Bringing HD Into Focus

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This August, Fujinon
and NHK won an Engineering Emmy Award for "Outstanding Achievement in
Engineering Development" for Fujinon's Precision Focus Assist technology. In
this interview, Fujinon national sales manager, Broadcast & Communications
Products Division Thom Calabro talked with HD
Update
contributor George Winslow about some of the work that led up to its
third Engineering Emmy and some of the challenges facing lens-makers for the HD-production
sector. An edited transcript follows:

MCN: How did your work on the Precision Focus Assist
system come about and when did you start it?

Thom Calabro: The
Emmys are given out to products that advance television in some way, and when
you look at high-definition television, there are some issues with focusing.
Even though we make very sharp lenses, the operator has to focus the lens and
that can be rather difficult for HD.

Thom Calabro

So we looked for a way that we could assist the camera
operator in achieving critical focus in a wide variety of situations and we did
this in conjunction with NHK, which gave us the idea.

We started in 2000 and, I think, showed something at [the
National Association of Broadcasters show] in 2001 and 2002, but it took a
while before we started selling these lenses. The Precision Focus Assist is an
auto assist system, not an automatic system and our goal was to assist the
operator, not take over their job. But it took a while to get customers comfortable
with the fact that you have a microprocessor telling the lens where to focus and
for them to realize we were not there to get rid of the camera operator.

It also took a while, two or three years, before we got the
software, not so much the hardware, right. We knew we had it when we were
showing it to a rather high-end operator and after he used it for a little bit
he said that "it works like a really good camera operator."

MCN: When you developed the system, what were
the key issues you were trying to help them with in HD productions?

Thom Calabro: The
shallow depth of focus in HD is No. 1; No. 2 is the viewfinder.

At best the operator is looking through a seven- to 10-inch
viewfinder on a big camera and at worst a two- to 2.5-half inch screen inside
an eyepiece on an ENG camera. Even with compression, that means the consumer who
is watching the action on a 42-inch or 50-inch TV at home can see more than the
operator.

One of the best uses for Precision Focus is in sports, where
things aren't scripted and you never know where player or the ball or car is
going to be. It is very beneficial in golf, for example, where it can be very
difficult to follow the ball.

In golf, the camera and the lens is typically on the green
looking back at the tee. Typically, operators would frame and focus the shot
and when the ball was hit, they would follow it like they normally would. But
when the ball hit the green, they have a problem. You have a small object
coming directly at you and that's one of the hardest things to focus on. So
when the ball hit the green, they can engage the precision focus and follow the
ball until it stops and then they would release the precision focus. It is an
assist. We are not taking over focus from the operator. We just wanted them to
be able to use it when it was necessary.

MCN: How has the difficult economy impacted
the demand for HD lenses? What areas have held up pretty well and what areas
have been hardest hit?

TC: The high end
and the low end seem to be doing better than the middle, where you have such
categories as TV-station [electronic news-gathering].

Many of the high-end television shows that were done on film
are now switching over to HD so there is a big need for high-end HD lenses. We've
just come out with a line of PL-mount lenses that are extremely high end. They
are doing well, not just for the high-end TV production market but also for theatrical
films.

There are TV stations that are buying and replacing ENG
cameras and lenses but they are going for more of lower end product, certainly
price wise than what they did a few years ago.

At the same time, our lower-end product is much better in
quality than it was just a few years ago.

The other challenge for us and everyone else has been the
camera image size. As cameras have gotten cheater, a lot of them gone to
smaller image sizes. Just a few years ago, 2/3-inch was the standard across the
board. Then we saw half-inch, now we see 1/3-inch.

Typically, the smaller the image, the lower the cost of the
camera, but that creates a real challenge for lens manufacturers because the
smaller the image size, the smaller the pixel size. If you had a lens that had
an error on a 2/3-inch camera, the error may not show up because that error
that would go across only one pixel. Now, with the smaller image size, pixels
are smaller and the same error will go across two pixels and it becomes
possible to see the error on the screen.

So we've had to make our lenses for smaller image sizes
better and better.

It is has been a challenge to get the price down. Customers
have had the perception that there should be a 70/30 split for the cost of a camera
and lens -- 70% for the camera, 30% for the lens. These days, it can be 50/50
and in some cases it is 40/60 with the lens costing more than the camera.

More of them need to realize that the image is not getting
any better once it leaves the back of the lens and that they'd better get the
best image possible from the glass. You can manipulate by the image and the
color in various ways but you can't increase the resolution.

MCN: Any other areas where you're seeing some
advances?

TC: We are working
on different technologies to get higher quality lenses that are very robust and
durable, to get them lighter and less costly.

One of the things we've done is work with aspheric
technology. Aspherics allow us to bend the curvature of an element so that the
light all winds up at the same point. That allows us to use fewer elements, and
fewer elements means lower cost and a less complex product, a lighter product.

We did that in the past with SD lenses but when we went
into HD, the aspherics we had weren't of sufficient quality to keep up with
demands of HD. But now we've found a way to use them. We've reintroduced aspherics
in one of our HD box lenses and I could see that technology getting into our ENG
product as well, which is one way to lower the cost.

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