Software-Based Transcoding System Gains Traction with Top Media Firms

Jeffery Deaner, CEO, AmberFin

Jeffery Deaner, CEO, AmberFin

June 15, 2009 – Surging demand from content suppliers for better, more cost-effective ways to position assets for the multi-screen market has prompted AmberFin to expand its presence in North America through direct sales to media companies and new partnerships with other players in the value chain.

U.K.-based AmberFin, formerly a unit of Snell & Wilcox, has brought long-standing expertise in software-based ingest, mastering, transcoding and other functionalities to Hollywood and other key media centers with promising early results, says Jeremy Deaner, who became AmberFin's CEO last August. "We've signed a deal with a big Hollywood studio to develop an end-to-end JPEG 2000 solution for mastering their catalog, and we're doing HDTV work for them as well," Deaner says, noting the solution will be the core addition in the Version 5 release of its iCR platform.

"Other people support the JPEG 2000 codec, but they don't do a full end-to-end solution," Deaner adds. "A number of other studios who are speaking with us are interested in that."

Basically, iCR is used to deliver superior image quality for HD/SD ingest, video conversion and transcoding through multiple image processing techniques in a flexible approach that optimizes handling to specific content requirements, Deaner explains. "What makes us different around transcoding and ingest is the way we're employing knowhow and patents from our Snell & Wilcox days," he says. "Superior quality and reliability are a big part of it.

"Our modules for ingest, mastering and transcoding allow you to deliver content out to and perform specific functions for different channels," he continues. "When it comes to movies, the ingest and playout processes are all about sustaining maximum quality. If you're doing sports, it's all about live content management and maximizing reliability. With TV programs you have to be mindful of certain legal requirements. Transcoding and distribution requirements are different for each segment."

In April the company introduced iCR Version 4.5, which is designed to streamline the transition of legacy as well as new content to HD through enhanced interoperability and greater operational efficiencies. The new version supports native Avid DNxHD and QuickTime format for Apple Final Cut Pro as well as a full range of P2 and XDCAM formats to enable tapeless workflows between content creation and distribution. The platform allows multiple simultaneous transcode processes, each with automated quality control, to begin as soon as the master encode process is underway.

Version 4.5 also provides a suite of compression pre-procressing algorithms, which optimize picture quality during the transcoding stage to filter out out-of-range frequencies and eliminate most macroblocking artifacts while increasing the overall image quality, even at low bit rates. These techniques greatly enhance HD up/down conversion performance and help content owners deal with the challenges associated with mixing SD and HD content and creating HD programs from SD sources, says AmberFin CTO Bruce Devlin.

One of these challenges has to do with translating interlaced SD content to the progressive display mode used in HD, Devlin notes. "To get the best quality from an interlaced source you need a range of different outputs for HD," he explains, citing Windows Media and Flash as examples beyond traditional MPEG-2 formats. Such images must also be converted to suit formats for smaller screen displays, which is a key aspect of the AmberFin transcoding process.

AmberFin accomplishes these tasks through software modules that run on existing standard dual-quad PC servers with two or four gigabytes of RAM, Devlin notes. "We're shipping our platform with Windows Installer using the Matrox SMI 2 card," he says. "That card gives us both the video inputs and outputs."

Devlin stresses the software functionalities are accomplished with no loss in quality. "There are dramatic differences with our platform compared to other vendors' software up conversions," he asserts. "We look as good as the best hardware. If you're a broadcaster trying to differentiate HD you need to have the quality, but you also need to operate in software to keep the workflow costs under control."

Devlin cites a recent comparative analysis undertaken by User Analytics, a research firm, which found that 84 percent of the viewers in the study rated the quality of HD images from SD files up converted to HD by the iCR software tools as being superior to those of a leading, unnamed competitor. "The study clearly shows the average consumer prefers the way AmberFin makes pictures," he says.

The modularity of the platform is vital to AmberFin's OEM initiative, which has brought in partners such as Miranda Technologies, a supplier of content management and distribution hardware, and Accenture and Transmedia Dynamics, which provide software-based asset management solutions. Web services from these asset management companies allow AmberFin customers to "create extraordinary quality on a Web service platform," Devlin says.

Maintaining flexibility to serve multiple customer needs is a cornerstone of how Accenture operates, notes Ross Sonnabend, executive for media and entertainment at Accenture. "There is no single business model," Sonnabend says. "There's a constantly changing race to fulfill requirements for getting content on new systems as fast as we can. Our reference architecture is designed to accommodate those changes in the least disruptive way possible."

The digital supply chain platform developed by Accenture allows content owners to translate content from tape or digital sources into a given file format and ingest to the files to a central repository, using metadata to define the attributes of the file, Sonnabend explains. "Our system automatically creates the downstream distribution file from the central repository based on the application requirement, whether it's TV, iPhone, NetFlix or CinemaNow," he says. "We're able to capture data up front and apply the business rules as the order comes in."

In Miranda's case, the supplier is incorporating and reselling AmberFin's iCR ingest functionality as part of its playout server offering. "We chose to partner with AmberFin and bundle its ingest functionality with our own playout solution due to its easy integration, modularity and flexibility in matching the needs of our customers," says David Jones, senior vice president for playout and graphics at Miranda.