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Sony pushes tapeless ENG

Sony is rolling out an optical-disk-based camcorder that may signal a new era in electronic newsgathering, according to TV news executives who have handled prototypes.

"This will do amazing things to transform how we think of field production," says Gordon Castle, CNN senior vice president, strategic digital systems. "People talk about transitions like film to videotape, but that was a format change that was still linear media to linear media. This is linear media to nonlinear media, and that's a pretty fundamental change."

The camcorder makes its debut this week at a New York press conference along with other new products that Sony will be exhibiting at the NAB convention in April. Sony declined to comment on the technology or its marketing plans prior to the press conference.

News organizations like CNN have been interested in optical-disk-based recording for a number of years, envisioning the ability to quickly download content recorded on the disk into a nonlinear editing system. Transfer speeds for tape-based formats have maxed out at four times real time. That leaves it up to other formats—most notably, optical disk-based recording or hard-disk recording—to improve those transfer speeds. The disadvantage of hard-disk recorders is the high-cost of the hard disk.

The new Sony format is expected to allow users in the field to transmit low-res "proxy" video back to a station at up to 30 times real-time speed, depending on speed of the connection and bit rate of the video. That will give editors at the station a chance to get a jump on rough-cut editing so that, when the disk with the content returns from the field, they can download only the necessary footage.

One limitation of the format is that the download speed of the high-res video maxes out at four times real time, which could be a problem in persuading broadcasters to swap out tape-based systems for disk-based systems.

"I want to pull every tape machine out of my facility," said one engineering executive familiar with the new product. But, he added, the Sony unit as it stands isn't a compelling buy because the transfer speed is still only four times.

Castle counters that those transfer limitations occur only when content is being sent to another video-based system, such as a video server. Because the camcorder is essentially a computer with a lens, though, it can send content as files.

"If you want to hook it up to an Ethernet line or even to the public Internet and transfer a file, you can do that," he explains. "And it will be sent to the studio in its exact form."

Sony developed tape-based ENG in the early 1970s. Within 10 years, most TV news organizations had abandoned 16mm film for the convenience and speed of tape. Sony has dominated the market over the past 30 years, although Panasonic and others continue to challenge it.

According to TV news engineers, Sony's Blu-ray optical disk is next-generation DVD technology that can hold between 23.3 GB and 27 GB of data on a single-sided, single-layer DVD-size disk.

Current DVD recording technology uses red laser light and can hold about 4.7 GB of data. Blu-ray can hold more information because the tracks are less than half as wide as those on a DVD disc and the pits are smaller, the engineers say.

Specifics on the technology are still closely held, but those who have seen prototypes say it will be able to record in the DV25 format as well as MPEG IMX at 30 Mb/s, 40 Mb/s and 50 Mb/s. Recording capacity varies by bit rate: at DV25, it can hold 90 minutes; at 30 Mb/s, 75 minutes; at 40 Mb/s, 57 minutes; and 50 Mb/s, 45 minutes.

"Someone in the field can basically feel like they're integrated and sitting in the studio on a fancy server," says Castle, "and that's pretty amazing."