Pill popping at the HPA Tech Retreat

By in M&E
On March 2, 2016

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The HPA Tech Retreat is an informal gathering of industry-engineering, technical,  creative and business leaders from all aspects of digital-cinema, post-production, film, television, video, and related technologies. The event includes some of the broadcast industry’s leading figures including our own, Melanie Crandall.

It was a balmy 85 degrees on day four at the HPA Tech Retreat in Indian Wells, California. The morning kicked off with a candid, stream-of-consciousness session from Ben Rosenblatt, co-producer of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. What could be better? He was funny, irreverent, full of anecdotes and great with a mic. There was just a smattering of technology – a scant few minutes of discussion around HDR (high dynamic range), which was clearly the theme of the day, and the challenges brought by the lack of standards and explosion of content and delivery formats. He expounded on the nightmare of creating nearly 400 versions of Star Wars due to language and format requirements. There were questions and laughter, and a good time was had by all.

It was a tough act to follow, though many presenters tried admirably. I was struck by the range of presentations. Some were highly technical and specific. I now know more about nits (for the uninitiated: a measurement of luminance) than I ever thought possible. Other sessions were more broad and open-ended. No matter the topic, the technically savvy audience of nearly 200 M&E insiders was engaged, asked probing questions and led discussions in different, sometimes highly tangential ways – which is always more interesting than the expected. It was both an interesting and educational day, but one that I struggled through.

Under normal circumstances I would have been thrilled to be in attendance. In addition to soaking up knowledge and ideas, I was there to co-moderate a panel titled “A Candid Review of the Industry Transition to IP.” (Ok, so we don’t get points for title creativity but it’s an important and interesting topic.) But I was sick as a dog with no voice. Even the flu and Titanic waves of chills couldn’t keep me away. I was in attendance but barely, popping Advil like they were Tic Tacs. So I handed over the reins to my co-presenter, Devoncroft’s Josh Stinehour, who’s smart with a booming yet kindly voice. I knew he would do a fine job and he did. The panel included Brad Cheney from Fox Sports, Imagine Communications CTO Steve Reynolds and consultant Paul Briscoe.

Our session was decidedly one of the less technical, which was intentional. For those of us knee-deep in the industry transition to IP, we wanted to get out of the usual IP realm – greater flexibility, bandwidth and efficiencies – and into a more candid, business-focused discussion. Brad got us off on the right foot speaking matter of factly about Fox Sports’ decision to use IP remote truck infrastructure for the US Open (of golf). He pointedly said, “we didn’t want to go IP initially; we didn’t want to be the first. We had a need that couldn’t be met with SDI.” Given the weight and size issues required by the many live feeds, it was a necessity. He went on to highlight the business realities of IP infrastructure. “If you look at the IP landscape, it’s very high cost to operate that model. You need to consider ROI.” Spoken like a true customer.

Shift to Steve, who referenced Imagine Communications’ Forward Focus study that identified the key drivers of IP adoption:

  1. Agility
  2. Speed of adoption
  3. OPEX
  4. Elastically growing capacity
  5. Access to a broader workforce

Agility, that’s a given, but many of us were surprised by the others, and their ranking. It’s interesting to note that CAPEX didn’t even make the list. For now at least, the real perceived value continues to be flexibility.

When Josh asked about the catalysts to move forward, Paul gave some nuanced insights and waxed poetic about multiple competing standards. While we’re all working toward the same goal, he called the parallel activity toward interoperability “the noise of childhood” and pointed to the need for user and vendor input and “lots of open conversation.”

The panel confirmed, at least for me, that the march to IP is indeed happening, just not nearly as rapidly as the trample to get on the IP bandwagon. There will be a long period of workarounds, overlays and hybrid solutions. Perhaps that’s good news for the broadcast vendor community. A lot needs to resolved before true next-generation workflows are a common reality. As Paul put it, “the holy grail will be signals coming in IP then going straight to an IP server, and staying away from the mezzanine level.”

All agreed that we’re moving toward an IP environment that will run on COTS (commercial-off-the-shelf) hardware and that we need the Ciscos and Aristas of the world. The key will be successfully merging the now separate worlds of video and IP.

My day ended – for me anyway – the way it started: with a discussion around standards and more Advil. I plan to be back next year, voice intact and a whole lot smarter about nits, HDR and color theory. And just maybe I’ll have a new take on IP.

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