With $10,000 Creation Station, turn your desk into a TV studio

Turnkey digital video editing has reached an affordable range at
last for government offices eager to produce their own personnel training systems and
public information kiosks.

The Creation Station from Advanced Digital Systems Inc. of Waltham, Mass., and Sigma
Designs Inc. of North Kingston, R.I., is priced from $7,549 to $11,649 on ADS' General
Services Administration schedule. It comes complete with Motion Picture Experts Group
MPEG-1 encoding and decoding cards plus image- and sound-editing software for Windows 95.

With the MPEG-1 compression tools, you can create digital video that's fine for CD-ROM
multimedia training, though not as high quality as you'd see on standard television--that
just won't fit on the average CD yet.

The beta Creation Station system I tested had a 90-MHz Pentium processor. The
GSA-listed units will have 100- to 133-MHz Pentiums and 15- or 17-inch VESA monitors.
Station 1 has 32M of RAM and a 1.6G IDE hard drive, Station 2 has 32M RAM and 2G SCSI-2
drive, and Station 3 has 64M RAM and a 4G SCSI-2 drive. All come with Creative Labs'
SoundBlaster sound cards--32-bit for Station 3--and quad-speed CD-ROM drives.

I used the Creation Station to try out two training programs. One was on hazardous
materials transport, from Coastal Video Communications Corp. of Virginia Beach, Va., and
the other fleet driver training from Interactive Media Communications of Waltham, Mass.
The video sequences in both sets looked sharp and flowed smoothly.

Next I tried creating an application with embedded video. This requires a little bit of
programming knowledge or access to an authoring environment like Asymetrix Corp.'s
Multimedia ToolBook.

Connected to a videocassette recorder, the Creation Station became a mini-television
studio of sorts, creating fully compressed MPEG data streams that I could insert in
multimedia presentations or store in image databases.

The 90-MHz test system let me view full-screen video at 30 frames/sec, the industry
standard for realistic motion. But because MPEG calculates the differences between video
frames and updates only the changed parts, MPEG video can look grainy and lag a bit when
there's a lot of action.

I found that reducing the viewing window to about 5 inches by 6 inches gave an image
that rivaled nearly anything on television. I say nearly, because MPEG video always has a
halo around anything moving.

Sigma Designs' RealMagic Producer software interface was straightforward and easy. At
the left of the screen you choose your input source, ranging from composite video to
S-Video or a digital video source file. With the correct video, you go to the right of the
screen to export to a file or a TV monitor. You also can append the video to other files.

The interface links directly to two image manipulation programs that come bundled with
the Creation Station: Adobe Systems Inc.'s Adobe Premiere and Caligari Corp.'s trueSpace
for rendering three-dimensional graphics.

I had as much fun playing with these image tools as I did with the video system itself.
Premiere makes overlays and special effects, and trueSpace makes objects you can insert
into a video. With a lot of pasting and some good timing, I even designed a rotating cube
with different videos on each surface.

But that's frosting on the cake. The biggest attraction of this system is easy video
capture. The RealMagic MPEG card relies on the system's video card to send display
information through a VESA feature connector.

A cable at the rear panel plugs the data stream directly from your video card into the
RealMagic card. The monitor then plugs into the RealMagic card. RealMagic combines the
system information with the video from an external source.

You end up with the external video in a desktop window, where you can do whatever you
want with it--import or export to other applications, or just watch CNN all day. The MPEG
files remain AVI-editable, which means they support Microsoft Corp.'s Audio Video
Interleaved format that mixes standard waveform audio and digital video frames.

If you already have a multimedia PC, you may have dabbled with basic audio and video
tools through Windows' Media Player. But MPEG-level video, whether hardware- or
software-based, demands high system performance. Today's PCs still need special hardware
to achieve a high-quality, full-motion look.

That's where the Creation Station's MPEG cards really shine--Sigma Designs' RealMagic
Producer video/audio capture and MPEG encoding card, as well as the RealMagic Maxima
analog overlay playback controller that supports 1,280- by 1,020-pixel display. The
RealMagic Producer software enables import and export of analog or digital video, measured
in hundredths of seconds.

Part of the Creation Station's attraction is that it's turnkey with MPEG cards already
installed. Every manufacturer has slight implementation differences in its MPEG protocols,
data streams and command structures. If you were to try cobbling together a digital video
editing system yourself, you'd likely wind up in tech support limbo.

The one drawback to applications containing high-quality MPEG video clips is that they
must have an MPEG-enabled system for playback. ADS also sells a streamlined Play Station
with 75-MHz Pentium chip, 16M RAM and quad-speed CD-ROM drive for $2,274 on GSA schedule.

Advanced Digital Systems Inc., Waltham, Mass.; tel. 800-873-9553

Price: $7,549 to $11,649 GSA

Overall grade: A

[+] Easy to use with minimal training

[+] Powerful editing tools

[+] Excellent MPEG display

[-] Rebooting necessary after occasional lockups

[-] Two volumes for one manual

[-] Solid green blocks with Win95's built-in capture function

About the Author

Shawn McCarthy, a former writer for GCN, is senior analyst and program manager for government IT opportunities at IDC.

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