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InnovaCom DVDimpact and Daikin Scenarist NT 2.0

Jeff Sauer

InnovaCom DVDimpact and Daikin Scenarist NT 2.0
synopsis: InnovaCom offers its MPEG-2 encoder as the core technology of several DVDimpact bundles, comprising the encoder, authoring software, hardware decoder, host PC, and more. One such bundle features Scenarist 2.0, the recent update of Daikin's warhorse authoring product. The InnovaCom encoder is a solid, multi-card, CBR-only system, and version 2.0 upgrades Scenarist with improved media management. The hassle-free approach to DVD authoring that InnovaCom has espoused with DVDimpact may ultimately not appeal to the core Scenarist user who likes to get his hands a little dirty with the technology. On the other hand, both products share a utilitarian, "just do it" flavor that could make it a very successful combination, especially for the price.

price: $47,500

InnovaCom, Inc.
3400 Garrett Drive
Santa Clara, CA 95054
Fax 408/727-6625

Daikin U.S. Comtec Laboratories
999 Grant Avenue
Novato, CA 94945-3219
Fax 415/893-7807

May 2000 | The combination of InnovaCom's MPEG-2 encoding hardware and Daikin's DVD authoring software brings together a relative newcomer with a stalwart DVD provider. InnovaCom introduced its first DVD solution at NAB 1999, although the company has actually been making MPEG encoders for some time, while Daikin's Scenarist, the granddaddy of authoring systems, was the only game in town during the early years of DVD authoring, running on UNIX and exclusively bundled with Sonic Solutions hardware.

Both companies now have multiple business partners. InnovaCom, in addition to bundling Scenarist, also resells Intec's DVDauthorQuick and the new NT version of Astarte's DVDirector authoring software, although the encoder will theoretically work with any authoring package. Daikin likewise has relationships with several encoder companies including Optibase, FutureTel, Minerva, and Heuris, Inc.

Ultimately, there is nothing revolutionary about InnovaCom's Scenarist bundle--Optibase also offers a similar solution--since there's no interaction between the hardware and authoring software beyond the production of compliant DVD streams to be imported into Scenarist. However, by providing a completely integrated solution including the computer, InnovaCom has taken a lot of the mystery and hassle out of getting started with DVD creation. And, by offering a variety of software options, InnovaCom also has pricing to meet different budgets.

While both InnovaCom DVDimpact and Daikin Scenarist can also be purchased separately, the bundle gives us an opportunity to review InnovaCom's DVDimpact/ DV5100 hardware for the first time and revisit Scenarist, now in Version 2.0 for Windows NT.

hardware first

While InnovaCom manufactures only the MPEG-2 encoding hardware, the DVDimpact/DV5100 system we tested is a turnkey solution integrated into an InnovaCom-branded 350MHz Pentium II PC. It has a black, industrial-strength and rack-mountable chassis and comes pre-configured with authoring software. Aside from typical cabling and configuration, it's ready to go almost straight out of the box.

InnovaCom's multiple card set includes the encoder, a hardware decoder/DVD emulator card, and a Time Base Correct (TBC) card to ensure a clean single. The TBC may be overkill for many situations, but you'll be pleased to have it if your source footage isn't pristine. Some other companies have built many TBC-style features into a single card encoder for less money, but none offer the range of a dedicated TBC.

The TBC is especially helpful for image quality in the hardware we tested that supported only S-Video and composite input. A new component board with balanced audio should be available before you read this. Also coming, but not ready for our testing, is a potentially exciting, frame-accurate MPEG mixer/editor for segment-based re-encoding, clip trimming, appending, CG insertion, etc. which will be included in the current price of InnovaCom's hardware. The DV5100 price already includes a V-LAN Express for controlling a large number of professional VTRs.

The encoder and the TBC each have their own software configuration interface and that makes set-up a little clunky. We'd like to see a single interface with smoother interoperability, but the current system is functional enough. Moreover, the TBC software gives excellent control of your input signal with slider adjustments to black levels, color balance, horizontal position, in addition to the more standard Chroma and saturation settings.

The encoding interface is utilitarian, offering plenty of features though not a great deal of elegance. Shuttle controls are adequate, but playing back an encoded file requires an odd interface toggle button. DVDimpact supports on-the-fly capture and batch encoding, although automatic naming and navigating between batch entries is awkward. The Encoding Parameters page is rich with configuration options, but lacks an all-important "default" button, the ability to save personal settings, and the ability to exit without saving changes if you've really gotten confused. Exiting the encoder interface is also lacking a quit-without-saving feature, asking if you've saved your batch project, but not allowing you to exit without saving. The interface oddly has no traditional Windows menus, putting the save button on the right side of the interface, nor online help.

Fortunately, it's the hardware that gets the job done, and InnovaCom's encoder supports MPEG-2 at either 4:1:1 or 4:2:2 profiles with typical controls of GOP structure and bit rate. However, it does not support variable bit-rate encoding.

Different authoring software options from InnovaCom range in price from $29,500 for DVDimpact with Intec's DVDAuthorQuick [See Jan Ozer's April 1999 review of MicroBoards' DVD authoring system (which also bundles Intec software), pp. 35-37--Ed.] or Astarte's DVDirector NT, to an aggressive $47,500 for the Scenarist Professional bundle.

granddaddy tries to stay fit

Daikin's Scenarist was the first commercially available DVD authoring system, built from the ground up by engineers rifling through the entire DVD specification. The result is unparalleled programming control of DVD capabilities. The rub against Scenarist is that its interface can be intimidating for the uninitiated and outright confusing in places.

