Transforming the Universe

Cachu Hwch *

* It’s all gone wrong

On 10th of March of 2011, Howard Stringer, then Sony’s chief executive, left Tokyo in a wheelchair. A slipped disk in his back required emergency surgery, and he was flying home to New York for the procedure.

What the Welshman didn’t know was that his situation, already painful, was about to become even worse. So bad indeed that he would have to step back from CEO the next year, and that his back surgery would have to wait!

When his jet landed the next day, he learned that the biggest earthquake in memory and a devastating tsunami had just struck the east coast of Japan.

Sony factories in the Fukushima and Miyagi prefectures, 8 in total, immediately halted production. Those close to the shore were so badly damaged by flooding that it took over one year to resume production.

Tragedy, however, would also transform Sony in unexpected ways…

Connecting the Dots

Fast forward to end of 2016: As I was putting the final touches on Treasured 4, I was a bit annoyed.

The rewritten “engine”, powered by libavcodec, was really shining. I could finally display those high-end Sony XAVC and Canon XF-AVC frames in all their 12-bit glory.

However, my redesign had also a few drawbacks: Some video formats would no longer “render”, due to lack of libavcodec equivalent to some proprietary QuickTime codec.

REDCODE and Sony HDCAM-SR fell into this category, and that was really annoying.
I quickly made some statistics of last years requests using those formats, and decided it wouldn’t be too significant. HDCAM-SR numbers indicated that the format was about to disappear, after decreasing for several years in a row.

Still, we had Sony at both ends of the spectrum: On the head, Sony XAVC, strongly leading the 4K pack; on the tail the dwindling Sony HDCAM-SR.

I couldn’t help but remember what had happened 5 years earlier, the flooded factories, the production lines stopped for months, and I made the connection:

Think a moment about Shiva, the Hindu god of creation and destruction, who creates, protects and transforms the universe… Tragedies always have a flip side – and don’t get me wrong, with over 20,000 casualties we’re better off without tragedy – and for Sony the flooded factories may have been a catalyst, that accelerated transition to new technologies.

But before we analyze the consequences over the years, let me tell you first the inside story of that spring and summer of 2011.

The Twilight of the Tapes

When production of HDCAM-SR tapes suddenly stopped in March 2011, professional video tapes were the medium of choice for prime time, episodic TV production.

Although Sony communicated that they expected a three months downtime, the folks in Hollywood, with only two weeks of HDCAM-SR tape supply and a shooting season about to begin, immediately saw the Sendai factory flooding as an existential threat, and started to look for alternatives.

Some of them were already engaged in a tape HDCAM workflow and had no choice but to frantically purchase all existences of HDCAM-SR tape on sale, to secure production until end of season. Tape prices on gray market surged and despite efforts by Sony to alleviate distribution bottlenecks, stocks evaporated in a few weeks.

For many other productions, there was still a plan B: Accelerate the move to tapeless workflow.

Others have explained in detail the immediate impact on the industry of HDCAM-SR tape shortage. To summarize, the shock wave travelled from production down to post-production and delivery:

  • Japan tsunami accelerated a trend that was already happening: the use of tapeless cameras.
  • Forced to embrace the new ARRI, RED, and other tapeless cameras, the production houses had their fears quickly dispelled: The result was flawless, technology was ready!
  • Post production houses were now receiving files instead of tapes. Despite huge investments in SR decks, they were forced to adapt.
  • For delivery of masters to broadcasters, HDCAM-SR tape, the standardized format, was suddenly questioned. If most deliveries were still done in tape, master file transfers through fiber optic lines became common. The future was here.
  • Archiving, on the other end, moves at a slower pace. Transition from film to HDCAM-SR was still recent in 2011, but shortage raised the question.

And with all that, the summer passed quickly…

Gloomy Future

In October, seven months after the disaster, Sony finally managed to restart production and to resume shipments of HDCAM-SR tapes.
But so much effort would hardly be rewarded.

Productions that had done the switch during summer would no longer need the tapes. Those who had purchased a supply of tapes in the aftermath of the disaster would not need them either, and had already planned to switch to tapeless the next season.

In years to come, Sony would continue to manufacture tapes, but the writing was now on the wall.
With the sudden decline of a very profitable business that otherwise would have enjoyed several more years of bonanza, and the inevitable loss of dominance in professional video industry, Sony was facing a gloomy future.

Of course, any attempt to regain a dominant position had not only to address the 2011 events, but also to envision the future of professional video, and deliver the new end-to-end solution, a kind of HDCAM-SR for 2015-2020 if you will.

