Visited: SMPTE 2017 Exhibition Sydney (18 – 21 July)

After returning from my first long-solo-trip, I decided to spend two months “decompressing” and getting ready for my next trip. Part of the reason was so I could attend CeBIT, Vivid Sydney and SMPTE Exhibition. The last time I went was in 2015, and it was very much an event I enjoyed even though I’m not really in the production industry as such. As a technology enthusiast with a lot of interest in computing, radio, broadcast and satellites, it’s nice to keep abreast of new technology and developments that go into making the shows you watch and help deliver it from the studio right through to the end consumer.

On The Floor

This year, it was held in the ICC at Darling Harbour, much like CeBIT but it seemed the show-floor was more densely packed. Since the show is all about motion pictures/television engineers, they really know how to present their goods in a visually appealing way. It was mesmerizing in many ways – from walking past jimmy jibs swinging up and down running their demo, to rows of expensive Canon lenses, past racks of high-end digital microphone equipment, while looking at various analysis tools and bright LED panels. There was a lot happening, but I didn’t really have the time to “soak it in” as much as I would have liked, so I’ll probably recap on some of the highlights. I’d like to share some photos, but the terms of the SMPTE exhibition prohibit photography! Seems a little strange, but I might as well comply …

The first highlight was visiting Silicon Memory Technologies stand, representatives for a large range of brands related to computer storage including LaCie, Seagate, Akitio, Areca, Qsan, Stardom, Synology and Tiger Technology. At their stand, I was introduced to the Synology range of NAS products, as well as the Areca multi-bay DAS solutions. It was impressive to see an eight-bay Areca unit pushing about 1500MB/s read and 1000MB/s write over Thunderbolt (over USB-C connector). Even more interesting? They had a display case which had a Seagate Enterprise Storage 12Tb 3.5″ helium hard drive, as well as a Seagate Nytro XF1230 SATA SSD. Both products are pretty rare to see – I’d love to see even larger hard drives become more mainstream, so the existence of the 12Tb unit even if in limited quantities is encouraging to say the least. However, with the advent of the 50Tb 3.5″ SSD, it seems density is something hard drives might be losing out on, even though they are more financially economical in terms of purchase price.

The next biggest highlight was visiting the Blackmagic Design corner. One of the classic Aussie success stories, they have been featured even in documentaries such as State of Electronics and have been involved in bringing good value products to disrupt the market. It was interesting to see their real-time film scanner in action with 4k/30fps capability, as well as their newer (compact) scaler/format converters. Their product range is also diversifying into audio, so soon it seems they will have their feet in every part of the chain.

I took some time to drop into the Jands stand with the Shure Axient Digital system being on display. What caught my eye was actually the circular polarized antenna, as most in use are “paddle” shaped log-periodic dipoles. After the recent digital restack, the frequency bands available for wireless microphones had changed, so it’s probably something a lot of people might be interested in. It was interesting to hear their new digital system offers uncompressed audio, more channels, encryption and better range on an equal-power basis due to digital gain. It maintains interference mitigation capabilities, while also providing AES-3 and Dante digital connectivity. They also showed me a very tiny IP-rated manpack transmitter with integrated antenna and rechargeable battery – most impressive, as it’s even smaller than my wallet.

On that note, I stopped into the Sennheiser stand as well, just to see their offerings, and it seems they also have a digital offering of comparable feature-set, at least, on paper. But they didn’t take the time to explain it to me in detail.

Another highlight was visiting the Quantum stand – as it turns out, it’s the same brand as the formerly highly-regarded Quantum hard drives, just except they are providing storage solutions instead of drives now. Apparently they’re still heavily invested in tape storage, so that’s a good alternative for some niche applications.

I also stopped by G.Technology’s stand, represented by AVNET, since I spotted quite a few HGST products on show. Interestingly, I didn’t know HGST were into the SSD market as well, but they also have 4k-native hard drives on offer too. The Ultrastar He platform had offered 12Tb drives already, and I believe they had an SMR 14Tb drive as well, but again, are rarely seen.

As with the previous show, there were some drones on show – this year they focused on small compact drones, but CASA were also there raising awareness of safe operation and no-fly zones. They promoted an app at casa.gov.au/droneapp which details no-fly zones.

Rohde and Schwarz were also a nice stand to visit, with their analyzer and modulator being run in the front showing a nice and tight 256QAM constellation diagram. In the back, they were running their PRISMON system which was doing live PSNR and SSIM measurements with an HD-SDI input and a post-decoder output, allowing an operator to see the trend in picture quality over time as well as highlighting which parts of the image are most suffering from compression effects. I liked seeing that, since one of my bugbears is low-quality over-compressed video on the standard Freeview broadcasts – it’s part of the reason I like to keep an eye on their bitrates.

It was already a pretty good show as far as I was concerned. There were quite a few demonstrations from Sony, Panasonic and Canon as well, and various other equipment suppliers showing off several-hundred watt-hour battery packs. Of course, that was not all.

