EXECUTIVE SPOTLIGHT: John L. Pittas, Fujitsu Computer Porducts of America
John Pittas provides guidance for Fujitsus MPEG-4 AVC codec products to FCPAs New Products Group. Codecs are critical to the success of broadcasting and to any companys bottom line, which is why Johns strategic technology and business development planning for TV broadcast products being brought to Fujitsus Strategic Planning Office stream is so important. He joined FCPA in 2006 and has been instrumental in introducing the companys MPEG-4 AVC HD Codecs into the U.S. broadcast market. He possesses more than 30 years of experience in film and video production, video circuit and system design, and broadcast product and engineering management.
Todays broadcasting industry has seen an increase in demand for High Definition (HD) news content. While many national, and some local, news programs are being broadcast in High Definition, and due to the high cost of satellite transmissions, remote news broadcasts in HD are quite rare. Fujitsu announced the IP-9500 MPEG-4 AVC HD Encoder for broadcasting companies that desire to transmit remote HD content through existing satellite configurations, while minimizing costs by using only a single satellite channel.
Good day, John. We appreciate your time in helping us to understand the role being played by Fujitsu and their IP-9500 would you please provide us an overview of the encoder? Why did Fujitsu decide to introduce this product to the global market?
Fujitsu has been in the video compression, end-user business for more than 20 years, but their technology and products were initially focused and contained within Japan. Once MPEG-2 arrived, Fujitsu adopted the MPEG-2 standards for Standard Definition (SD) and eventually for High-Definition (HD). However, weve since found that while MPEG-2 was fine for SD, this was not an optimal technology for HD. For example, MPEG-2 for HD requires very high bit rates, typically 20 Mbps or more, to produce high-quality pictures. This often exceeds the channel capacity of many transmission systems, particularly if multiple HD signals are carried.
When MPEG-4 AVC debuted, Fujitsu adopted the format due to its ability to produce very high-quality HD pictures at low bit-rates. In fact, the companys research labs in Kawasaki, Japan are now considered one of the worlds leading laboratories of MPEG-4 AVC compression research and algorithm development. Our IP-9500 MPEG-4 AVC encoder was introduced to the Japanese market about two years ago and is currently available to the U.S. and global markets. While the global broadcast industry is now just witnessing what appears to be the first video compression product from Fujitsu, our technology actually has a long and storied history in Japan and the products are widely deployed there.
John, what are your current product offerings? Can you talk about their features?
Fujitsu has two primary MPEG-4 AVC products. The flagship product is the IP-9500, an MPEG-4 AVC HD/SD encoder and decoder, primarily offered as an encoder, but which can also be used as a decoder, if needed. The IP-9500s most sought-after feature is the very high picture-quality that it yields.
Those within North American broadcast networks have stated Fujitsu has the best MPEG-4 AVC HD picture-quality in the business, which is mostly due to years of research completed in the labs. The IP-9500 lends itself to picture optimization based on the Human Visual System (HVS) response. The labs have developed special algorithms that optimize picture quality based on how the Human Visual System perceives images. It was found that the HVS of the average observer is primarily focused on moving objects, foreground objects, and facial features. Weve optimized picture quality so that these regions of an image appear with greater accuracy and are resolved in higher detail, as thats where the average observers attention is primarily concentrated. Fujitsu is currently the only company with this specialized capability.
Our other product, the IP-9500D, is a dedicated MPEG-4 AVC decoder that uses much simpler technology and is less expensive, but cannot be used as an encoder.
Are you experiencing growing interest in the IP-9500? How does the IP-9500 differentiate from the competition?
Absolutely! As some of SatMagazines readers may know, CBS News selected the IP-9500 as their preferred encoder for HD Satellite News Gathering (HD-SNG). In addition, the 2008 State of the Union Address was broadcasted by CBS in HD using our product, as will be the Republican and Democratic National Conventions.
The primary differentiator is our very high HD picture-quality, which applies to all the various applications of the encoder. For example, for SNG weve provided a special low-latency mode that significantly reduces the delay through the encoder and the decoder, down to 300 milliseconds or less. Other MPEG-4 AVC vendors are transmitting with a two- to three-second delay. The IP-9500 enables a SNG shot from a remote field location back to the studio where the field and the studio talent can have a conversation without annoying delay. The encoder operates similarly between two remote field shots, as well. Long latency slows down an interview, making it awkward. Reducing the latency allows the interview to flow more naturally, as would a normal conversation.
