Blackbird Sings Throughout NAB
The following is an interview that Forbidden Technologies’ CEO, Ian McDonough, gave to TVBEurope in May 2018:
Very much a MIP man in his ‘content sales’ years with BBC Worldwide, Turner, and Viacom, Ian McDonough enjoyed a sensational NAB debut thanks to the popularity of Blackbird Ascent and Forte, and some clever edge technology involving Mac computers.
As CEO of Blackbird (formerly Forbidden Technologies), McDonough wanted to run ahead of consumer content viewing trends, and before he joined Forbidden to quickly re-launch it, he talked a lot about software that had been developed over 18 years.
“I found it absolutely astounding, mind-blowing, that what Stephen Streater had designed in the year 2000 is still today the only cloud-native codec for video editing,” he says.
Pointing out that codecs derived from H.264 and H.265 are principally playback tools, and not suitable for manipulation, he adds: “They are not designed for fast turnaround content – editing very quickly, and then publishing very fast. My guiding light was that the whole industry will be much more telling with the content that is fast turnaround.”
This involves anyone, and not just video cutting professionals. And consequently Forbidden needed a new ID.
“I thought this was something extremely special because I had not heard of such amazing technology before. I wanted to be the person that took it out to be commercially successful,” says McDonough. “The codec is what differentiates us, and I felt we had not elevated that point enough. I really like the name Blackbird. It is cool, and I wanted to get behind a point of differentiation and to take it to another area.”
Reappraisal of the company was important, because when technology companies have been around for a while the industry tends to think things have moved on.
“We are very much of the time, in fact ahead of the curve,” says McDonough.
He moved onto identifying the critical challenges the business formerly known as broadcasting is facing.
He says: “The industry is morphing very quickly. There are a number of critical issues and the first is the massive fragmentation. The audience for the amount of video available is much larger and mass volume, but the audience for each piece of video is that much smaller because the audience has been fragmented, and cost becomes such a key area.
“The world has moved very much away from having a fixed cost, particular bespoke workstation model with software that is on premise, to a rental model, where people want to hire software from the cloud that can be played on any device or workstation. And the editing is done by professional people that don’t naturally have to be highly-skilled craft editors,” he adds. “Every second counts now in terms of getting content out to the consumer, and the other cost is rights.”
We are living in a content gold rush, and Blackbird Media Proxy is quite a tool. “It can be created extremely quickly from content, only five seconds behind live. It brings it down by about 90 per cent when compared with other codecs, so we are very much part of the story: content can be edited anywhere in the world right behind live, and published at that rate as well. The costs are down and Blackbird Proxy is making turn round incredibly fast,” says McDonough.
AN AI INTERFACE FOR THE EDITING SOLUTION
At NAB visitors could assess Blackbird Ascent and Blackbird Forte.
“The first by definition is the entry level product, designed for non-editing professionals working in the media industry that come from other departments. Forte is a full editor, with 18 video tracks and 36 audio tracks. There are 18 different camera positions that you can edit from that one suite,” says McDonough. Explaining the ‘five seconds behind live’ values, he adds: “If you want the video to be one minute, it could be edited one minute and five seconds behind live. If you wanted it to be 10 minutes of video, it is that plus five seconds behind live.”
Interoperability is a vital byword around the business. “We can operate with virtually any system out there, and we very much encourage any organisation that wants to move down the line of cloud editing to seriously look at taking on a package like Blackbird within their system,” says McDonough. “For emerging publishers working direct to social media we could be an end-to-end solution, and for those more traditional players with legacy systems going back generations, we can be very much the cloud enablers. They can bring Blackbird Proxy and our other tools into their stack and have all the benefits of the cloud.”
HDR and AI are two hot technology areas that play well with Blackbird.
“We can edit and conform against 4K and HDR and we can proxy from that with no problems,” says McDonough. “AI is something we have looked at in a lot of detail, in terms of how we create an AI interface for the editing solution. We have talked to one group in particular about how we integrate that, but it was not there for NAB. It is an absolute priority for the roadmap this year.
“One of the key things for AI as a use case for us is for looking at archive – building AI in modules,” he continues. “In a sports archive for instance you could go and look at every Diego Maradona goal, and then use the Blackbird software to proxy to these huge volumes, and scan through very quickly.”
CREATED USING PSYCHOLOGY
Making archives searchable is a key element of the Blackbird roadmap. And for when AI is used to bring forward content, the Blackbird software allows the user to see where the cuts and clips reside within a large amount of content.
“This is used a lot with reality programmes in post production, so it means there is a human involved even if the AI software lets an erroneous piece of content get through to the final edit,” explains McDonough. “Our Proxy has been honed and crafted rather than just programmed. It was created using psychology – using how people imagine they see colour. So it is a perception model, and it is also used as elements of AI.
“We have created a very high quality low bandwidth codec through understanding how the human eye and brain work together. The codec informs what the next colour along should be, based upon learning. There are elements of AI in there as well,” he adds.
NAB was fertile ground for talking about partnerships with other vendors. “Yes,” agrees McDonough. “We are looking at how Blackbird could fit into an OEM model, where we would be the original engineering model. So we would be right into the systems of other, larger companies that are rolling out across hundreds of news and sports networks.
“It is an area where we have had some fruitful conversations, and this is an opportunity that gets us quite excited,” he continues.
Dr Stephen Streater, Blackbird R&D director and part owner of the company, started the codec development after he sold Eidos in 2000. Streater completed a PhD at Cambridge on the use of AI video in self-guided missiles, and then decided to create the world’s best video compression codec.
“Over 18 years he has honed it (many versions) to what we have today. I take the tool sets and our software for demo purposes in the US and the clients have seen nothing like it still,” says McDonough. “Our customer base is far and wide, but one of the key things I have done since joining the business is to really push it towards the US market. That market is just bigger, and also significantly more complex: there are hundreds of local and regional news and sports networks and then the national networks. “That means our software solution has a much larger addressable market, and those companies are much more willing to do something new with a new technology.”
MORE THAN EIGHT MILLION HOURS
A customer like Madison Square Garden Networks is proof of the pudding. “They have used our software for two years, and have been nominated for an Emmy for the workflow that uses our software. It is a workflow that edits the New York Nicks and New York Rangers (basketball and Ice hockey) feeds, and they can add closed-captions to their digital output with incredible speed and accuracy,” explains McDonough. “More than eight million hours of content has now been processed through our software.”
This impressive volume is helped by credits from UEFA and the European Golf Tour. He adds: “It is used on the most valuable sports content in the world, and the reason the software is so incredibly fluid and frictionless is because we use edge technology. You have a computer that sits very close to the cloud, very close to the high bit rate: it is able to process the high bit rate and upload it to the cloud very quickly.”
Edge technology is being talked about as a major innovation and caused a great deal of chat at NAB.
“We have been using it for several years and it is very much part of our key infrastructure. It is why our Proxy can be made so quickly,” says McDonough. “In addition to Blackbird Ascent – our entry level easy clipper – and the full tool set in Blackbird Forte, we have the innovation of Mac OS ingest. This is a very new thing with a Mac computer acting as our edge server. You can ingest that high bit rate content and crate the Blackbird Proxy from a Mac as opposed to using a Linux box.”