In response to that challenge, Sony correctly identified the opportunities born out of crisis:

  • What will replace HDCAM-SR as a standard for post and delivery? Getting rid of HDCAM has opened the eyes of the industry on the importance of a standard medium. Let’s design a solution that can become the new standard!
  • 4K is about to happen. Let’s embrace it!
  • Professional file-based workflows have specific needs (quality, bitrate, grading, metadata, interoperability, …) Let’s use the appropriate technology: AVC/H.264 and MXF containers

2011 is reaching an end, and now Sony has a plan…

Resurrection

On October 30, 2012, Sony unveiled the XAVC recording format!

In the past 12 months the tape industry had been disrupted and chaos was looming.
Still, someone had to be the first to make a compelling offer, and start building a new order.
Sony had just done it!

Let’s speculate a bit:
In what position would Sony be today in the professional video markets if not for 2011 flooding?

I believe that they wouldn’t be enjoying a two years lead over Canon, healthy profits, and such a dominant position.
Profitable HDCAM line would have slowed them, the risk of cannibalizing their tape business would have discouraged innovation.

Sure, they would have moved to 4K AVC, but too bland too late. They wouldn’t lead.

A corollary to the Innovator’s dilemma is that companies with biggest investments in old and current technologies are the least inclined to invent the next generation of products.
In 2011, Sony tape business was probably in the middle of the “milking” phase. Sony was definitively not the natural innovator, but the tsunami changed everything.

Sony video division had to face the perfect storm, but with the proper timing, vision and resolve, against all odds, they managed an impressive turnabout. A good lesson for the competitors!

What’s new in 2017

First of all, Happy New Year to all the readers!

We are starting 2017 very strong at Aero Quartet:
A redesigned Treasured is ready to turn beta and will be released in next weeks.

Treasured is the cornerstone of our Movie Repair Service, it provides diagnostics and shows preview of the contents of unplayable video files.
A lot of work has gone into Treasured since its first release in 2008, and we are about to release the most important redesign ever.

Our development roadmap follows a tik-tok schedule, where in even version numbers we make changes to the bowels of the application, changes that are not always visible to the user. And in odd version number we make changes to the user interface.

Tik

In January, we have putting the final touches on this “tik” release: We have rewritten almost everything under the hood, yet the on the surface this looks very similar to version 3.4 released in 2016.

The “engine” was redesigned to get rid of dependencies on deprecated parts of macOS (like 32-bit QuickTime and Carbon libraries) that will no longer work in the next years.

Treasured is now a 64-bit application, ready for the next 10 years. This redesign is the foundation upon which future developments will be built.

For the most technically inclined of you, we are now relying on libavcodec (of ffmpeg fame) to render the media found inside the damaged files, and this brings some advantages over last versions:

  • H.265, the new high-performance codec, is now detected and previewed. (More about this below)
  • Treasured will no longer ask you to install some QuickTime codecs to render images. Now everything comes bundled!
  • Very fast selection of “Candidates” for H.264 format

And many more opportunities that we have identified, and that will progressively be deployed in future releases…
In summary, with this Treasured redesign we make a bold statement:
We want to be here for the next ten years.

H.265 aka HEVC (High Efficiency Video Coding)

And those next ten years will likely belong to H.265, the new high efficiency codec that promises to cut bitrates by 50% over H.264.

We have already repaired with success a dozen of H.265 videos last year, mostly from Samsung Gear cameras.
For 2017 and 2018, we are anticipating a surge, as H.265 encoding chips will become mainstream in high-end and DSLR equipment.

Treasured is not just capable to detect and preview H.265, there’s more…
We have figured out that repairing corrupt mov or mp4 files with H.265 encoding is not very different from what we have been doing with H.264 for over 8 years. In other words, all our experience in delivering high-quality, affordable repairs will be immediately available for new H.265 videos.

Tok

2017 will be a busy year, because we are also planning a huge “tok” release!

Treasured user interface is still surprisingly similar to the first version, that I unveiled in this blog in 2008.
This design has served us well, but is not adequate for the next decade:

  • Mac desktop application user interface has progressed in the last years, influenced by smart phone apps and by macOS evolution. Customers deserve a high-quality, intuitive and beautiful user experience, and we are committed to make it happen.
  • Progress in Movie Repair technology enables a profound redesign of interface. It’s not just about aesthetics, it will be about conceptual design, with new, intuitive and useful objects and features.

For the moment, we don’t have mock-ups of the “tok” Treasured to show you, but rest assured that this blog will be the first place where you’ll see them.
And you’ll love it!

Survival Bias

During World War II, researchers from the Center for Naval Analyses conducted a study of the damage done to aircraft that had returned from missions, and had recommended that armor be added to the areas that showed the most damage.

