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Information Processing


You're home watching TV, and you're sure you could do it better if you only had access to a big studio. Well, that fantasy may soon come true, thanks to the merging of computer and video technology that will let just about anyone edit videotape and add special effects--all with a PC-based system costing a few thousand dollars.

"Desktop video is the natural successor to desktop publishing," says John E. Warnock, president of Adobe Systems Inc., whose PostScript software helped create the huge desktop-publishing business. As with desktop publishing, which gave ordinary personal-computer users the tools to turn out newsletters, brochures, and other slick documents, desktop video promises to make video auteurs out of camcorder amateurs.

Warnock, whose company is now pushing video software, envisions a cottage industry of small-scale producers cranking out industrial films, ads for local TV, and wedding videos. Dow Chemical Co. engineer B. Scott Ruble, for example, is using a Macintosh IIci equipped with special video chips and circuit boards, plus software for editing and digitizing videotape images, to produce the equivalent of a scientific paper on video. He uses a camcorder to document stress cracks in plastics from certain types of impact, adding explanatory text and graphics to show to colleagues and customers. "There are some things you just can't capture in words," says Ruble.

While eager suppliers, such as Adobe, Radius, and SuperMac Technology, hope to create a mass market, desktop video is currently the province of a select few. Some 10,000 professional broadcast producers have adopted desktop computer-editing systems, spending as much as $80,000 per system, estimates William L. Coggshall, president of New Media Research Inc. No wonder: Professional video-editing studios, chock-full of high-tech gear, can cost anywhere from $750,000 to $2 million.

Until a few years ago, these expensive facilities were the only way to create special effects, such as superimposing graphics over a live video image or pasting together scenes that dissolve smoothly from one into another. Then, Commodore International Ltd. introduced the Amiga 2000 personal computer, which can generate a video signal as well as handle sharp graphics and sound. That gave Newtek Inc. in Topeka, Kan., a platform for what it dubbed the Video Toaster--an add-in board and software that connects the Amiga directly to videotape machines, allowing the computer to create special effects. The result: a $5,000 setup that can do much of the work of editing equipment costing $100,000. Jerry Coffield, an analyst at In-Stat Inc., figures about 100,000 Video Toasters have been sold since 1990, generating some $25 million in annual revenues for privately held Newtek.

CHIPPING IN. Top PC makers and other technology companies are pushing a step beyond the Toaster, which basically serves as a computerized editor for analog tape. They are creating products that can digitize and manipulate the video signal. Apple Computer Inc., already a leader in desktop publishing, in 1991 began including a program called QuickTime with most Macs. QuickTime lets any Mac act like a VCR by digitizing video images for playback on the computer screen. However, instead of meeting the commercial broadcast standard of 30 frames per second, QuickTime can run only 15 images a second, resulting in jagged-edged pictures.

That has given chipmakers a chance to get into the act. They're building special microchips that speed up the digitizing process and improve resolution (page 74). RasterOps, Avid Technology, Radius, and SuperMac are building those chips into circuit cards for Macs. Meanwhile, software makers Adobe, Diva, and Macromedia Publishing have created programs for editing and adding special effects. Many of these are also being adapted for IBM-compatible PCs, but PCs lag behind the Mac because their operating systems don't have the equivalent of QuickTime.

Increased competition means that the cost of desktop-video components is dropping fast. "Within a year, there will be $1,000 video boards," says James E. Anderson, vice-president of video chipmaker C-Cube Microsystems. "At that price, you're blasting right into the home market."

So far, though, the new technology is still primarily used by professionals. For the past eight months, Viacom International Inc. has been running a project at its MTV Networks calls DTV, for desktop video, that is exploring several different PC-based video systems. Bob Meyers, vice-president of Viacom's network operations and head of the project, says DTV is trying to create an inexpensive digital editing network but the current technology can't execute the rapid-fire image changes and crazy graphics that MTV favors. "We're a little frustrated," he says. "But we get a little less frustrated and a little bit more pleased" as the technology evolves.

Still, professionals are already using desktop setups to cut costs. After tape is converted to digital form, editors can quickly scan to whatever scene they need, mark it, and create a rough cut. Then they make the final product with professional equipment. That process alone can produce significant savings, since it can cost $1,000 an hour to use a professional edit room. "I can do exactly what I want for the price of my own time and some electricity," says Harry Marks, president of Marks Communications Inc., a Hollywood producer of promotional tapes and graphics.

STORAGE SNAG. The edit room may eventually be completely eliminated, but not anytime soon. The holdup is the massive storage capacity required for digitized images. A disk drive that can store more than a billion text characters--about 500,000 pages--can only hold 15 minutes of video footage. Special chips can compress those images, but the more you compress, the worse the image quality.

Such technical barriers could limit the market for years. "It has been a zero-billion-dollar industry," jokes Cathy R. Galvin, a marketing manager at SuperMac, a maker of video-processing circuit boards. Market researcher Coggshall thinks a mass market, a la desktop publishing, will be slow to build. Once the country's 250,000 corporate-video producers switch to desktop, he says, there may not be many more buyers. Why? Creating a written document is infinitely easier than creating a good video. "You still have to have trained people with a good eye for what looks good," says Coggshall.

But that's too narrow a view for desktop-video aficionados. "People don't realize how easy this is to do," says Jon Leland, a Mill Valley (Calif.) producer and owner of Communication Bridges, a consulting firm that provides training in the new technology. If he's right, perhaps even schoolchildren will someday be creating homework on videotape--showing rather than telling how they spent their summer vacation.Richard Brandt in San Francisco, with Lois Therrien in Chicago, and Paul M. Eng in New York

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