Someone Will Be There Who Knows the Answer
The Oversight Executive for Motion Intelligence of the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence is scheduled to be in the southern California desert next month. So are the chief technology officers (CTOs) of both Panasonic and Sony. So is the head of the Visual Space Perception Laboratory at the University of California – Berkeley. So is one of the developers of Cablecam. So is the CTO of Cable Television Laboratories. So is a co-inventor of MP3. So is the mysterious Mo Henry, whose credit has appeared in movies ranging from Apocalypse Now to Zombieland.
The list could go on and on. Hundreds of top technical executives will be there. CTOs and VPs of Hollywood studios and television networks will be there. So will the head of emerging technologies of the European Broadcasting Union. So will the VP of standards of the Advanced Television Systems Committee (ATSC) and the director of engineering and standards of the Society of Motion-Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE). Where will they be?
It’s the 16th annual Hollywood Post Alliance Tech Retreat, February 16-19 at Rancho Las Palmas conference center in Rancho Mirage, California. But every part of that title can convey a false impression.
HPA, for example, is not yet 16 years old, but the retreat is older. When the organization that created it, the Association for Imaging Technology and Sound, went belly up, HPA’s founders thought the retreat was too important to die, so they took it over. After 9/11, when other events went down in attendance, the retreat went up. It has actually had to turn people away on occasion because it has sold out.
Similarly, “Hollywood” and “Post” are misleading. The event is not (and has never been) in Hollywood. Its participants come from all over the world, from New Zealand to Norway, and from Bombay to Buenos Aires. If someone at the retreat is from NATO, that could be the North Atlantic Treaty Organization or the National Association of Theater Owners (both have sent representatives, sometimes at the same retreat); similarly, there have been representatives from MPEG the Moving Picture Experts Group and MPEG the Motion Picture Editors Guild.
There have been chip manufacturers (among them AMD & Intel), software companies (e.g., Adobe & Microsoft), computer manufacturers (such as Apple & IBM), professional & consumer-electronics manufacturers (Panasonic & Sony are regulars) and others, ranging from the company that became the 3D producer 3ality to “Star Wars” effects producers Lucas Digital (Industrial Light & Magic). Visible World introduced its targeted-commercials system at an HPA Tech Retreat; Best Buy offered retail insights.
“Tech” is also a bit misleading. There’s no question that the bulk of the presenters and attendees will be CTO, director of engineering, or similar, but there are also directors, economists (Ernst & Young will be at next month’s event), lawyers, venture capitalists, and others who might not know one end of a battery from the other. The National Security Agency and the Department of Defense regularly send representatives. So does Johns Hopkins University and other academic institutions.
Finally, “Retreat” might be misleading. It’s held in a resort area, but the technology events start at 7:30 in the morning and sometimes don’t end until very late. The technology demo area, open at strange hours by mutual agreement, sometimes has visitors at midnight.
It’s not all technology. The retreat’s softball tournament was shot in slow motion HD by Fox one year. Though the technologists are not necessarily athletes, they throw themselves into the games with passion, sometimes resulting in bodily harm. One year, an injured player was taken to the hospital in an ambulance; he checked himself out early the next morning so as not to miss the breakfast roundtables.
Aside from the game and meals, the event has multiple components. There are pre-retreat seminars (this year on audio loudness and high-dynamic-range imaging), a supersession (this year on 3D in the home), and a main program run with Swiss-timekeeping precision, cutting off presenters in mid-sentence even if they’re about to reveal the secret of life.
Secrets are sometimes revealed at the retreat; the atmosphere of relaxed cooperation lends itself to such revelation. One year a Panasonic engineer pitched in to get a Sony projector looking its best. Another year, companies moved with lightning speed to install 3-D facilities at a nearby cinema for a supersession.
Then there are the technology demonstrations. Dolby’s surround-sound headphones, Panasonic’s Varicam, and Sony’s HDCAM SR were all introduced at Tech Retreats. Lucas Digital showed the camera-attitude sensor used in Star Wars Episode 3. SquareHead Technology’s first U.S. demonstration of its pencil-beam microphone array was at a Tech Retreat. Earlier this year, JVC sent out a press release about its 2D-to-3D conversion technology; last year it was demonstrated at the Tech Retreat. And the first demo session comes with drinks.
Then there are the breakfast roundtables, unregulated sessions at which anything goes. They’re so intense that they’ve been featured repeatedly on local newscasts. And there are quizzes for such prizes as statuettes of the patron saint of television or teddy-bear remote controls. Once participants were asked to derive the NTSC color-subcarrier frequency from scratch. Another time they were asked to come up with the first opera commissioned for broadcast to appear on television (long before Amahl and the Night Visitors). They did.
That’s the best thing about the retreat. No matter what question anyone has, someone will be there who knows the answer. Every aspect of motion-image and related technologies seems to be covered, from ballet to ballistics and from surround sound to surveillance.
Consider just one day of the 2010 event. Wednesday, February 17, will begin with breakfast roundtables on subjects ranging from asset management to visual fatigue, each moderated by an expert. They will be followed by a technology-year in review, highlights of the recent Consumer Electronics Show, and a TV with a screen as relatively wider than HDTV as HDTV is wider than older TV. That presentation will also cover issues of subtitling in 3-D. And that’s all before the first refreshment break.
Next is a panel on mobile TV, a presentation on online gaming, and a panel on the future of packaged media in stores and in kiosks and vending machines. After lunch comes a presentation on the continuing evolution of cable services and the future of entertainment and information, followed by a broadcasters panel addressing both traditional and Internet delivery mechanisms.
After another refreshment break comes another panel, this time with telephone company and retail perspectives, among others. With so many ways of delivering content, how might a viewer synchronize a broadcast with Internet and disk-based material? A presentation on fingerprint technology will address just that issue. But the day’s not over yet.
What about immersive media? Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute will offer their latest developments for production and projection. Then Ernst & Young will reveal the results of their surveys on the “Direction of the Digital World.” Finally, in the main program that day, the audience will be polled about their views of what just took place. But that’s not the end, either. Demos and a dinner serving roasted technologist follow.
I mentioned in a previous post that the International Broadcasting Convention is my favorite trade show, and it is. But the HPA Tech Retreat is not a trade show. It’s not like anything else.
Some participants say that if there’s only one event you attend all year it should be the HPA Tech Retreat. Come and find out why.
I hope to see you there. You can find more info on the HPA web site: