Friday, October 30, 2009

iTunes LP – Is that all there is?

Apple rolled out an update to the Apple TV software software. This features a major change in the top menu (which now lists your own content first in each media list, rather than last) and it also now supports Internet Radio. Apart from that, there’s no real new functionality. Unless you also count support for Apple’s LP format.

I’d been curious about the iTunes LP format – kind of an interactive format for albums – since Apple had announced it, but had never gotten around to trying one out. With the Apple TV update, I thought it would be great to update my Apple TV and try out iTunes LP at the same time.

I was wrong.

Last night I updated the Apple TV software, and also downloaded the Dave Matthews Band album Big Whiskey and The Groo Grux King in iTunes LP format. Only problem was that after downloading it and going to the Apple TV, all I could find were the movies and the songs; no sign of the iTunes LP interface. In the end I wondered if I’d misunderstood, and that it just meant you could now see the content of an iTunes LP.

Only on reading MacWorld’s article about the Apple TV 3.0 update today (well worth reading by the way) did I discover that Apple hasn’t updated all of the iTunes LP content yet to work with the Apple TV. So I’m hoping that’s the problem I had. [NOTE: Fortunately, I could still “test” the content on my Mac, and having done that, I don’t think that it’s –eventual- support on the Apple TV will change drastically my opinion of the update.]

So is the Apple TV 3.0 update worth it? If you already have an Apple TV, sure. But I don’t think it makes the Apple TV really any more attractive than it was. It doesn’t add significant functionality, and I don’t think it’s going to lure any more customers.

But what about iTunes LP?
Someones’s already written an indepth article explaining the new Apple iTunes LP format. It’s designed to add extra “value” to the content, adding additional navigation, photos and lyrics, amongst other things.

I did manage to try out Big Whiskey on my Mac, and I have to say that it was a bit of a disappointment. As a fan of the band, it was kind of cool to see the graphics from the album cover expanded to illustrate the lyrics, but I couldn’t help wondering what I was paying for that. And the interface was very basic – truthfully, that’s all it really needs to be anyway, given all you’re doing is looking at images, videos and listening to sounds. Frankly, it reminded me a lot of Interactive CDs from 15 years ago.

I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, but at the same time, I’m not too sure how much real value that adds. You can scroll through the lyrics (which you could find on Google) you can look at pictures (using a scrolling interface that’s a bit slow and the images aren’t very large) you can watch videos (just like in YouTube!) and you can listen to the songs. You can also have a visual presentation playing while the music plays (a sequence of still images fading from one to another.)

The videos were interesting, though probably wouldn’t be watched more than once by anyone other than a serious fans.

All in all, it’s kind of fun, but I can’t help but think it’s a bit like some iPhone apps I’ve downloaded; I play them once, and use them to “demo” to people, but never use them myself after that.

Apple Tablet
Which brings me, in an odd way, to the Apple Tablet. If rumors are to be believed, Apple may roll out a Tablet in the New Year. Apple may already be working with content publishers – maybe even comic publishers – to bring content to the Tablet. They may even use the iTunes LP format to bring content to the Tablet. The problem is that if iTunes LP is the way forward, I don’t think I’ll be buying much of that content. Yeah, I like text, I like video, I like audio, and some things are really cool and useful to interact with but I’m coming to the conclusion that interactive media doesn’t work as a replacement for a lot of “traditional” things (plain text, movies, music.) It just adds an extra layer of complexity with no real added benefit other than clicking things.

It’s weird to say this, because I used to create these kind of things years ago. I was a multimedia developer doing “electronic books”. But it never seemed to take off; not in the forms that many people thought it would.

It turns out, maybe we don’t need an interactive book. We just need a good electronic book that supports video and audio and a web browser...

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Gary Adcock - gives us the Ki Pro religion

Gary Adcock of Studio 37, Chicago (and Digital Cow) spoke at the New England SMPTE meeting last night. He was really brought there by AJA Video Systems, maker of the Ki Pro tapeless video recording device, but in introducing him, AJA’s Northeast Region Manager, Jay Ignaszewski said that “Gary isn’t afraid to say what he thinks.”

He wasn’t far wrong. Working his way back and forth in front of the crowd like a preacher at a revival meeting, he proceeded to share the word; tape is dead, and if you aren’t going tapeless, or planning to go tapeless, then what kind of moron are you? This is the future, and it’s all going to be good whatever crappy camera you have!1

What is the future? Well tape is dead. It wasn’t even worth talking about why it’s dead, it just is. So moving on, he talked about the profusion of compression and file formats from the different manufacturers (those fools!!2) Why deal with that, when Apple has a perfectly wonderful compression format called ProRes (read his paper ProRes: A Closer Look, that’s already been read by a million people3.) What’s the big thing about ProRes? Well it’s better than DVCHPROHD because it doesn’t lose color information (see scopes in the article linked above.) And it’s 10-bit, not 8-bit.

With that cleared up, on to the Ki Pro, a tapeless device for recording to ProRes from pretty much any camera you currently have. The good; well it seems that if your camera has HDMI or Component out, you can hook it up, and you’ll actually get a better picture out of the camera than you would if you went through the cameras regular compression stage. He even mentioned people hooking Webbie4 and Flip Cameras5 up6 to the Ki Pro. It'll do format conversions (SD to 720 to 1080) both in and out, if that's what you want, and it has a connector for just about everything. You can record to hard drive or to an ExpressCard flash card. And once it's in, just connect the drive up to your Mac, and you can start editing in Final Cut Pro.

He said he’d tested the Ki Pro with 21 cameras, from low-end cameras to high-end (the mention of the Flip not withstanding, I got the distinct impression his low end was my high-end) and they had all worked except one – the RED camera.7

So what is the Ki Pro? Well it’s a box that's smaller than you'd think, but larger than you might want, with lots of connectors on the back, and a disk drive in a special enclosure on the top. It runs Linux (though you can’t access that) and it compresses stuff to ProRes 4:2:2 - they don’t support 4:4:4 partly because it wasn’t out at the time, and partly because it would be a big bandwidth hog. Evidently AJA is the only company – at the moment – with a license to put ProRes on a non-Apple CPU.

The device was announced at NAB this year, and is selling madly (current backlog is to end of January) and it's still being developed; software updates are supposed to add several new features. One thing noted several times is that it’s intended for use with cameras as a field capture device, and that there are limitations with the device that make it not as great for other functions (i.e. the FW800 port on the back at the moment can’t be used to copy data off the drive; you have to remove the portable drive from the unit and use it’s FW800 port to transfer data to your computer.)

One warning; make sure you dismount the drive correctly...otherwise you can get yourself in a mess.

Gary was adamant that if you hook up the component out from a typical camera and connect it to the Ki Pro, you’ll get better video (with the 10-bit ProRes compression) than you will from the files the camera itself is saving. He did note one caveat; if you have a lower priced camcorder don’t use the HDMI audio; it evidently often comes through with much lower gain, so you’re better to bring the audio in separately (and the Ki Pro has XLR and RCA jacks for that.)

All in all, it’s an exciting piece of…wait, it’s $3,999! Ouch! Well, for those that can afford it, it looks really cool. Jay from AJA said that Ki refers to the product line, and PRO refers to the model, and we “might infer from that” that there will be other models (maybe cheaper!, maybe more expensive!!) that offer other functionality.

At the conclusion of the talk, Gary had one more vitally important message for us now that we had abandoned our evil tape ways, and gone to tapeless acquisition: Don’t forget to backup to’re backing everything up to LTO tape, right?

1. He may not have actually said it in those words, but I knew what he meant, cause I’m a true believe now.
2. He didn’t really say that, either
3. He did say that
4. Yes, he did say that
5. You’re kidding, right? Nope he said it
6. Really? To a $4,000 device? Yes.
7. Oh, he explained why, but it was complicated. He also had a laudatory comment from a Red "Leader of the Rebellion"8, so I guess there must be a way to make it work.
8. Rebellion? Really? Yes...that’s what I thought too.

Apple TV 3.0

Gizmodo has the press release from Apple that they have released the Apple TV 3.0 software. The update reportedly works with all Apple TV's and updates the interface, as well as: you can now enjoy iTunes Extras and iTunes LP in stunning fullscreen with your Apple TV, as well as listen to Genius Mixes and Internet radio through your home theater system.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

SMPTE New England Meeting Tonight

SMPTE/New England is holding a meeting tonight at Channel 5 Studios. Topic: A Taste of Tapeless Technology AJA KiPro and Apple Pro Res

Gary Adcock, Digerati and principal at Studio 37 and Jay Ignaszewski, Northeast Region Territory Manager for AJA, will join us for a presentation and discussion on the technology behind the AJA KiPro. The KiPro is a tapeless recording device that creates professional quality recordings in full-raster 10-bit Apple ProRes 422 and Apple ProRes 422 (HQ).
Refreshments at 6:30 and Presentation at 7:00PM

Also, the New England Broadcast and Cable Expo is coming up on November 12.

Underwater Cameras

I'm intrigued by the Sanyo VPC-WH1, as I'm about to embark on a project that might involve getting a little wet. For about $350 the VPC-WH1 gives you a 720P camera that shoots underwater down to 10 feet. Rob at TorontoWalkAbout has a pretty favorable, and in-depth review with some good examples of the footage you can get with it. His sample clips can also be found on YouTube here - the clip part way through starting at the fence and going underwater is pretty amazing... And PCWorld gives it a 70 "Good" rating in their review.

Downsides? image quality, image quality, and terrible still image quality. I don't really care about the latter, as I hardly ever use a video camera to take stills. And sure it's 720p, and even at 720p there are problems with the image quality, but the ability to get the camera a little wet is very appealing for some things. The image stabilization - which is digital - also gets some criticism. Again, it's something you can probably live with.

It's got generally favorable ratings from owners on Amazon - mostly with caveats about image quality - though I was concerned by one user that wrote that the o-Ring seals aren't replaceable, and that the manual specifically tells you that they are only good for one year. Ouch! Unfortunately, I couldn't find a copy of the manual online, so I can't confirm this.

