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Silent Hybrids and Latent Reporters
Written March 26, 2005

I read this week about a couple of problems that involve people interacting with new technologies.  No one asked me, but I came up with possible solutions.

The first problem is an automotive one.  With gas prices continuing to climb, “hybrid” cars are starting to become more popular.  A hybrid uses an electric motor.  It also has a gasoline engine but runs it only when necessary to recharge the batteries.  Since the batteries are also recharged by a generator turned by the brakes, a hybrid car gets better gas mileage.  This is especially true in stop-and-go city driving when there may be little need for the gasoline engine.

In the city, a hybrid car running only on batteries is very quiet.  It can sneak up on pedestrians.  I haven't encountered one yet, but I admit that when crossing a seldom-used street in my peaceful residential neighborhood, I don't always look both ways.  I can hear birds chirping two blocks away, so surely I would be aware if a car were coming, wouldn't I?  Well, maybe not if it's one of these newfangled electric cars.

We could solve the problem the way the British did in the 19th century, when locomotives appeared on the highways.  “Inventors began to turn out huge steam buses which threatened to banish horses from the stage business,” wrote Bellamy Partridge in Fill ’er Up!   “But the stagecoach people turned the tables by jamming through a law requiring power-driven road vehicles to be preceded by a man on foot carrying a red flag.  This infamous ‘red flag law’ should be remembered, for it not only put the steam coaches out of business, but it also obstructed the development of the motor vehicle in Britain for a generation; and later it crossed the Atlantic to America where it was used in an attempt to flag down the oncoming motorcar.”

There's a better solution, I think:  those beepers on trucks and forklifts that warn bystanders that the vehicle is backing up.  A lower-decibel version could be installed on each hybrid car, with the addition of a second audible signal to warn bystanders that the vehicle is going  forward.

This second signal should not be another beep.  That would be annoying, especially in large numbers.  Besides, people have a hard time determining which direction a single-frequency cricket chirp is coming from.  I'd suggest a “tock" once a second, like a grandfather clock.

The “tock" would be active whenever the car was in Drive and traveling less than, say, 35 miles per hour.  To reduce noise pollution, it should be directed only forward, and the reverse “beep” only rearward.  But additional speakers on the fenders would “tock” when the turn signal on that side was activated.

So imagine a line of hybrid cars waiting for a light to change.  Without my gadget, they'd make as much noise as a row of parked cars, namely none at all.  But with the gadget, they'd make a gentle clicking sound, warning passersby that they are not in fact parked and may be about to turn.

The other problem involves television production.  The industry is in the process of converting from the old “standard definition” pictures that we've been watching for more than half a century.  Many programs are now in “high definition,” although some are not.  It appears that one of the last programs to be upgraded to HD will be your local news.

One particular difficulty involves live feeds.  You know the type; the reporter stands on an empty sidewalk and says, “Well, Trisha, it's quiet here tonight, but just 12 hours ago there was high drama in that dark office building behind me.”

To upgrade these feeds to high definition, the camera can be replaced with an HD camera.  But an HD camera puts out several times as much data as a standard one — too much data for the existing microwave links to send back to the station.  The eventual solution will be to get higher-capacity links somehow.  In the meantime, the only way around the problem is to compress the HD data, transmit it, and then uncompress it once it arrives.

The difficulty with that:  compression and decompression don't happen instantly.  It takes the computers a second or two to make all the calculations.  So when the reporter says something on the sidewalk, it may be a couple of seconds before the pictures of him saying it are available back at the station.  The technical name for this is latency.

If the anchor tries to have a conversation with the reporter, you get those annoying gaps that you've seen (for a similar reason) in satellite interviews.  “What's it like out there, John?”  John stares blankly at the camera for a while, then suddenly blurts, “Well, Trisha ....” 

My solution here is a bit complicated.  Basically, I'd have the anchor and the reporter talk to each other over something like a telephone line, where there is no latency.  But I wouldn't let the viewers see and hear the conversation until, say, five seconds later, after all the HD video of the reporter has reached the station and been decoded.

At :00.0, the anchor asks, “John?”  As is already standard practice, the reporter and his camera operator hear this over a low-quality audio connection, which the studio producer can interrupt to give instructions.

At :00.3, the reporter responds, “Well ...”  His voice and a time-code signal are sent over another low-quality connection back to the studio.  They are not put on the air, but rather fed to the studio crew's earpieces and headsets.  While they see the reporter still standing there waiting for his cue, in their ears they hear his undelayed low-quality voice, so two-way conversation is possible.  Meanwhile, back in the field, equipment in the news van compresses the HD-quality audio and video and begins transmitting them to the studio to be decompressed.

At :03.9, the reconstituted HD signal of the reporter saying “Well ...” is available at the studio.  Comparing time codes (03.9 minus 00.3), the equipment determines that the latency is 3.6 seconds.  Since we've standardized the delay at a full five seconds, the HD signal is held for an additional 1.4 seconds before being aired.

At :05.0, the delayed version of the anchor asking “John?” is broadcast.  At :05.3, the delayed version of the reporter's response is broadcast, with no apparent gap.

Putting all this together would be tricky.  I'd suggest that the control panel near the producer would switch the newscast as normal, but it would also operate a second switching device.  This second switcher would mirror all the operations of the first one, with two exceptions.  One, all of the inputs from the studio to the second switcher would be delayed by five seconds; the remote feed would be delayed by a smaller amount (1.4 seconds in our example).  Two, all of the second switcher's actions would be delayed by five seconds.  It would be the output of this second switcher that would actually be broadcast.

Any more questions?



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