How quickly do you see broadcasters moving to HD-SNG? Do you think it will be necessary to remain competitive?
To answer the second part of your question first, most certainly! It will be a trickle-down effect with the major networks adopting HD-SNG first. News networks will adopt HD-SNG in order to remain competitive because, once one organization uses the technology, and their pictures look superior, viewers will immediately detect a difference. The network using HD-SNG, offering the highest picture quality, could certainly change viewing habits.
We believe 2008 will be the first year of accelerated adoption of HD newsgathering. We are talking to major broadcast networks, news, and cable programming networks about deploying the IP-9500 they all want to maintain the highest picture-quality from glass-to-glass (the glass of the camera lens, through their system, to the glass of the viewers display).
Its grand when a technology can deliver so much more to the consumer. However, migration is always a rocky road do you see any obstructions to this adoption?
From a technical point of view, I dont think that there are any roadblocks. If you couple MPEG-4 AVC encoding and decoding with DVB-S2 modulation, which provides more bandwidth on a satellite transponder, such makes for a smooth transition to MPEG-4 HD news gathering.
There are other potential roadblocks that are not necessarily technical in nature. Pricing is one issue, and not everyone immediately appreciates the value of the new technology. Buying new encoders, decoders and other technologies, and deploying them into existing transmission infrastructures, does not occur overnight! Such a rollout typically takes a year or two. I think 2009 will be the breakout year when MPEG-4 AVC in SNG becomes more commonplace. At the point when organizations see one or two of their peers making the transition, its just a matter of time before they all jump on-board in order to remain competitive.
What are the advantages of MPEG-4 AVC versus MPEG-2 compression technologies?
The great advantage of MPEG-4 AVC over MPEG-2 is in picture-quality versus bit-rate. For HD pictures, we typically find MPEG-4 AVC can deliver equivalent picture-quality at one half, or even less, the bit-rate needed by MPEG-2. This is a significant improvement!
This means an HD picture that required 18 Mbps to 20 Mbps in MPEG-2 can now be delivered with 9 Mbps to 10 Mbps. This bandwidth improvement will result in immediate and significant savings to the network through the reduction of transmissions costs. We are just at the front end of the learning curve for MPEG-4 AVC, whereas MPEG-2 is a mature technology with little incremental improvement in the years ahead.
As the art and science of MPEG-4 AVC rapidly improves, the technology is poised to deliver even better HD pictures at significantly lower bit-rates when compared to MPEG-2. For example, our current lowest bit-rate for broadcast quality HD is 4 Mbps. This is an over 200:1 compression ratio that is impossible to achieve with MPEG-2. Over time, we foresee achieving even better picture quality at these extremely low bit-rates.
MPEG-2 has been a workhorse and revolutionized SD newsgathering. MPEG-2 allowed digital signals to be transmitted back to the studio with a crisper picture and much more cost effectively than previous-generation analog technology.
However, the bit-rate advantage of MPEG-4 AVC over MPEG-2 directly translates to cost savings. When it comes to SNG, the largest cost in the system is the satellite transponder essentially renting time on the satellite to transmit the signal from the field to the studio. When MPEG-2 arrived, broadcasters could manage eight to 10 digital SD signals on a transponder, instead of the previous two analog signals. This made it much more cost-effective to use a satellite. Nevertheless, you cannot achieve the same number of HD signals on a satellite by using MPEG-2.
With MPEG-4 AVC, broadcasters can radically reduce the bit-rates required for HD. Instead of 18 Mbps for an HD-SNG shot, we can use 8 Mbps or 9 Mbps. Broadcasters are currently using 5 MHz to 6 MHz of satellite bandwidth for a single SD-SNG camera shot. By coupling MPEG-4 AVC compression with DVB-S2 modulation, they can transmit HD in the same satellite bandwidth as SD. This is hugely important! This directly translates into a better product for a news organization as they can use their existing satellite budget all the while delivering a higher quality picture. Without the development of MPEG-4 AVC and DVB-S2, this would not have been possible.
What are the costs and cost savings broadcasters can expect when moving to MPEG-4 AVC?
As mentioned earlier, when you take MPEG-4 AVC compression and couple it with DVB-S2 modulation, you can now use the allocated SD satellite bandwidth for HD. You can get an HD shot with no changes to the satellite bandwidth whatsoever, using one transponder slot. Where our competitors advocate using two satellite transponder slots for transmitting HD, we use just one. When it comes to costs, these can be in the 10s of thousands of dollars. The IP-9500 allows broadcasters to spend the same amount of money on satellite bandwidth and deliver the highest HD picture quality on the market.
