by Pavlin Rahnev, CEO, PlayBox Neo
Modern industry is awash with acronyms, not least the broadcast media business. One of the most instructive is KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid), attributed to Kelly Johnson while serving as an aircraft engineer with Lockheed Martin. Excessive complexity in aviation can be fatal. In broadcasting, an operational gaff can result in a transmission feed being temporarily disrupted. No loss of life but potential impact on revenue and on an operator's career. Our role as a company is to make the entire process of channel branding, scheduling and playout stress-free and reliable, round the clock, year after year. My aim in this article is to provide a practical guide to the AirBox Neo-20 system and some of its options which successfully power a very large number of TV channels and playout service providers around the world.
Know your platform
The KISS principle became more relevant than ever in the 1980s with the adoption of automated playout using robotic tape cart machines. Disk-based servers were the logically preferable medium but many two decades were to elapse before magnetic hard disk drives achieved the duration and affordability necessary to become practical for this role.
PlayBox was one of the first companies to develop affordable and efficient software allowing fully automated broadcast playout via the Windows PC platform. Early PCs varied widely in specification so we soon learnt to play safe by offering a complete system running on a broadcast-optimised server, the original AirBox which we have refined over the years. That approach ensures that our support team can model any queried issue on the precise server configuration each customer was using.
Know your UI
The AirBox Neo-20 UI conforms to four key objectives.
1: It is easy to learn.
2: It displays all the information required for an operator to focus on the task in hand without distraction.
3: Related features can be accessed quickly, if or when needed, via a logical menu structure.
4. Last but not least, it employs the robust browser-based architecture allowing safe and easy control via any secure IP network.
When a PlayBox Neo system is supplied to a first-time customer, training is typically offered in person or online. Covid lockdown restrictions have made online tuition more usual since early 2020, not least because trainees can sign in from home if necessary. The training process includes a guided tour of the UI pages for the software modules relevant to that installation, showing how programmes and interstitials are checked before being added to the schedule.
AirBox Neo-20 control window
Figure 1 shows the main AirBox Neo-20 control window, a familiar sight to thousands of broadcast playout operators around the world. The display has a low-glare style allowing easy viewing throughout a long working shift.
The playback controls allow pre-scheduled programme and clip files to be viewed at any point along their timeline. New files can be sourced from attached central storage and added to the schedule. Icons are used to conserve space, each chosen for high visibility and easy familiarisation. Detailed information relevant to the task in hand is clearly displayed in and around the playlist grid. The grid itself shows the start time, duration, type, category, title and location of each clip file plus supplementary information such as talent names.
Playlists can be created manually by drag-and-dropping films straight into the grid. Colour coding is used to indicate, for example, which clip is currently being previewed. Settings such as transitions between clips can be set via clearly structured tabs which give access to relevant properties such as transition type and duration.
Operators can access a very wide range of parameters quickly and easily from main control window. Confidence comes from experience but any excursion beyond routine functions can be checked via the Help link in the menu just below the top title bar.
TitleBox Neo-20 provides a full range of text and graphic creation and editing tools. Our design objective from the outset was to allow creative channel branding to be performed quickly and easily, either freeform or based on preconstructed templates to ensure conformance with a channel-specific or programme-specific style. You can call up tools for still picture creation, 2D and 3D title composition, vertical text roll, horizontal text crawl, analog or digital clock creation, graphic animation, audio object creation, primary shape creation, chat roll creation.
Detailed properties for each function can be viewed by pressing the Property tools button, displaying for example the dynamic speed properties of a roll/crawl object or the size, location and transparency of clock.
TitleBox Neo-20 goes beyond the KISS mindset by allowing a very high level of freeform creativity if or when required. Whether template-based or newly developed, simple or complex, objects created into TitleBox Neo-20 can be added to a project-specific schedule and assigned start and/or stop dates, duration with the relevant day plus related commands such as loop-until. Graphics can also be integrated into a 'slide-show' presentation style with easy control of image durations, display order and transitions. Supplementary sources such as weather graphics, RSS feeds and national emergency alerts can also be accessed and controlled easily.
One of the most recent additions to the PlayBox Neo series, Capture Suite allows users to control multiple ingest channels and multiple servers. Figure 2 shows its control GUI. Functions such as input selection, ingest presets and file-naming conventions are just a single click away. Capture Suite provides the processing flexibility needed to handle the many file formats currently in common use across the broadcast media industry. These include ProRes, XDCAM IMX, XDCAM HD, XAVC, MPEG2, H264, HEVC, DNxHD, DNxHR and DV, as well as containers such as MXF, MOV, MP4, TS, PS. Closed-caption data can also be ingested. Each ingest instance can produce two main encodings in real time, each with proxy video, multiple audio and video formats, multiple frame-rates, multiple resolutions, and multiple audio mappings.
As well as being operator friendly, PlayBox Neo systems are technician friendly in terms of integration, configuration and maintenance. The AirBox Neo-20 product series currently includes the following mix-and-matchable software modules which can be accommodated in the main server or operated independently: TitleBox Neo-20, Capture Suite, DataBox Neo, ListBox Neo-20, Multi Playout Manager, ProductionAirBox Neo-20, SafeBox Neo, AdBox Neo and Neo TS Time Delay. All provide the freedom for operators to work locally or remotely. The modules can be combined to create systems of any desired size, from a single broadcast channel in a 1 RU up to a full scale multi-channel multi-language network based in one or multiple locations. Software integration is performed within the same logically structured control environment as the main user interface with technical assistance available at the time of delivery and online from our headquarters support team.
A great strength of the channel-in-a-box concept is that it allows system expansion to be preplanned and performed at any time. Extra servers can be added easily to support additional playout channels, onsite redundant backup or offsite facilities. With each AirBox Neo-20 channel typically equating to 1 RU, the required apparatus-room capacity is minimal and easy to gauge. If space is limited, in city-centre broadcast operations for example, our Cloud2TV offering allows full remote extra channels to be added fully offsite.
PlayBox Neo systems are designed to be easily used by anyone who has operated a personal computer to browse the web, create documents and store their family photos. Our software is quick and easy to learn with all modules sharing the same visual and logical concept. It is a product strategy we have found successful for 21 years.