by Michael Blotzer
The history of computing is continual technological advances driving the evolution of more powerful, smaller, better-connected, easier to use and less-expensive computers. Ten years ago, 66 megahertz microprocessors and 100 megabyte hard drives with 32 megabytes of RAM and Windows 3.0 were cutting edge. Today, gigahertz Pentium 4 microprocessors and 80 gigabyte hard drives with 256 megabytes of RAM and Windows XP are common. Thirty times faster with 800 times the storage at half the price of yesteryear.
Who needs Pentium 4 power and massive storage? It's certainly overkill for running standard office applications, e-mail and Web surfing. The added power and storage, however, opens up new possibilities, including desktop video production.
Computers have revolutionized video production. Movies are now shot with digital cameras, edited on computers, then printed to film, videotape or DVD for distribution. While current desktop technology isn't robust enough to produce a Lord of the Rings, desktop video production can play a part in health and safety training programs.
Imagine recording the proper way to perform a hazardous task with a digital video camera and transferring the video to the computer for editing. Music and voice narration is added, along with digital photographs and text, emphasizing the importance of the health and safety controls.
Imagine creating video records of close call and accident investigations, editing the video to highlight the key elements that led to the incident and the root cause.
Once editing is completed, the final video is distributed over the corporate intranet or transferred to tape. While the final video may not have the polish of a professional production, it can have more impact because it's specific to your operations and processes.
Desktop video is affordable. The recession that began in 2001 has been especially tough on technology companies. Computer hardware manufacturers have drastically cut prices on leading-edge technology. Microprocessor, memory and disk drive prices have fallen through the floor.
Upgrading a computer with a new motherboard, a 1.7 gigahertz Pentium 4 processor and 256 megabytes of RAMBUS memory costs less than $500. Prices on complete systems are equally attractive. A fully loaded, 1.9 gigahertz Pentium 4 system with 512 megabytes of RAM, 80 gigabyte hard drive, cutting-edge video card, DVD drive and CD burner can be built for about $1,000. Eliminate a few frills and an economy version of the same system can be built for under $900.
Don't have the time or ability to build a system yourself? Your local computer shop can build a custom system and probably still beat the price on a Dell, Compaq or other name-brand manufacturer. While Dell and Compaq make fine computers, they make design compromises to keep their prices competitive. In building a custom system, you make the compromises and have a computer that is easier to upgrade in the future.
Microsoft Windows XP
Microsoft Windows XP is the Windows operating system of choice for desktop video production. Unlike earlier Windows versions, XP is extremely stable, virtually eliminating system crashes so common in Windows 98 and ME.
XP has many neat features, including built-in support for CD burners, simplified device installation, improved networking, a firewall, integrated voice recognition software and Windows Movie Maker video editing software. Unfortunately, XP also includes disconcerting features that keep me from giving an enthusiastic, unencumbered recommendation.
The first issue is that XP must be activated with an activation code that Microsoft provides by phone or the Internet. The activation code is keyed to the computer by 10 system attributes, including CPU type and serial number, boot drive and serial number, network adapter, display adapter and the amount of RAM. Changing four of the 10 attributes upsets XP, and Microsoft must be contacted for a new activation code. This will be a pain for those who frequently upgrade or change their computer's configuration.
The second concern is XP's linkage to Microsoft Passport, part of Microsoft's strategy to establish itself as the major player in Internet commerce. XP frequently reminds the user to establish a Passport account, and several XP features do not work without one. Creating a Passport requires registering an e-mail address and a password with Microsoft that are maintained on Microsoft's Passport servers.
Passport simplifies access to password-protected Web sites and can also maintain credit card numbers and address information saved in the Microsoft Wallet application to simplify online purchases. This ease of use, however, comes at a price: With Passport, Microsoft can profile users by tracking their Web surfing and online purchases and then target with advertising and junk mail.
Security experts are also concerned with flaws in Passport which make it vulnerable to hacking. Needless to say, while I've established a Passport account, required to download updates to Microsoft Encarta, I have not entrusted my credit information to Microsoft Wallet and do not use Passport to log onto password-protected Web sites. Additional information on Passport is available from the Electronic Privacy Information Center (www.epic.org/privacy/consumer/microsoft), the Passport to Trouble Web page (alive.znep.com/marcs/passport), and Microsoft's Passport Web site (www.passport.com).
In spite of these concerns, I upgraded two computers to Windows XP with only minor problems. XP did not support my Hewlett Packard CD burner. Apparently, HP drives do not adhere to industry standards, and it took two months for HP to finally release a fix. Also, XP is not guaranteed to run all Windows 98 and ME software. I had to upgrade or patch my anti-virus software and a few other programs to XP versions. Make sure your important applications run under XP before taking the plunge.
Digital Editing Boards
XP's Windows Movie Maker provides basic video editing tools with few frills. Video segments, or clips, are imported into Movie Maker and assembled on a timeline to build the finished video. Title slides created in Microsoft Paint can be inserted between clips and voice narration added. The maximum video size is only 320 by 240 pixels. While this may be acceptable for home use, serious desktop video work demands a dedicated video editing board and more powerful software.
Editing with a dedicated video editing board is faster and supports video sizes as large as 720 by 480 pixels. Editing boards support multiple video and audio tracks and come with professional-quality tools for titling and 3D effects.
Once outrageously expensive, reasonably priced video editing boards capable of producing professional-quality video, like the Pinnacle DV500 Plus (www.pinnaclesys.com) are available for under $500. The price is remarkable because it includes a copy of Adobe Premier 6.0 editing software, a $540 product, and other desktop video production tools.
Reasonably priced desktop video production is here, now. The same technology revolutionizing independent film production is available to innovative safety and health professionals. Additional information on desktop video production and products is available at the BYTE Magazine Media Lab (www.byte.com/medialab), including reviews of three low-priced video editing boards (www.byte.com/documents/s=582/byt20010410s0006).
Contributing Editor Michael Blotzer, MS, CIH, CSP, is an occupational hygiene and safety professional, writer and computer enthusiast who brakes for animals on the information superhighway. Mike can be reached by mail addressed to Occupational Hazards or by electronic mail at [email protected]