July 5, 2019
8 min read
Panasonic offers an award-winning lineup of PRO PTZ (pan, tilt & zoom) Cameras, which integrate NewTek 's open Network Device Interface (NDI™) technology to simplify IP setup and video production workflows. In this article, learn more about background of NDI, the implementation, and the operational efficiencies that result from this partnership.
Producing and delivering live-streamed video is now more affordable and accessible than ever before. With NewTek's Network Device Interface (NDI) technology and remotely controlled pan-tilt-zoom (PTZ) cameras, it's even easier to set up and operate complex productions with minimal staff requirements. Traditional live production setups can require miles of cables to each camera, radio headset systems, and at least one person for each camera. NDI connectivity and PTZ cameras enable a producer to minimize cable requirements while enhancing opportunities for creativity in camera placement and use. A setup like this can do more with less, and it gives us a glimpse into what the future of live production could look like.
Definitions and Details
So, what is NDI? San Antonio, Texas-based NewTek, developer of the TriCaster live production system, unveiled NDI at IBC in 2015, making it a relatively new technology. In a nutshell, NDI allows a user to utilize existing gigabit network infrastructure to connect a wide range of devices together through standard ethernet cables and ports. Since many PTZ cameras are now offered with Power over Ethernet (PoE), this also means that control, signal, and power can flow through a single cable rather than three. NDI uses the multicast Domain Name System (mDNS) discovery standard to broadcast and locate sources across a network. Once sources are set up on the switcher, there is video, uncompressed audio, and metadata being sent from each source. Typically, cameras will be sending a 1080i signal with variable bitrate around 100Mbps. NewTek's newest TriCaster, the TC1, can handle 4K at 60p.
NDI-compatible equipment is available from a wide array of manufacturers, although NewTek offers the most options. The company sells cameras, converters, live production systems (such as the TriCaster series), graphics packages, and other tools and accessories. Many other manufacturers including PTZOptics, Streambox, Panopto, Magewell, vMix, Panasonic, and Marshall all offer a range of NDI gear such as cameras and converters. Converters such as the NewTek Connect Spark ensure that even existing or older camera systems don't have to be replaced in order to take advantage of NDI. Producers can convert HDMI, SDI, and even 4K UHD cameras at the camera and add them to the list of available sources on the network.
The most important aspect of NDI is that it is available to anyone with a royalty-free license. NewTek even maintains an SDK that's compatible with mobile, Windows, Linux, and macOS. Software developers and hardware manufacturers can integrate NDI into their products at zero up-front or ongoing cost.
PTZ is a relatively old technology that most producers are already familiar with. Even so, the camera systems that could be classified as PTZ have exploded and blurred the lines in recent years. At its core, a PTZ camera is the typical dome or lens-on-a-stick style like you see in many houses of worship and in small- or medium-sized conference rooms. These compact systems are quite capable for most scenarios. They're powered either by wall plug or Ethernet cable and can be placed nearly anywhere either permanently or temporarily. Image-flipping for inverted-ceiling installations, IP control, and long optical zooms are commonplace features among all manufacturers. For the vast majority of live production setups, the basic PTZ camera is adequate.
One might argue that there are other PTZ cameras available to producers that don't fit the standard definition. For example, drones are increasingly being added to live shoots to provide a unique angle. In the auto-racing world, the National Hot Rod Association's 2018 Dodge Mile-High NHRA Nationals production included a DJI drone in its mix. There was also a camera positioned on the track against a side wall. No doubt, the camera on the track was something cheap in case it was destroyed by a stray top fuel dragster, but a PTZ camera could easily have replaced it and added interest with the ability to follow the cars as they passed. Even newer systems like Spidercam and FlyLine share the capabilities of PTZ cameras while also having the advantage of long-range travel by cable.
Quite possibly the biggest reason that NDI has taken off in adoption is the ease of setup. The entire technology has been built with the intention of making interconnecting devices for complex, multicamera setups as painless as possible. NDI has taken what used to be a laborious multihour, or even multiday, process of setting up a production infrastructure for an event and turned it into a simple plug-and-play process. That's not to say that there's nothing to it. Producers should still take certain considerations into account before buying a truck full of NDI-compatible gear. To get a clear picture of exactly what's important when moving to NDI, I spoke with Scott Carroll and Will Waters of NewTek.
The first question I posed was, "Speaking to a producer that's never used NDI before but is familiar with older live production techniques and gear, how would you best explain how to get started?" First, Waters pointed out that traditional systems involve some sort of central distribution point like an SDI router. Every component in the system is point-to-point and stacked on top of each other. The biggest advantage of NDI over traditional systems is that you can leave the point-to-point system behind and harness the same tech that all of our network infrastructure already runs on so reliably. This provides better agility and flexibility at a lower cost. Just compare the cable costs for starters. Cat6 cable runs around 10 cents per foot while SDI cable runs around $1 per foot.