Getting Into Radio and Satellite

To my surprise, at the Sonifex stand, there was some Nautel transmitters on show. I had come across their products at one of the HFCC presentations in prior years at the Gold Coast. While I didn’t visit HFCC, because I was involved as a monitor of Radio Vaticana’s DRM broadcasts, I was aware of their program, so it was an honour to meet their representative and have a chat about where radio is headed. It was also exciting to see their “modern” transmitters in person – unlike older units where external test equipment and only basic displays are provided in the form of needles on gauges, these had touch-screen LCDs showing everything – spectrum, SWR, power, temperature, voltages, etc. It was also surprisingly compact and flexible too, but I suppose that’s what happens thanks to digital technology.

I stopped by Optus’ stand as well, where they were showing a 4k satellite demonstration program of soccer. It was quite nice and sharp, so I struck up a conversation about the service and whether it was “on the air”. He claimed it was on Optus C1, and running “about 20Mbit/s” with three trial services on a 36Mhz wide transponder. I said that was impressive, but pretty hard to fit that bit-rate in, to which he admitted that they were running a very low amount of FEC to make it happen. I also asked about Optus 10 and what it was “doing” – it is still at the old Optus B3 location but running commercial IP traffic. This corroborates what I had determined on my “hunt” for Optus 10 in 2015.

Lets just say, I couldn’t help myself but to go looking. The first step was to use my “existing” set-up that uses a TBS6925 Professional Satellite Tuner Card with my DiSEqC switch network, window cable (lossy!) and collection of Ku dishes. Unfortunately, as C1 is co-located with D3 and both are primarily used to push VAST and Foxtel paid-services, I only had a 76cm dish “shared” with another LNB to receive D1. As a result, this limited my SNR, resulting in this disappointing result.

They weren’t lying. It’s about 12607Mhz Vertical on C1, running DVB-S2/8PSK at 30MSPS with 9/10 FEC (!!). Very rarely will you see any commercial service use such little FEC, since it requires a very good signal to ensure continuous reception. It’s more common to see lower rates like 3/4 or 3/5, even down to 1/2 in rare cases being used. The final trick they used was to turn off QPSK pilots, which gives a tiny bit extra bit-rate, but also means that consumer gear with low-phase stability might have difficulty maintaining the lock.

Unfortunately, even though I had roughly 13dB SNR (after best alignment of the shared dish), I had a non-zero BER, so data errors were to be expected.

In spite of this, I managed to see that this carried the three test services as expected, with the first having about 27Mbit/s bitrate. Unfortunately, everything is encrypted with Irdeto, so nothing to watch for me.

Unsatisfied with this, I decided to use my other computer that has a Prof Revolution 8000 tuner – this is a cheaper tuner without ACM/VCM or APSK abilities, but is enough for this particular signal. Since it was nearer to my dishes, and I had a “spare” 75cm Ku band dish on a caravan stand, I crimped a fresh RG6 Quad-Shield lead for the Sharp Dual 10700Mhz wide-band LNB to maximise my chances. After all, the above result was from a Sharp Quad LNB, and those normally have a higher noise-figure. With the dedicated dish and a short cable run resulting in a “high” signal, the SNR appeared to be the same (since this other card under-reports) but the signal was error-free.

In my experience, cheap Chinese made 75cm dishes rarely get more than 15.2dB on “on-air” signals, and the best I’ve seen from my 85cm dish was about 17.2dB, so this was about what I would expect.

At that point, the bitrate was more about 28.6Mbit/s on the first Test Service. The NIT clearly identifies the service as belonging to Optus.

Interestingly, the provider name for the first service is set as Harmonic – a provider of encoders and one they had used in the past as well.

Based on the mux area usage, Service A is mostly constant, with B varying slightly over time. There’s still about 11% of the multiplex left in null packets, so it’s not the tightest fit. Still quite admirable, but what a shame I didn’t get any footage from it.

Before leaving, I decided to stop by Telstra Broadcast Services’ stand as well, just to have a chat. It was there that I realized that some of that I was seeing on the air (namely on D2 and Intelsat 19 having some carriers change names to Telstra Broadcast Service) was a result of their acquisition of Globecast Australia. That explains a lot, but I’ve always had good experiences tuning in to Globecast Australia feeds, and we still see some encoders set-up with the old names even today. Even in the new year, I can thank Telstra for bringing us the Sydney Fireworks. It was good to hear from them that the Satellite market is still in high demand – unlike the domestic DTH market where we’ve seen a few providers sink under the water in a few years (e.g. UBI World, SelecTV) and FTA is starting to become rare.

Conclusion

I’m glad I had the opportunity to visit SMPTE Exhibition this year, given that I’m flying out of the country next week. It’s always good to get a refresher on what is “leading edge” technology, even if it is in an area I’m not professionally involved in at this moment. I’ve always had an interest in the technology, and I’ve always been involved “at the fringes” as a technically minded consumer, so seeing it up-close and having the opportunity to discuss it with people who are in the area on a daily basis is both insightful and valuable to me.

About lui_gough

I’m a bit of a nut for electronics, computing, photography, radio, satellite and other technical hobbies. Click for more about me!

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