Shortly after, a mathematician called Abraham Wald noted that the study only considered the aircraft that had survived their missions—the bombers that had been shot down were not present for the damage assessment. The holes in the returning aircraft, then, represented areas where a bomber could take damage and still return home safely.

Wald proposed that the Navy instead reinforce the areas where the returning aircraft were unscathed, since those were the areas that, if hit, would cause the plane to be lost.

And by following this advice, the Navy managed to minimize aircraft loss in the last years of World War II.

Focusing on “survivors” when analyzing some process leads to false conclusions, and I was about to make this exact mistake when I started writing this post.

A Nine Years Survival

A few weeks ago my business turned 9, and I asked myself what was the biggest mistake I had done during those years.

But when I started making a ranking of mistakes, I realized that this wouldn’t be very useful to publish such the list without first talking about the mistakes I didn’t make.

Just as an aircraft returning to base after a WW2 mission, my business had avoided the seminal mistakes that kill so many short-lived ventures.
Therefore, for a reader willing to take my advice, the pitfalls that I had managed to avoid would be the most important to consider.

I’m leaving this ranking of mistakes for my next post and I’m focusing in this post on things I got right.

1. Make Something People Want

The main reason I got a few things right when I created Treasured is that it wasn’t my first take at creating a product. In the previous years I had published a couple of “hobby products” and learnt a few lessons the hard way.

The first lesson is that without a painful, unsolved problem, that you can solve and charge money for, there is no future.

And that’s really counter-intuitive, because media coverage is always about twenty years old drop-outs that create an app that does a few trivial things, become an overnight planetary success, make no money but end up selling to Google or Facebook for a few hundred millions after a couple of years.

There’s no doubt that this is the story people wants to read, the success that startup founders want to experience. But for founders that’s like playing lottery and picking the winning ticket. For each such success they will be thousands of failures that nobody will talk about.

On the opposite, I prefer to bet on low risk ventures where my chances to win become acceptable. Granted, I won’t become super-rich, low risk brings lower reward. But the fact is that most innovative businesses that stick around for nine years have the same DNA: building a low key, niche, uncool product, but that solves a real, painful problem that people is willing to pay money for.

That’s true in the Internet age, and even now when free mobile apps are all the rage.

Now, how do you discover a painful, unsolved problem? Easy:
Just hang around in places where people with problems go, and ask them!

Forums in specialized websites are a perfect place to start hunting for a business idea.

One day in 2007 in a video forum, I stumbled upon a school teacher that needed to repair a surveillance video to figure out who had stolen the classroom computer. Luckily, the computer was recording live video to a hard disk in a locked case, that the thief had left behind. Classroom footage was available on the disk, but the MOV file been corrupted when the computer was taken by the thief.

That day, I repaired my first video (but unfortunately the thief was wearing a hoody and the teacher could not identify him) and decided that this could be a business idea worth investigating. The whole episode was captured in this blog a few days laters and is still a fresh read!

Once I knew that some people badly wanted to repair corrupt MOV files, the next step was to discover what the market would look like.
Through a market survey? No, by offering directly my expertise (which at this point was all but non-existent)

During a few weeks I requested corrupt MOV videos through my website, claiming that I would repair them for free.

I was contacted by around 20 persons, and discovered a surprising diversity of customers, situations, video formats and technical problems to solve. I managed to decently repair most of the videos, and the feedback was great.

This gave me confidence about feasibility and helped me take the seminal decisions about product and marketing, those that you can’t get wrong:

  • Target Video Professionals, on Mac platform
  • Deliver as a Service

Creating a “universal video repair program” was immediately ruled out: Diversity of situations, of formats, and quality required by professionals require specialized solutions and personalized support. Only a service can provide that.

The moment of truth is when I started to charge for the service.
Everyone is enthusiastic when you give away free repairs, but when there is money in the equation, everything changes.
You suddenly become liable. You quickly understand that unless you build trust and give solid proofs of repair, no customer will send you money.

Therefore, the service was shaped first and foremost to build confidence:

  • Providing a diagnostics and price quote free of charge, using a sample of the damaged video provided by the customer
  • Providing a short sample of repaired video
  • By developing a customized Repair Kit that the customer can use on his Mac, to produce watermarked video out of the damaged MOV file and take the purchase decision
  • Finally, give a refund guarantee in case expectations are not met

The first payment soon arrived. For sure, for the first months the service was still 100% craftsmanship, every customer being a new challenge, but the business was born. A minimal product (Treasured was still one year away) but a viable one.

To be continued…

#1 Lumix GH4

You can almost sense when technologies are about to be disrupted.

Take the internal combustion engine used in automobiles.

