November 04, 2005 —
It started as just an improvisation, a gizmo created by staff at NASA’s USC Viterbi School of Engineering's Far West Regional Technology Transfer Center (RTTC) to enable the center’s chief, Ken Dozier to give presentations that would be a little more vivid and striking.
Kenneth Dozier: "We developed the system so that NASA footage could be shown in all its glory at a fraction of the cost."
“I am always traveling,” said Dozier, whose responsibility is to market technology created by NASA-funded research to commercial concerns. “I am always giving presentations of our technology, and what it can do. But I was dissatisfied with the demos I was able to give: they were dim, and flat, and you could see people being distracted or bored.”
The gizmo that RTTC staffers came up with — an ultracompact and inexpensive device that can present ultra-high definition video — is now stepping up into prime time. In August, Landmark Theaters, a Los Angeles theater chain that specializes in showing independently produced films, used it to show an Ingmar Bergman film.
Landmark’s use came after extensive out-of-town demonstrations by Dozier and staff at the Sundance and other film festivals of “Road Warrior,” the fourth generation in the series of digital video servers developed by RTTC wizards.
The demos were arranged by Jim Steele, who runs a film technology consulting firm called Filmray, and a company called "Digital Cinema Solutions." Steele saw an early version, and helped to refine the device by getting commercial high definition digital material — mostly theatrical trailers — to do test projections. One of the first was at a film festival in Maui where the system screened the surfing documentary Step into Liquid — "and it was a big Wow thing, such a little box driving such beautiful images," Steele said.
Work began on the system in 2001. Responding to Dozier’s request staff set to work using ordinary computer components, assembling them into a device with a mission to maximize the bandwidth of the information stream coming out of its memory. By 2004, a device called “Toaster” was able to put out 20 MB per second of video signal, allowing Dozier to present images as brilliant and high-resolution as those seen in movie theater, using essentially off-the-shelf hardware and software optimized for the problem.
FWRTTC video servers: "Toaster," left, and "Road Warrior," were developed to provide high-quality video for demonstrations of NASA images and technology.
Toaster’s successor, “Road Warrior,” produces 80MB per second of output, allowing extremely large, high-definition images, like those seen in IMAX theaters. The cost for the devices is approximately $1500 in off-the-shelf components, plus labor — “about what an ordinary computer costs,” says Dozier.
Connecting Road Warrior to an ordinary digital projection system yields brilliant imaging. Connecting it to a higher-end theatricals system — the Landmark demos will use Panasonic 6000 lumen Digital projectors — produces images “indistinguishable from 35 mm film,” according to Landmark V.P. for marketing Ray Price.
The system has already had one experimental screen testing in August, projecting Ingmar Bergman’s film Saraband in a West Los Angeles Landmark theater. "It was shown for four weeks," said Steele, "without a hiccough."
Dozier does not see the system going into regular commercial use for theaters in the immediate future. Rather, he hopes that schools will be able to acquire versions of it to improve audiovisual presentation at all levels. “I think it can make a difference there,” he said." But he emphasizes that the work his team did wasn't aimed at creating a commercial product.
"We developed the system so that NASA footage could be shown in all its glory at a fraction of the cost. This is particularly appealing for the education library and museum market. We are not selling the box. It is a scalable solution that can be used by in many venues from classrooms to auditoriums. Many communities have no capability show high quality educational content. "
Still, the possibillities are clear to Steele, who sees similar devices heading soon for the home market — "and houses will be transformed," he says.
One of six NASA-sponsored technology transfer centers across the country, the Far West Regional Technology Transfer Center (Far West RTTC) is an Engineering Research Center within the Viterbi School of Engineering at the University of Southern California, serving the states of Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, and Washington.