HD Today: HD is Here--Now What?
Posted Jan 20, 2005

The HDV format is indeed making HDTV more affordable. Now that Sony has thrown its hat into the ring with both consumer and prosumer entries and an HDV deck, we have new choices, such as shooting in 720p or 1080i. Sony's new offerings join HDV camcorders from JVC that have been around for almost two years. At NAB 2004, JVC also showed off an upcoming Pro HDV camcorder with a real, interchangeable lens and an HDV deck.

Many NLE companies have announced support for HDV, and others can edit HD with the help of third-party plug-ins. So you can shoot and edit HDV today.

If you're shooting a wedding, special event, or corporate function, HDV is an exciting proposition: true HD (ATSC broadcast spec) on a cheap MiniDV tape, at MiniDV data rates (less than 25Mbps). Some editing solutions blossom the data to higher data rates, but hard drives are massive, fast, and cheap. Dedicated video workstations can handle multiple, real-time streams of uncompressed SD with effects so a stream or two of HD will pose little challenge.

On the computer screen, HD footage looks phenomenal. I started shooting events with HD in 1993. On a 17" computer monitor (1280x1024) the difference is clear: just as DVDs make VHS look old and blurry, HDV makes DVDs look old and blurry. You have to see it to be believe it.

"HDTV screens" can be found in any consumer electronics store. But many displays that tout "HD" can't actually show all the H in HD. Basically, a projector or screen (of any type) that has sub-HD resolution actually downsamples the HD signal to the lower resolution of the screen (e.g., HDV's 1440x1080 to a screen's 800x600).

To get a display that can show true HD, find out the real, or "native," resolution of the screen. When judging the quality of HDV or deciding which HDV format (720p or 1080i) to use, be sure you're looking at a display that is showing you everything.

So you can shoot it, edit it, and see it. But how do you deliver it? This seems to be the bottleneck for today.

JVC is actually quite savvy. They were the first to introduce an HDV camcorder. However, this was well after they were already delivering consumer HDTV products— most notably their D-VHS decks. D-VHS decks are true HD. They record off-air HD signals when connected to a Digital TV tuner that is capable of controlling any external recorder (not all are). They demo'd this ability at NAB all the way back in 1998—nearly seven years ago.

Unlike a VHS deck, a D-VHS deck is just a dumb data storage device. The DTV tuner does the controlling. JVC's D-VHS decks record the ATSC HD video fed them. In 2003, Heuris introduced software to let us encode video into this data stream and use D-VHS for delivery. Because it's just a data storage device, the D-VHS deck will record any properly encoded stream of video. JVC also has HDV editing software that works with their D-VHS decks.

Having used the D-VHS system, I can attest to its fantastic look and sound. But it's still tape. After watching and authoring DVDs for some time now, I was immediately confounded by my inability to change chapters, go wherever I wanted instantly, or access a menu that showed me everything. So what are the other options?

There are some DVD players coming out now that claim they will play back Windows Media 9-encoded HD files. But these players have even more limited deployment than D-VHS, and there's no standard. So their capability and the quality of the playback is not guaranteed, and there is no DVD interface to turn on alternate audio, display chapter menus, etc. So it's not much better than tape.

What we need is a true HD DVD standard. But we will have to wait. There are two competing technical formats (aren't there always?): Blu-ray and HD-DVD. Each has its own advantages, and it will be the industry manufacturers who will choose a winner (unlike VHS vs. Beta).

Even with recent news about Blu-ray and HD-DVD, we do not have interface and architecture standards for the various disc formats. The DVD standard allows various companies to create authoring software or manufacture hardware to burn video onto a DVD and ensure broad playback compatibility. Without such a standard, we may have Blu-ray discs well before we have a program to author them.

For now, D-VHS remains the only standard format for delivering HDTV projects. The decks are relatively affordable, and playback quality and accessibility are guaranteed—but that doesn't guarantee that your users have or will obtain the equipment to play the tapes. If your needs are computer-based, WM9 offers HD delivery with a very low data rate. This means that it won't kill your network and that you can deliver it on existing CD and DVD media.

In terms of a widely installed, DVD-like, interactive HD delivery system, the solutions are on their way, but will not reach wide availability any time soon. Till then, you need to weigh your need for HD delivery against the convenience and control of existing SD delivery systems.