Honey, They Shrunk The Video Truck

Consider the marvels of miniaturization. We’re used to hearing about complex electronic circuits being shrunk smaller than the head of a pin, or millions of transistors reduced to an area tinier than a postage stamp. So what do we make of NewTek’s claim that the TriCaster has distilled the capabilities of a television live truck into a case the size of a bread box? Is it fact or hyperbole? And does this thing really go for just $4,995?
In case you missed any of the demos at the various tradeshows throughout the year and can’t stand the suspense a moment longer, this is the genuine article. You can seamlessly mix live input from your video cameras along with stored video clips, overlaid graphics, still images and PowerPoint presentations. You can simultaneously send the broadcast-quality output to a video recorder, a projector and the Internet (hence the name TriCaster). It can handle as many as three live cameras, and it doesn’t require any scan converters.
All this video goodness is crammed into a 10-pound box that can fit in a backpack. You would need to bring along a computer monitor, though a small LCD screen wouldn’t add that much weight. There’s also an optional video mixer board (the $995 TriCaster VM) for those who prefer the solid feel of a real T-bar, backlit source buttons and rotary transition/overlay knobs. Otherwise, everything is controlled onscreen via a standard computer keyboard.
My first reaction: this is a terrific product that would appeal to a very limited market. But after talking with NewTek and trying the product myself, I’m convinced its ease of use, low price and truckload of features will open this technology to new groups of professionals and non-professionals. Moderate-sized corporations could beef up their product launches and shareholder meetings with professional-grade switching among live cameras, overlaid titles and PowerPoint animations. Churches could integrate live cameras, onscreen lyrics and text passages onto a large projection screen. They could also archive the mix for distribution to shut-in members. Schools could use the TriCaster to teach the principles of live video mixing. They could also place it on an AV cart and roll it from classroom to classroom so that every class could be streamed over the Web.
Ad Hoc Video
None of this would be possible if the TriCaster wasn’t simple to setup and operate, yet powerful enough to create seamless switches, overlays and transitions. Keep in mind it only supports SD video, though it can automatically scale the output to match the resolution of an XGA projector. When you boot up the TriCaster, you may be surprised to see a Windows XP log-in screen. After signing in, you leave the Windows interface behind. The screen transforms into a video mixing board, complete with simulated controls and dedicated preview windows.
There’s no floppy or CD-ROM drive. However, you do have access to the internal hard drive for retrieving video files, recorded PowerPoint presentations, still images, title templates and 200 built-in transitions. You can import or export video via the Ethernet port, two FireWire ports and six USB 2.0 connectors. A USB-connected hard drive or flash drive will appear to the TriCaster interface as an additional hard drive. Besides the Ethernet port, which is also used for Web streaming, you can send out video through the S-video, composite, VGA and DVI connectors.
The three camera inputs are routed through paired composite and S-video connectors. A Camera Setup tab leads to the brightness, contrast, hue and saturation controls for each camera. Use the TriCaster’s mouse to turn the onscreen camera control knobs. To fine-tune the knob movements, hold down the Ctrl key before turning the knob.
The audio I/O is more basic, though you could always patch in an external audio mixer. The TriCaster has a stereo line input and two microphone inputs, as well as a stereo line output and headphone jack. The interface provides a virtual four-channel audio mixer with balance and EQ controls for the Mic 1, Mic 2, Line and VCR audio inputs.
Ready on Camera Three
Once you’ve sorted the hardware connections, you’re ready to explore the capabilities of the TriCaster. The interface divides the functions into three sections: Live Production, Capture Media and Edit Media. All the functions are built on top of an eight-channel video and graphic switcher.
Most of your time will be spent on the Live Production screen where the eight video channel windows are always visible. You can freely mix the live video from your cameras, computer graphics from an external PC and video stored on the hard drive. Press the VCR & Picture tab, and you can preview the video clips and still images, cue the video clips for precise playback and auto-size the images. Press the Overlay tab, and you can add or edit an overlay title, such as the name of a featured speaker. Press the Keyer tab, and you can apply a chroma key effect.
To be fully prepared for a live event, you should create as much content as possible ahead of time. From the Capture Media screen, you can transfer, record and manage your video clips, images, transitions, titles and filters. The built-in hard drive has 150 GB of available space, which works out to approximately six hours of stored video. From the Edit Media screen, you can choose a Storyboard view for simple drag-and-drop video editing, or a Timeline view for more complex layerings. Choose from the built-in transitions and special effects (such as 3D rotation), and you can create a fairly sophisticated video presentation.
Sending your video to the Internet is as simple as pressing the Stream Output button. The TriCaster automatically generates its own Internet address, which you could provide to your employees, customers or streaming provider. Once the Stream Output button is engaged, anything you do in the Live Production or Edit Media modes will directly affect the Web stream, so don’t forget you’re broadcasting live to the public.
Low-Cost Alternative
NewTek earned an Emmy in 1993 for its Amiga-based Video Toaster. Like the Video Toaster, TriCaster uses readily available computer technology to drastically lower the cost of video production. That opens new creative possibilities for many more organizations than before. The TriCaster is powerful, inexpensive and easy to use (though it did lock-up on me once). Look for it to appear in surprising places as video professionals learn just how revolutionary a product this is.
Live Production Tab – Most of your time will be spent on the Live Production screen where you can switch video sources, initiate fades and transitions and overlay graphics.
Eight Preview Windows – The TriCaster is built on top of an eight-channel video and graphic switcher. The eight preview windows are always visible from the Live Production screen.
Stream Output Button – Sending your presentation to the Internet is as simple as pressing the Stream Output button.
Transitions Bin – The Transitions Bin provides quick access to 12 of the TriCaster’s 200 built-in transitions.
Audio Mixer – If your audio needs are simple, you can use the onscreen four-channel mixer to adjust balance and EQ.
Though NewTek uses a proprietary codec for video, it’s not locked up: NewTek includes the codec on a CD (or on its Web site), which you can install on your computer. You can then read, write, copy and edit the video in full 720 x 486 resolution. You can also convert the video to a Windows Media format, though you’ll lose some quality in the conversion; it’s best to edit the video on your computer using the native format.