For about a century the petrol and diesel motors in our cars have experienced incredible improvements, we can talk about 10x increase in energy efficiency, and don’t get me started with reliability, noise and air pollution.

Even in the last 15 years we have seen dramatic changes, like turbocharged diesel engines in sport cars, common rail direct fuel injection, with electronics and firmware keeping the fuel consumption always optimized.




The 1955 Mercedes-Benz 300SL, the first production sports car to use fuel injection, is remembered first and foremost for its gull wing doors.

Diminishing Returns

Yet it seems that reducing fuel consumption further, even a measly 5% or 10%, will require enormous efforts.

In high-end cars we start to see byzantine solutions, like reducing floor clearance at highway speeds to improve aerodynamics, closing partially the front grille to reduce drag while having enough engine cooling, “smart” management of pumps and air conditioning, and so on…

We are clearly in “diminishing returns” phase of the innovation cycle. Actually the engine system itself is already fully optimized; today fuel efficiency improvements come from the rest of car.

We are getting close to the hard limit. Thermodynamic cycle of combustion engines allow for a fuel efficiency of 25% to 30% at most. End of story.

Electric cars, on the other side, will soon be mainstream starting at 80% efficiency. (Producing electricity efficiently is another story, but let’s stay focused on our topic)

The State of Art for H.264 video in DSLR Cameras

I can almost sense that H.264 video encoding is at the same point in its technological cycle as combustion engine.

Today we are pulling almost 100% of its potential.

Just as combustion engine efficiency is limited by the laws of thermodynamics, H.264 encoding efficiency is limited by a standard approved in 2003. It has received amendments over the last decade, but the efficiency of the codec can’t improve significantly unless you redesign it.

First H.264 encoding chips didn’t have all the bells and whistles that Advanced Video Coding standard allows for.
For example, CABAC entropy encoding is about 10% more efficient than CAVLC, but makes chip design more complex.

This improvement in H.264 is the equivalent of common rail direct injection.

Panasonic Lumix GH4
source: ephotozine – Joshua Waller

Then some manufacturers started to use different H.264 encoding settings depending on light, for example 3 possible settings for low light, interior and outdoor.

Canon introduced this optimization in cameras with DIGIC 5+ chip, starting with EOS 5D Mark III in 2012.

It consists in offering 3 different H.264 encoder configurations (called Picture Parameters Sets or PPS), each with a different value for a parameter called pic_init_qp_minus26.

The H.264 specification doesn’t shed too much of a light on what this parameters stands for:

pic_init_qp_minus26 specifies the initial value minus 26 of SliceQPY for each slice. The initial value is modified at the slice layer when a non-zero value of slice_qp_delta is decoded, and is modified further when a non-zero value of mb_qp_delta is decoded at the macroblock layer. The value of pic_init_qp_minus26 shall be in the range of -(26 + QpBdOffsetY ) to +25, inclusive.

In layman terms, this tells the encoder to encode with more detail the shades of color that dominate the picture, and thus avoid color banding: Image quality is slightly improved while keeping same bitrate.

This is like fine tuning the automatic transmission to optimize fuel efficiency.

Lumix GH4 seeking optimal H.264 video encoding

But there’s still a problem: at the time you start recording, the camera has to pick one of the possible H.264 encoding settings and stick with it until you push STOP. This is not optimal if you walk from interior to outdoor while camera is recording!

This is where Panasonic engineers made a smart contribution:
GH4 cameras also use several PPS, but they dynamically change the active PPS frame by frame to always use the settings that will yield optimal image quality.

Not only that: instead of playing with pic_init_qp_minus26, they use a more fine-grained method to get optimal quality called Picture Scaling Matrix.




Picture Scaling Matrix gives you fine-grained control

pic_init_qp_minus26 is more like a dial


Lumix GH4 engineers have used all the tricks in the H.264 encoding playbook to achieve optimal video quality.
There’s no much room for improvement for future H.264 cameras.

The Lumix GH4 is a serious contender to be remembered as a top DSLR camera of the H.264 era, just as the Leica M6 for rangeviewer film cameras.

Disruption Ahead: H.265

HEVC (H.265), the new standard for video encoding, promises a 50% economy in bitrate at constant quality over H.264.
Let’s see how the transition plays out in the next months. The whole industry has yet to start adopting the new standard.

If this is any indication of what is coming, last month we have received our first corrupt H.265 video from a Samsung Gear 360 camera.

Our tools are not yet ready to detect and repair H.265 routinely, but we already have some prototypes running in-house to address such repair requests and we will be ready for when the H.265 deluge starts.

For the moment, H.265 is only present in specialized markets (surveillance, IP cameras) and in new Samsung products (Gear 360, NX series).

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