have a rolling shutter effect. The imager is sequentially scanning a scene
rather than just grabbing the whole image, so if a bunch of flash bulbs go off
that may impact the picture. But we've come up with a new technology, [a
firmware upgrade] that will compensate for this rolling shutter effect and pretty
much eliminate it.

We've also introduced
a new camera in the AVCCAM product line that is a very, very versatile camera
[the AG-HMC40 priced at $3,195.] It has high-definition
3-MOS imagers. It records on SD cards in both 720 and 1080 and also has the
ability to capture 10.6 Megapixel stills.

When you
look at many newspapers and broadcast stations, they are focusing more on Web
sites for local news and sports. With this kind of a relatively low-cost
camera, you can go out and shoot great video that you can put on the Web or use
for whatever other purpose and you can also capture these high-resolution still
images.

Q: You've also launched a new
switcher?

A: The AV-HS450 is kind of a follow-on to a product line
we introduced last year, the HS400, which was basically an 8-input multiformat switcher
with a multiviewer function.

That
product has done extremely well for a lot of field production or rental, as
well as for churches and corporate applications. We sold a lot of those units
and the question became how we step that up.

The 450,
which has 16 inputs, is really the next step. Like the 400, it handles both SD
and HD. Because everyone loved the multi-viewer function where you could see
all inputs and outputs on one screen, the 450 has 2 outputs so you can have 10
images on each one of the two screen. So it really eliminates the cost of a lot
of individual monitors, and allows you to transition to high-def without
throwing out all the standard-definition equipment because you can incorporate
both the SD and the HD.

Q: You've announced that you would
create a complete system for 3-D HD production. Do you have a timeline when that
will be available?

A: We haven't announced that yet. But we've said that
Panasonic is committed to it and we'd like to propose a technology that we
think is appealing to consumers as well as industry.

It's clear
that there is a lot of momentum, particularly in the movie industry, with
respect to 3-D. Since we are one of the leaders in full HD plasma technology,
we're going to produce an end-to-end solution. We are going to produce not only
the plasma display technology, but also blu-ray players that will support this
and technology that will allow you to create this 3D content.

We've shown
some concepts of how that would work and since our direction is both firmly
with solid state and AVC compression, we will certainly produce a technology in the
same type of format. While current AVC-Intra technology is 50 or 100 Megabit,
there is no reason why we can't scale this up in term of bandwidth and possibly
produce a dual channel system so you can record 3D images in the P2 format and
use higher bandwidth AVC compression.

Rather than
using the customized rigs that are used today for 3D production, our plan is to
create technology that is fully integrated and easy to use for distribution and
delivery of content as well as production.

Through
PHL, Panasonic Hollywood Labs, we will also offer encoding and authoring
services to help those who want to produce 3-D content.