`Video Toaster' Is a Hot Item

Innovative film-editing device paves way to low-cost TV studio production capability

MOVE over, Steven Spielberg. Step aside, MTV. C'est la vie CBS, NBC, and ABC.... The world's first, desktop television studio is upon us. Both the talk and the toast of the video world, it's impact will be roughly that of fire to food, the wheel to transportation, the printing press to publishing, observers say.

``Television will never be the same,'' says John Vernille, associate general manager of WYBE-TV in Philadelphia. ``This device is already revolutionizing every level of video production from the broadcast studio to the home-movie set.''

The new device is called the Video Toaster, and its ability to perform many of the most sophisticated studio effects - editing, mixing, graphics, animation - in broadcast quality at a price ($1,595) that is a fraction of previous costs - is taking the industry by storm.

Designed by a little-known company in Topeka, Kan., called NewTek, the device has already won several major awards and been featured with glowing accolades in several trade magazines. Unveiled in April of last year at the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) convention, the device has become such a hit that video stores nationwide are back-ordered for weeks, despite production that is doubling every month.

``Five years from now, your favorite TV show will be produced by you or someone you know,'' says Joe Conte, a video consultant from Sylmar, Calif. ``Every home video of Johnny's Little League games can look good enough for ESPN, every wedding video will look good enough to play on `Dynasty.'''

The result of four years of research and development, the Toaster has reduced boxes of video gear into four custom chips put onto a card that fits inside an Amiga 2000 computer (additional cost - approximately $2,000 to $2,500). ``The normal way of getting the video effects you want is to throw lots of dollars and technology at your problem,'' says Mark Randall, marketing director. By utilizing 15 programmers for three years, he says, NewTek ``was able to engineer some of the most expensive parts off the [electronic Toaster] board.''

For contrast, the graphics and flying logos at the beginning of such shows as the ``NBC Nightly News'' or ``Entertainment Tonite'' might require a $50,000 ``paint'' system or a $20,000 character generator. The so-called flips, tumbles, spins, zooms, mosaics of MTV music videos might require an $80,000 digital effects system or $20,000 frame storer. The 3-D computer animated sequences of fighting scenes in ``The Last Starfighter'' might require a $120,000, 3-D rendering unit.

All can be created, stylized, and performed by one person at one location with the Toaster, replacing up to $250,000 in equipment that might previously have required three operators.

``This is not a cheaper version of what already exists,'' Mr. Randall says. ``Designers have devised a whole new way of manipulating and storing video information.'' NewTek organizer and Toaster inventor, Tim Jenison, a professional inventor for seven years, is both an analog video engineer and a digital computer engineer, in addition to being a software programmer.

``No one has ever met anyone who is all three,'' says Randall. ``Put that together with an absolute goal of a breakthrough price and you find whole new ways of solving the problems.''

Mr. Jenison says the Toaster's development was aided by other technology. He uses the power of the personal computer to which the Toaster is attached and handcrafted, high-speed software. He also employs analog electronics used in unusual ways. ``Preceding products use one or two of these; we are the first to utilize all three,'' he says.

Musicians such as Todd Rundgren and Herbie Hancock are already using the Toaster to create music videos. Writer/director Walter Williams (creator of ``Mr. Bill''animated TV movie strips), creates video effects in his office for the ABC-TV late-night show, ``Into the Night with Rick Dees.'' But the Toaster's appeal is catching on with other users as well.

Jim and Kelly Watt, producers of a subscription video series called ``Fly Fishing Video Magazine,'' saw a demonstration in November, and invested in aplunked down $6,000 for a complete system: Toaster, $1,595; Amiga 2500 computer, $2,500; TV monitor and video cassette recorder (VCR), about $1,500. ``The one-hour show we just edited would've cost $15,000 more for the special effects we utilized,'' says Mr. Watt. That included digital editing effects, electronic paint-box maps, and color-enhanced sponsor ``tiles'' to better trumpet the name of advertisers.

``This is a revolution. I feel sorry for anyone who doesn't have one,'' says Watt.

At WYBE-TV in Philadelphia, John Vernille recently distributed four, hour-long programs on the Persian Gulf crisis assembled from 120 tapes submitted from activist organizations all around the United States. ``We were able to quickly assemble and distribute this at a fraction of the cost it would've cost ABC or NET to use the same techniques,'' he says.

Formed nine months ago, WYBE is an independent, noncommercial station dedicated to providing diverse alternatives to traditional public broadcasting. ``We depend on the Toaster,'' says intern John Goldberg. ``For us, there simply is no alternative.''

For Mr. Vernille, the advent of the low-priced Toaster means a democratization of electronic media unforeseen even a year ago.

``I don't have to target an audience of rich, educated viewers to get the advertising dollars to support a huge infrastructure,'' he says. ``I can concentrate on serving the community instead of the advertiser.''

Though Toaster technology has brought the cost of professional video effects within range of many consumers, some users caution that the equipment is only a tool.

``Making films and videos is still a language of conventions that users must master to create successful products,'' says Mr. Conte, the video consultant. ``The machine doesn't do it for you, it merely brings you equipment that few could afford before.''

AFFORDABILITY also translates into limitations, observers say.

The Toaster's most obvious are threefold: For video shot on cameras without a so-called ``time-base corrector'' - a device that stabilizes the image electronically - the Toaster needs one of its own. Cost: about $1,800. Also, when images shrink down to half-size and further, video can look slightly broken up or ``pixelated.'' Third, you need an Amiga computer, either model 2000 or 2500.

``A lot of people wish they could use the Toaster with their Macintosh or IBM computers,'' says Conte. ``But the Amiga is the only computer in the world designed to work with video. The Toaster relies on that.''

Some stores have been asking and getting double-list price without NewTek's permission, but the company is committed to keeping the price low for schools, cable and TV stations, and ``everyone with a camcorder.''

``We knew we could get $20,000 per Toaster if we wanted because the equipment is that valuable,'' says Randall. ``But we see its impact as one for the masses. Like desktop publishing, applications will come out of the woodwork.''

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