Of course, any system infrastructure, be it video, data, or audio, is only as reliable as its weakest link. You could theoretically lose your broadcast should a major network component such as a router or switch go out. Redundancy should still be an important factor in your equipment list. Even having duplicate networking components is cheaper than having duplicate video gear like switchers, routers, and distribution hubs. On the flip side, NDI is also better set up to work around source loss than traditional systems. If you lose one camera or cable, it doesn't affect anything else in your workflow. Getting things back online can be easier too, as you could have additional ports or cables on standby.
What about using a dedicated network? I posed this question to NewTek as well: "Should an NDI network be segregated from a data network?" Their answer is that separation is always best when given the choice. No network has unlimited bandwidth, and you have to work within the constraints of that bandwidth to ensure success. Certainly, you wouldn't want to be fighting with guest Wi-Fi traffic while running your show.
Determining your network requirements just requires some simple math. For example, a 1080/60p stream will use 160-180Mbps of bandwidth. That should allow five or six streams on a gigabyte network. That's adequate for a large number of shoots, but many broadcasters need several times that number of cameras. For those situations, you may need 10-gigabit networks, and you may need other special equipment that has multiple network ports to support more streams. Even just two 10-gig ports on a live production system could give you about 100 1080/60p camera sources. NDI is capable of handling hundreds of sources, so the limitations really come down to the gear being used. NewTek's TriCasters are designed to adapt bandwidth requirements for preview monitors or small multiview windows so that the full resolution and data of each signal are not always being pulled.
Getting a live production set up with PTZ and NDI is a pretty straightforward process that's not limited to small production houses. On NewTek's blog, there's a case study about how London-based Celebro Media has transformed its workflow and gone all in with NDI and robotic cameras. In addition to the London home office/studio, Celebro has studios and offices in three other locations: Washington, D.C., Moscow, and Ramallah, Israel. In total, the company operates about 20 unique studios or standups. They offer these staffed studios to mid-sized broadcasters that may not be able to afford to build or keep up their own studios. The challenge there is the ever-changing needs of each customer. With NDI, they're able to be uncommonly flexible.
Since Celebro implemented NDI early, managers were able to plan their rollout across each of their properties. Currently, all of their locations are linked internally throughout the buildings and externally across time zones to their international locations all over IP. This provides them with several advantages in customer experience. First, any connected PC can pull a real-time feed from any source in the building at any time. Celebro CEO Wesley Dodd says about this feature, "We're getting the cost advantage of an inexpensive monitoring setup. Our clients are getting the advantage of a very, very rapid deployment."
Another distinct advantage of NDI, which can make a big difference even if you're not pulling sources from around the globe like Celebro does, is the way NDI handles varying feeds. NDI is bidirectional, which means the source device knows how it's being used downstream. This means you can add control, metadata, tally, and other information to the same cable and have devices engage automatically. NDI is also agnostic with regard to resolutions, frame rates, or video color standards. With all this information available, the receiving device can automatically recognize and convert or conform the video to the project standards. If you have legacy equipment with SDI connections, don't stress about having to throw it out and replace it. NewTek offers gear like the VMC1 Video Mix Engine with hybrid IP and SDI capabilities, which enables the use of both NDI and traditional SDI sources in the same production.
All of this hybridization really paints a bigger picture of the direction the world of broadcasting has been heading for years. Traditional OTA broadcasting isn't going anywhere, but broadcasters and brands alike are increasingly looking to push their content over the internet in addition to more old-school channels. NDI makes it easy to gather the best of analog and digital production and send it to both online and offline channels simultaneously, with no friction.
Setting up a shoot with SDI sources is simple. Place your cameras, run the cables, plug in, and power up. The signal is either there or it's not. Easy, right? Fortunately, NDI doesn't muck things up by making them difficult. For starters, you'll need to set all of your equipment to the same IP range. Once you've done this, you can use a software like NewTek Connect Pro to automatically discover each source available on the network and configure them. Some manufacturers that have adopted NDI into their equipment offerings have come up with their own solutions.
Panasonic and NewTek teamed up to offer NDI in many of their cameras, which makes connecting Panasonic PTZ cameras to NewTek switchers even simpler. Without even dealing with IP addresses, this software can automatically discover, connect, and set up sources within TriCaster hardware. To enable full PTZ control, you'll still need to set the IP ranges correctly.
As artificial intelligence infiltrates production hardware and robotic camera systems to automate movement and intelligently analyze and track subjects, our reliance on systems that can all communicate with each other is becoming greater every year. NewTek's NDI technology has taken what has for years been a passive, binary process and turned it into a connected and dynamic force.
With a few more years of AI development, multicamera live productions could enable crews to do more with less. Less cost due to fewer crew members needed. Less time for setup. Less need for multitasking every camera operator as imaging systems can do most of the heavy lifting themselves. With all of this "lessness," we'll need more intelligent, modern infrastructure technologies like NDI to carry the load and to keep everything in sync.