In Scenarist NT 2.0 Professional ($29,000), Daikin attempts to address those concerns with improved ease of use--like drag and drop, media management, and helpful wizards for straightforward project navigation--without sacrificing their mastery of DVD programming. The changes, however, aren't radical, keeping the same basic interface design. Thus, for better and worse, Scenarist remains a tool for the predominately left-brained, but there are improvements.

Scenarist 2.0 begins with improved media management. A Project Manager now lists the 16 most recent projects for quick access and reference. It also links to two new wizard templates for easily creating automated Loop or Branch Loop navigation projects.

In a mild departure from the original philosophy of having all assets ready prior to authoring, Scenarist now helpfully supports media placeholders, used in lieu of actual video and audio files for creating navigational links while awaiting final assets. You can also use a preliminary rough-cut or low-resolution video in place of a future final version without having to rebuild tracks or links when you make a final substitution. Scenarist NT 2.0 supports dragging and dropping MPEG video assets directly into the main Scenario Editor, the Track Editor, avoiding the task of importing all assets through the Asset Manager. Unfortunately, you still need to import audio and graphic assets.

Scenarist NT's main interface still consists of five main areas. The largest area, the main authoring window, toggles between track editor, scenario editor, asset icon view, and configuration manager depending on which of four tabs you click. Two windows serve as asset managers and have similar and sometimes redundant functionality. A property inspector lets you drill down through several layers of data about a highlighted asset or track. And finally, a compatibility inspector monitors every move you make, informing of potential difficulties for a final disc image.

The Scenario Editor retains a programmer's flair with redundant icons for each asset and tech-talk terminology like PGCs, VTSs, cells, and the like. Scenarist uses the many icons for visual representation of programmed navigation and links, but they are also distracting and clutter the interface. In version 2.0, you can set a preference for single icons, but you'll lose reference points unless you manually expand the icons, which often causes icons to overlap in a visual hodgepodge of lines and squares. Thankfully, Daikin has added the native Windows ability to select and drag multiple icons for repositioning.

The property inspector would be a logical place to move much of the icon functionality; however, it already includes a powerful, yet daunting array of haphazardly ordered properties and commands.

Multiple language users will be pleased that Scenarist 2.0 has added an on-the-fly subtitle editor, enabling easy subtitle creation. You can still import subtitle text files, but the editor is great for simple captions. The interface is a little awkward, only working with a full screen view of the video, which cuts off the bottom of the simulator window and colors, drop shadow, and other text effects are also unnecessarily buried, but it's an important new feature.

At the time of our testing, the 2.0 User's Guide tutorial had not been properly updated, causing great confusion in places. That wouldn't be so much a problem if the User's Guide itself were laid out more efficiently. As it is, the Guide is really a reference and procedures guide rather than a useful tool for newcomers. The lack of a basic overview should be rectified with a revised Quick Start addendum, but Daikin seemingly expects users to purchase an annual support contract for $3,480.

One unconscionable omission from Scenarist 2.0, is the continuing lack of "Undo" for any part of the interface. Tech Support admits to being barraged with requests for this obvious necessity and its continued absence questions Daikin's commitment to dramatically improving Scenarist beyond window dressing-style features.

Daikin still offers less expensive versions--Scenarist Basic ($9,800) and Advanced ($19,000)--to appeal to more price-conscious users. Both share Scenarist Professional's interface, but chip away at Daikin's core strength of feature control. Scenarist Advanced eliminates fairly targeted features--like region control and AC-3 audio--and may be a good way to save money if you wouldn't use them anyway. However, Scenarist Basic is a much tougher sell because it essentially limits you to simple projects--one Video Title Set (group of video clips), each with only one subtitle, and one audio track--without being any easier to use.

For an additional $3,375 with any of the Scenarist versions, Daikin adds DVD Informer, a DVD player emulator and debugger. Scenarist includes a built-in DVD simulator Window, but Informer goes far beyond the Simulation Window's ability to isolate problems and is probably a worthwhile addition for most Scenarist users. Finally, Scenarist EDK is an included production kit for creating Enhanced DVD, which has additional functionality--such as HTML, Macromedia Director Projectors, and other coding through Visual Basic and Visual C++--when played in a computer DVD-ROM drive.

the marriage?

Daikin's improvements to Scenarist NT are really fairly minor and will probably win few new customers. Daikin's strength remains unbridled, roll-up-the-sleeves access to DVD programming features, and many DVD developers will continue to give Scenarist serious consideration for precisely that reason. On the other hand, 2.0 may be a good reason for existing users to purchase a support contract since the upgrade is included.

The hassle-free approach to DVD authoring that InnovaCom has espoused with DVDimpact may ultimately not appeal to the core Scenarist user who likes to get his hands a little dirty with the technology. On the other hand, both products share a utilitarian, "just do it" flavor that could make it a very successful combination, especially for the price. Intuitive designers, however, may do better to consider InnovaCom's Astarte DVDirector bundle.

Companies Mentioned in This Article

Weberstr. 1, D-76133 Karlsruhe, Germany, ++49 731 98 5540; Fax ++49 721 85 3862; http://www.astarte.de/dvd

1721 Lake Drive West, Chanhassen, MN 55317; 800/646-8881; 612/556-1600; Fax 612-556-1620; http://www.microboards.com

Sonic Solutions, Inc.
101 Rowland Way, Suite 110; 415/893-8000; Fax 415/893-8008; info@sonic.com; http://www.sonicsolutions.com

Jeff Sauer (jeff@dtvgroup.com) is the Director of the DTVGroup, a research and test lab that regularly reviews tools and technology. He is an industry consultant, an independent producer, and a Contributing Editor to NewMedia Magazine, Video Systems Magazine, Presentations Magazine, and AV Avenue.

Comments? Email us at letters@onlineinc.com.

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