A nice alternative might be the Canon PowerShot D10. (It's $290, so about $40 cheaper than the Sanyo.) Engadget has a review that's favorable (though I thought I read somewhere else that the camera doesn't record audio.) If you want stills, this is the camera to buy, but for video, it's limited to 640 x 480. Maybe/hopefully, they'll update the camera and goose the video mode to 720p? That would seem to be the logical thing to do, and assuming the camera is popular, I wouldn't be surprised if the next update adds that. But do I want to wait?

Another alternative would be to buy an underwater enclosure, but those are expensive...

But wait! I was literally finishing up this post when I came across the Sony "Underwater Use Sport Pack for Camcorders" which is selling for about $160.

Suddenly, I'm excited! Well, mixed feelings really, as I do have a Sony camcorder; but it cost a lot more than the Sanyo and the Housing combined! Do I risk it? Or should I buy the throw-away camera instead?

There's a review on Sony's website; but just one, and I haven't found any other reviews yet. [UPDATE: there's a bunch of user reviews here.] The specifications indicate that you get several interesting things "In the Box," including: Desiccant, Anti-Fogging Solution, and Grease!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Hitchcock - iPhone Storyboard App

I meant to write about the Hitchcock Storyboard iPhone app a couple of weeks ago, as I'd seen it with the demo of Adobe Story. It's really quite cool. It was demoed by Jonathan Houser, who is the creator of Hitchcock. He said he got the idea for the program because he taught a class on film-making, and "everybody hates storyboarding" - everyone except Hitchcock.

SUMMARY: Hitchcock has one purpose; the creation of storyboards in a quick and easy manner - on your iPhone. If that's something you want to do, it's a blast. If not, well there are worse ways to spend $20.

To create a storyboard you either take pictures using the iPhone camera, or import them from your photo library, into the Storyboard workspace. In the Storyboard workspace you can then drag the individual images around to change the order. Each image is a Panel in your storyboard. You can set the duration of a panel (the default is 3 seconds), duplicate or delete it, and you can view the entire storyboard like a movie using the Watch function. In that mode, Hitchcock plays back each scene, duplicating the duration, as well as adding any zoom, pan, dolly or truck effects added to a panel, as well as playing any audio attached to a panel.

To edit a panel, click on it in the Storyboard to select it, and then click the Panel button. In the Panel workspace you can add male and female figures (in profile or face-on) as well as add direction arrows and text at the bottom to indicate dialog (or other description). The graphics can be moved, rotated and resized by dragging and squeezing with your fingers on the iPhone screen. I've had my iPhone for over a year and I was still a little amazed at how easy it was to position things where and how I wanted them.

You can also indicate camera moves - truck, zoom, dolly and pans - for each panel. When you choose one, two rectangles appear on-screen, indicating the start and end point, as well as arrows drawn onscreen to represent the effect. You can also add Scene and Shot numbers using the buttons at the bottom of the Panel workspace. The Audio button lets you record a piece of audio using the iPhone's mic that will be played back during the Watch function. During playback, the motion effects are actually simulated and the audio is played; but unfortunately, you can't export this as a movie.

One aside, when Jonathan demoed the program he had it connected to a video monitor, and he played the resulting storyboard in Watch mode on that monitor. This makes for a great way to present quickly to a group of people; unfortunately he said that he was using a special custom version of Hitchcock; Apple won't let them sell an app that outputs video to the screen.

Even though you can't export movies, you can export Storyboards as a PDF, though the PDF isn't generated on the iPhone. During export the files are sent to a sever and you enter an email address and then a URL pointing to the final PDF is sent to that address; the PDF will be downloadable for 72 hours. There's talk that they hope to add an actual export PDF function to the software in a later revision, or version. They are also talking about a "Pro" version, though it's unclear what features that might have.

I have to say, Hitchcock is surprisingly quick and easy to use. When I told a friend about it, he was skeptical whether anyone would want to use it, but having thrown together this quick example, it really was interesting to see how easy it was to do on the iPhone. I could do the same thing with a camera and an Illustrator template, but I don't. I might actually use Hitchcock to do storyboards that I typically wouldn't bother doing, and in a way, isn't that the iPhones raison d'ĂȘtre.

I wish the export function didn't require going through their server, and I sort of wish that there was a desktop app that this worked with. But then again, at $20, I can't be upset about the functionality, and I probably wouldn't want to spend a couple of hundred dollars on a Storyboard application anyway.

FTC Blogger Disclosure: cinemek gave me a copy of Hitchcock; but I actually won it at the demo, I wasn't given it because I was going to blog about it.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Canon 7D Picture Styles

Luka on Vimeo has a tutorial on How to increase the Canon 7D dynamic range by using Picture Styles. The tutorial shows how to use the Picture Style editor (just try and avoid a mental breakdown!) and how to download Picture Styles to the camera. At the bottom of the blog page there's also links to some Picture Styles.