Sony Shrinks HDTV to Fit Betacam

By Beacham, Frank | American Cinematographer, February 1997 | Go to article overview

Sony Shrinks HDTV to Fit Betacam


Beacham, Frank, American Cinematographer


Anyone who has produced images in high-definition video is well aware of the equipment's shortcomings. Like machines from the early days of television, the production gear has the reputation of being bulky, expensive and always in need of a video engineer's tender loving care.

Now, with the widespread use of HDTV on the horizon, Sony is creating a new version of its popular Betacam camcorder for portable field acquisition of HD video. The first prototype of the new camcorder is scheduled for completion in mid-1997.

The new HD Betacam format was first described in a technical paper on HDTV compression at the recent International Broadcasting Convention (IBC) in Europe; the system provides a glimpse of where Sony plans to take the venerable Betacam format, which was introduced in 1982 as a portable news acquisition system.

Sony notes that breakthroughs in the miniaturization of integrated circuits and the maturing of compression algorithms has finally allowed the company to create a one-piece HD camcorder with the size, weight and power consumption of today's Betacam systems.

Reducing the unwieldy HD recording components to camcorder size was an enormous undertaking. The video data for a high-definition television signal consists of 1920 ? 1080 ? 30 luminance and chrominance pixels each second; this pixel rate registers at slightly more than 124M pixels/sec. The data must be highly compressed in order to be stored on a practical and affordable recording device. In addition, part of the recorded bandwidth must be allocated for error protection and several digital audio channels.

Through experimentation, Sony's engineering team managed to squeeze the HD data tight enough to allow two hours of recording time on a Beta-sized half-inch videocassette. First, to improve compression efficiency, researchers used intra-frame processing rather than intra-field processing. Then Sony's workers employed a 3:1:1 spatial filter to reduce the number of horizontal luminance samples per line from 1920 to 1140 and the number of chrominance samples per line from 960 to 480.

"The choice of a horizontal only filter was made to [enable the design of] a low-power, lightweight camcorder implementation as well as [to ensure] that the multi-generation performance would not be unduly affected," writes the Sony research team of C.H. Gillard, JJ. Stone and T. Hayasaka. "The 3:1:1 filter offers 8/5 to 1 bit rate reduction. To accomplish an overall 8-to-1 compression then requires the BRR (bit rate reduction) algorithm to achieve just 5-to-1 compression."

The Sony team says that its 3:1:1 system offered a suitable level of picture quality for HD "ENG" applications. However, Sony's crew found that the screen could be further enhanced with additional improvements in the compression architecture. This led to an investigation of the usage of picture information. …

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