The Toast Of Pc Town

Among science-fiction movie cultists, Babylon 5 is revered for its dazzling array of futuristic effects unheard of in such a low-budget TV film. The Warner Brothers Inc. syndicated movie, which had less than $500,000 budgeted for special effects, has the look of a theatrical release that would typically cost several million dollars.

Babylon 5's slick visuals were created by Foundation Imaging in Valencia, Calif. But instead of using equipment that costs tens of thousands of dollars, Foundation relied on a device whimsically dubbed the Video Toaster--a personal computer equipped with customized chips and software that does all sorts of video-production tasks (table).

The Toaster is the brainchild of NewTek Inc., founded by rocker-turned-programmer Tim Jenison in 1985. His idea was to create affordable video-production tools based on personal computers. His first program, for Commodore International Corp.'s Amiga, allowed that graphically sophisticated computer to capture and manipulate video images. One Amiga owner, a real-estate broker named Paul Montgomery, found the program so intriguing that when he met Jenison in 1986, the two self-described nerds decided to team up.

Montgomery came to NewTek's headquarters in Topeka, and for three years, using revenues from NewTek's software sales, they worked on the circuit board and software to turn an Amiga into a Video Toaster. The board allows images from multiple video sources to be fed directly into the PC, while the software adds special effects to the image signals. Since the heart of the system was an easy-to-use PC, both Jenison, now 38, and Montgomery, 32, were convinced that they had something that could become as common as the kitchen toaster. Hence, in 1989, Video Toaster was born.

SHOW ME. Sales were slow that first year because no one believed something so cheap and simple could produce broadcast-quality videos. So Jenison and Montgomery developed their own demo tape. Dubbed Revolution, it showed such wild Toaster tricks as the "Kiki effect," which segues from one video scene to another by twirling the image of a woman across the screen. Montgomery says the more than 200,000 tapes that have been distributed--and other promo items such as rubber lizards and rats--have proven to be a great sales tool.

The company, privately held by Jenison and Montgomery, won't release financial data, but analyst Richard N. Lehtinen of market researcher In-Stat Inc. estimates that NewTek has sold more than 60,000 Toasters. Customers range from Hollywood production houses to people who moonlight as video photographers at weddings. Lehtinen figures NewTek pulls in around $25 million annually from sales of the Toaster card and software, which carries a $2,395 list price.

play time. Success has certainly made life a lot more comfortable for NewTek's two top nerds. Both Jenison and Montgomery drive $75,000 red Acura NSX company cars. And they get out of Topeka fast in their corporate jet, equipped with its own Toaster for mid-air demonstrations. On occasion, Jenison rewards staffers for 80-hour workweeks by whisking them to movie premieres in Los Angeles. Work is verboten on such trips, and even saying the word "Topeka" is a no-no. (Violators pay a fine to the on-board cookie jar.)

Having landed high-profile customers and thousands of Spielberg wannabes, NewTek isn't cooling its jets. With computer-based video production projected to rival desktop publishing as the cottage industry of the 1990s, the company is hard at work on new Toasters. NewTek recently introduced an improved Toaster for the new Amiga 4000. In-Stat estimates that by the end of this year, NewTek may be able to count as many as 100,000 Toaster users.

The technology has spawned its own cultish following. There's Video Toaster User, an independently published bi-monthly magazine, and even a New York-based support group called Toaster-holics Anonymous. So be forewarned: There may be a Kiki in your future.

      For under $5,000, a Video Toaster will do the following production tasks:
      Video input switching Lets 
      owners mix up to four video sources onto one videotape. A separate unit 
      normally costs around $2,000.
         Character generator (CG) Places text over video images using up to 40 
      different typefaces. Typical CGs feature only one or two fonts and go for 
         Special effects (F/X) generator
      Allows for creative visual effects, such as superimposing a person's head on a 
      flower. Not as powerful as dedicated F/X machines, but a lot cheaper.
         3-D modeling Allows owners to create and animate objects. Powerful 
      workstations do the job more
      efficiently, but cost about $30,000.
      DATA: Business week
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