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Grass Valley CTO Ray Baldock

Technology gets better and smaller By Charlie White

Ray Baldock, Chief Technology Officer, Grass Valley, a Thomson Brand(6/23/05) As technology makes geometric leaps in sophistication, the size of broadcast equipment continues to shrink. At the same time, more functionality can be fit into smaller spaces. Ray Baldock, Chief Technology Officer at Grass Valley, talks to Digital Media Nets Charlie White about the astonishing progress made in the smaller size and higher efficiency of broadcast technology over the past few decades in this exclusive interview.

DMN: It seems like broadcast equipment technology gets faster, cheaper and smaller. How has Grass Valley contributed to this phenominal growth, or should I say shrinkage, or both, over the years?

Baldock: Charlie, technology is driving not only cost efficiencies, but miniaturization and a consolidation of functions in almost every area that we look at. One of the things that perhaps embodies the whole Grass Valley spirit is the production switcher. I was just running some numbers on whats happened over the last 10 years, and some of that is I think pretty interesting. I did a comparison on the model 4000 switcher that was introduced in 1992, so this really doesnt go back a long way, but it does show us some of the power of the technology. I did a comparison of the processor frames, which were capable of mix/effects and wipes, but no DVE, against Kalypso which was introduced about seven years later. Then I compared that to Kalypso HD which was introduced in 2003?so I have the benchmark here at 1992, another one in 1999, and another one at the year 2003. The frame itself into which the switcher fit in 1992 was 25 rack units, and that had no DVE [a rack unit is an inch and three quarters]. Were pretty much halving that with the different iterations of the switcher. Weve gone from 25 rack units down to 13. Weve reduced in half the size of this frame, but at the same time we increased the functionality by adding the DVE, which was previously sold separately. We also increased the overall functionality. We went to a much bigger crosspoint bus, we integrated the effects, and we have much more powerful mix/effects busses in there for rerouting signals within the switcher. We went from a couple of chromakeyers to four per M/E. Theres a lot more flexibility. So I would say as well as reducing the size of the processing frame to half, weve increased the functionality to three times over a seven-year period. This is not necessarily taking advantage of the IT technologies, which are a whole different area. Best is the consolidation of switching and processing functions.

DMN: Can you outline for the readers why its a great idea to have everything smaller?

Baldock: There are a couple of things. If you look at mobile production, which is where a lot of our products are used, smaller means lighter, and smaller generally means less power. When you put something on the road, youre talking about a lot of cost to carry that product around. Youre talking about the difference between systems that have to be transported by truck, to systems now that can be put in flyaway packs. So you have an increase in the flexibility that you have with some of the mobile systems, being able to take production equipment on the road in a flyaway pack versus trucks in some cases. You also have a huge reduction in the power consumption required. Power is cost and power is heat its air-conditioning, its the practicality of putting these things in different environments at a much lower cost.

DMN: And all those factors hold true to a lesser extent, say, in a building, in a TV station, right?

Baldock: Yes. Real estate is cost as well. What we used to see in terms of huge rack rooms is now packaged in a couple of rows of racks. Ive seen facilities that probably had 15 to 20 rows of racks to house equipment 15-20 years ago, down to packages now that do the same thing that can be installed in a row of five or six individual racks, let alone rows of racks. Theres a huge change in the density of equipment and the space utilization. There are facilities set up in office buildings now that never would have been practical in the past. You had to build a television station, or build a television facility whereas now people are running television facilities of an office building with no special conditioning of the space. 

DMN: Can you compare the 60s to now?theres an extreme contrast in the size, isnt there?

Baldock: Sure. Multichannel facilities now are being built for 200 to 300 channels in the space that a single television station occupied in the 60s. Let me give you a little power consumption data: The power supply on the Grass Valley model 4000 was 14 rack units in 1992. By the time we did Kalypso in 1999, 7 years later, we had a two rack-unit power supply. Even more, there are huge efficiencies not only in the power consumption, but in the design of the power supplies themselves?they went from straight transformer-type supplies to switching power supplies. Theres a big difference there. Of course, power supplies were a huge weight and cost, originally. Now, of course, power supplies are a couple of hundred dollars. Theyre switching supplies, they work at multiple voltages, and as you can see, the space from 14 rack units down to two is a huge again in terms of space as well is weight, particularly weight. And as we come into the period of high definition in the 21st century, in 2003 we introduced Kalypso HD, and again we had the same size but we moved from standard definition to high-definition with processing power thats approximately 6 times what we had in the previous generation of products, and thats achieved in the same space, with the same power in the same way and the same size.

DMN: Thats a huge leap.

Baldock: So in terms of the internal horsepower to process HD signals and effects especially, youre talking about four to six times the horsepower.

DMN: Is some of the sufficiency being gained by taking huge circuit boards full of transistors and diodes and turning them into one small integrated circuit on silicon?

Baldock: You know, that was how some of the gains were made in the 80s. But its not the case any more. What weve been doing is, were doing a lot of integration of course, but not using ASICs. In our industry, there is a very marginal proposition for moving to ASIC type technology, particularly if you have very broadcast specific functionality. What weve been doing?and we were pioneers in this in Kalypso in 1999?is that weve moved virtually completely from ASIC and hybrid IC design technologies to FPGAs. Those are field programmable gate arrays.

DMN: You can change those, its not stamped in or hardwired.

Baldock: Exactly. And we were the first company, I believe, to do that with digital video effects. We implemented all of our DVE functionality and some of the keying functionality into FPGAs. We realized a huge cost reduction, and more flexibility because we did offer a number of upgrades to increase the performance of the effects that were offered without changing the hardware.

DMN: Thats a great thing. That right there is a huge advantage because your code writers can continue to improve the product even when its in the field.

Baldock: Exactly. So here again, this was the era of shifting from hardware-based designs to software-based designs using programmable platforms such as the FPGAs. 

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