How does Fujitsu see Pro AVCHD for advanced MPEG-4 encoding? Will it play a role in company products?
AVCHD pro is a technology that uses MPEG-4 primarily to address what I call prosumer applications. That is, a codec that is designed to give acceptable picture quality at a low cost and low bit-rate for people who straddle between high-end consumer equipment and low-cost professional equipment. It is primarily used for people who are doing recordings directly to memory. However, AVCHD is somewhat irrelevant because people are now using AVC cams with solid state instead of memory.
Fujitsu foresees that AVCHD cameras are good for the prosumer video market, but not generally applicable for broadcast-quality newsgathering. Newsgathering requires low bit-rates and high picture quality. News producers want to maintain the highest picture quality possible at the camera, because these images will get stored and edited, and re-stored and re-edited possibly many times over, into a finished story. If this process is not managed correctly, each time an image is decoded and re-encoded you will lose picture quality. This means the camera encoder must have the highest picture quality possible in order to preserve picture quality down through the broadcast chain to the viewer.
The AVCHD codec is not appropriate for high quality broadcast, and Fujitsu does not see it as applicable to most newsgathering applications. AVCHD may find use in space-constrained applications, such as in military or security environs, where an inexpensive, small-format camera is highly desirable. For general newsgathering uses, this codec is not a strong fit.
Do you see the IP-9500 and MPEG-4 technology playing a role in the evolution of DSNG? With digital satellite newsgathering now gathering more and more converts, even over SNG, does Fujitsu have a different role?
Just as analog SNG was eclipsed by MPEG-2 DSNG, five years from now, MPEG-4 AVC will have largely replaced MPEG-2 for HD because it is a more efficient, cost-effective technology. It is possible that some smaller markets will stay MPEG-2 and SD for a while longer, because it makes sense from a business standpoint. However, five years into the future, all the major broadcast and cable networks will have migrated to MPEG-4 AVC for HD and they will never look back.
Thanks for your insights, John. For those wishing additional information, we conducted an earlier interview with both John and the Director of New Products for FCPA, Dan Dalton, in the attached sidebar. We asked exactly how the Fujitsu approach delivers a better experience to the customer here is their combined answer and for readers who wish to learn more, select the Fujitsu logo below to enter their product website!
There are three axes of value that we present to the client: high HD picture-quality, low bit rates, and low-latency. We believe you need all three of those to jumpstart the HD-SNG business and deliver a best-in-class product for the customer.
We’ve applied a novel “slice-based” encoding method for our low-latency, which, while a bit different than the traditional frame-based GOP structures, is fully compliant with the H.264 toolset. Our “sliced-based” encoding allows us to get down to 300 ms of end-to-end delay through the codecs.
In addition, we’ve implemented a “Region-of-Interest” based encoding algorithm. This models the human visual system’s behavior by tracking particular objects and scene contents, which are of greater interest to the human viewer than other areas of the picture.
This encoding algorithm allows us to produce very high subjective picture quality at low bit rates. SNG operators can always upgrade to DVB-S2 modulation to get HD picture quality through higher bit rates. However, even operators using existing DVB-S SNG modulation can receive good HD pictures at 5 Mb/s — you can use existing SD-SNG channels to accomplish HD-SNG. You can deploy our encoder into existing SNG trucks and receive HD pictures back to the studio. It doesn’t matter whether you are doing it for a local or network feed, or for taping or going straight to air. As you may know, one of the requirements for high picture quality in SNG is to survive multiple codec concatenation stages. We’ve had a number of clients doing tests in their labs at bit rates down to 7 Mb/s with our encoder, while going through five, six, even seven downstream concatenation stages. They still have very good HD picture quality at the end, using our encoder for the space segment.
For example, an incoming feed rarely goes directly to air. You may have to store the content on a server or record it on a VCR for later editing on a NLE system. Between the initial camera encoder and final ATSC transmitter encoder, there are at least four — and possibly as many as six — stages of codec concatenation. Our picture quality still holds up through all of those, even down into the 6-7 M/s range. (Note: ATSC is the acronym for Advanced Television Systems Committee, who are responsible for developing and establishing the U.S.-based Digital-HDTV Standards and Digital TV formats.)