Videography – October 1998

By Sheldon Liebman

The world keeps getting smaller. As a result, the need to share information keeps growing. We’ve already written a number of articles about methods and techniques for sharing information locally and globally, but it isn’t enough. New products continue to be introduced and the rules keep changing. In order for you to make the best decisions, we have to keep you informed of these developments.

The latest company to join the game is actually four years old, but has only recently decided to target the video and entertainment industries. WAM!NET, based in Minneapolis, is developing a high-speed, private network throughout the United States and all over the world. Today, the company claims that it is the world’s largest private network.

Partnering with WorldCom (now MCI WorldCom), which is a 40% equity partner in WAM!NET, the company has been wiring the world through the creation of very high-speed hubs. There are approximately 50 hubs already in place and more are being added on a daily basis. The network has expanded to Europe and the company is looking very closely at the Pacific Rim and Australia for future expansion.

The FEDEX of Data
When you speak with the people at WAM!NET about what they are trying to create, the company they refer to most often is Federal Express. Just as FEDEX needed to create a network to move packages, WAM!NET is creating a network to move data. More than once, the company mentioned that they want to be "the Federal Express of electronic media." Since they are moving data, they can offer their service 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, which gives them an advantage over companies like FEDEX. Their ultimate goal is to move 80% of electronic media, which is a lot of bits and bytes. On the downside, however, they can only deliver information from Company A to Company B if both companies have signed up as customers for the service.

Hub-ba Hub-ba
As we’ve covered this type of technology before, we’ve looked at products that offer direct connections between the sender and receiver as well as looking at products that utilize a hub architecture. From the beginning, WAM!NET was designed to be the latter.

WAM!NET started by offering services to the graphics arts industry, where large files are commonplace but each file only represents a single image. They have been doing this for approximately the past two years. Since they have been dealing with stills, the use of a "store-and-forward" architecture made the most sense. This has not affected their ability to grow, as the service now reaches over 35,000 companies in almost 50 countries, including more than 75% of the top 300 advertising agencies in the United States.

Collaboration products geared toward the video industry, however, usually stress their ability to provide real-time features such as annotation and shared playback control. At WAM!NET, they don’t see this as an issue.

Dave Kervinen is Director of Marketing for WAM!NET Entertainment, a new division of WAM!NET with responsibility for bringing the network to the video production and broadcast industries. Discussions regarding WAM!NET Entertainment started after this year’s NAB and the division officially opened on August 4. According to their research, says Kervinen, although "collaboration is a good thing and we want to provide it long-term, it may not be as necessary as people are thinking."

The real key, continues Kervinen, "is to reduce turnaround time. You can’t require that people be available at exactly the same time. But, you need to give them a fast tool to make notes and get (a project) back to you."

The New Black Box
In addition to providing high-speed connections, WAM!NET also wants to make using the service as easy as possible for their customers. So, they have created a separate, sealed workstation that is installed at every site and contains a simple touchscreen interface that can be used to send material from one place to another. Using the interface, you simply select the clip you want to send, access the directory of WAM!NET sites and hit "SEND."

To load clips into the system or record the material you receive, there are encode/decode devices with BNCs that can be connected directly to a video deck or to the video distribution system in a facility. If you need to move around data in non-video formats (like Alias/Wavefront, SoftImage or other graphics material), there is a LAN connection that allows the system to send this type of data in its native format. Of course, you need to make sure the company receiving your data has the right software to use it.

The goal in creating this box was to develop a system that would be very easy for even non-technical people to use. Although the box contains an SGI machine, you can’t hook up a keyboard, mouse or traditional computer monitor to it. In fact, the customer doesn’t even own the box, but instead leases it from WAM!NET. This gives WAM!NET the most flexibility possible as they can make sure the configuration is exactly what they need and maintain total control over every aspect of the hardware and software running on the station. The biggest advantage to this type of a setup is that WAM!NET doesn’t have to worry about what "version" a customer is running. Since they own all the equipment and provide all the maintenance, they can make sure every system is kept up to date.

As an example of how far WAM!NET goes to make sure these stations are foolproof, Kervinen mentions that they "have very sophisticated on-board diagnostics and we ping them several times an hour to make sure they stay healthy." In fact, he adds, "we can actually predict a failure and we can do maintenance before it fails."

Pick Your Pleasure
Because WAM!NET uses a hub-based architecture, the company can offer a wide variety of connection speeds depending on how much data a customer expects to move around. They can also support different video and data formats depending on the way the material will be used. Billing is based on the amount of time customers are connected to the system for transmitting material and is also related to the speed of the connection.

Ultimately, this translates into charges based on the amount of material transmitted with discounts based on volume. Although Kervinen did not supply actual pricing information, he confirmed that customers with higher speed connections would effectively spend less to transmit a given clip than customers with lower speed connections. Of course, faster connections also have a higher minimum usage requirement to help pay for the larger pipe.

Someone who doesn’t expect to use the service a lot can obtain a T-1 connection with throughput of approximately 1.5 Megabits per second (Mbps). For very high bandwidth users, 1.5 Gigabit per second (Gbps) connections can be purchased that will ultimately allow full-resolution, uncompressed HDTV signals to be transmitted in real-time.

In addition to determining which speed to purchase, users need to think about what video format(s) they need to use. MPEG-2 compression is being offered as well as compressed HDTV at 360 Mbps. In the world of uncompressed video, full CCIR601 resolution can be supported as well as uncompressed HD. Combining compression with a big data pipe means that many companies will be able to transfer material at faster than real-time rates.

Through these high-speed transfers, WAM!NET hopes to eventually attract the attention of broadcasters as well as production facilities. There’s a lot of material being sent via satellite today, says Kervinen, that could be sent via WAM!NET. "With satellite transmission, it has to be perfectly timed, you have to point the satellite correctly and someone has to be there. For non-real-time applications like distribution and syndication, we don’t think you need to use a satellite."

To start, however, they are focusing on the production side of the video industry. Although it would be easy to say that we’re being the guinea pigs, that’s probably not an accurate statement. After all, the graphic arts industry has been shipping stills around for over 2 years using this technology.

However, the margin of error for broadcast material is essentially zero, so WAM!NET wants to make sure it has a solid track record with video before tackling that venue. Of course, FEDEX had to grow over time as well and they haven’t done too badly. If WAM!NET succeeds, part of that success will be at the expense of the company they are modeling themselves after. The benefits, though, will be spread across our entire industry.

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