UPDATED: As expected, Cisco today said it would buy Pure Digital, the maker of the Flip handheld video camera, for $590 million in stock. The deal will move Cisco deeper in the consumer market and give it control of a device that produces video, which it hopes will drive the sale of its Internet routing and switching equipment. Pure Digital has raised $68 million in its seven-year history.
Cisco has recently announced products that will control video delivery from the content provider all the way down to the home consumer. With Pure Digital it can control the content flowing the other way — from the home to content aggregation sites like YouTube or personalized channels offered by cable and telco TV providers. More details coming soon. Update:
It’s easy to draw a line between the Flip camcorder and bandwidth consuming video that Cisco hopes to encourage in order to sell more networking gear. However, there are other factors at play. The Pure Digital acquisition brings Cisco deeper into the consumer home, a journey Cisco began with its acquisition of Linksys and its home routers, and continued with its acquisitions of set-top box maker Scientific Atlanta and entertainment networking company KISS in 2005.
If Cisco can integrate or transfer the dead-simple Flip software and camcorder into its Scientific Atlanta boxes, and tie the Flip camcorder to its Linksys router, it can offer PC-free telepresence to consumers. This combines Cisco’s hope of wresting control of the digital home from the PC and putting it in the networkwith its love of video conferencing.
Telepresence, even more than the 2 million Flip cameras out there shooting short videos, would drive the amount of video content on networks sky high. Cisco estimates that a good HD telepresence experience requires speeds of 24 Mbps and requires quality of service guarantees — both of which Cisco equipment could help ensure. Cisco has already indicated its plans to add $20 billion to its bottom line with a focus on video, and it has launched products around the what it calls the “medianet,” to deliver video from the content provider to the consumer. Driving content in the other direction — from the user back up to a content provider — also makes sense, and the Flip cameras offer Cisco control of the consumer video-producing endpoint.
Ned Hooper, senior VP of corporate development and consumer group, agrees that the purchase can be tied to telepresence, but he stressed that this buy signified Cisco’s ongoing transformation from a backend infrastructure provider to a company known for making the consumer device experience easier. He emphasized that the combination of the network and Flip cameras could allow a person’s video content to be viewed anywhere.
“Historically content is locked to a device, and is not open to move around,” Hooper said. This deal helps change that paradigm for video, in the same way Cisco is trying to do with music in its latest Linksys music router, announced earlier this year.
To help make moving content around the home and to the web easier, Cisco purchased Pure Networks last year for its software that helps network devices easily and is pushing the HNAP home networking protocol . Hooper said Cisco would integrate HNAP into the Flip camera and would add features to make it easy to operate the Flip on a network based on Cisco gear. Think about how Apple gear all works well together as an example of such integration. However, Hooper stressed that HNAP was open for anyone to license, meaning Cisco isn’t pursuing a closed system.
So, while this takes Cisco into a new market and forces it to compete with consumer electronics makers like Sony, Cisco will likely tie the Flip camcorders back into the network in a way that drives both consumer-oriented Cisco purchases and the need for advanced Cisco gear on the carrier side.
So, what's inside of Flip?
On removing the covers, I was at once disappointed and amazed. The disappointment derives from the gadget-freak in me that loves to see a maze of springs, motors and actuators supported by a rats nest of wires and myriad, complex-looking ICs. That was definitely not the case. In fact, I was amazed that the camera simply comprises the 2.8cm-high lens, two mini connectors (for the USB and button-control interfaces) and a single processing board with the sensor, video processor and two memory ICs.
However, it's the choice of components, and the software that went into them, that gives the Flip Ultra its uniqueness and edge. At the heart of the system is the marriage of a Micron 1/4inch VGA CMOS sensor with a Zoran Coach 8M (ZR36460BGCF) image processor. According to John Furlan, vice president of engineering at Pure Digital, the Micron sensor (MT9V011D00STC) was chosen not just because he believes Micron makes high-quality sensors, but also because it had the right pixel size of 5.6µm square that would give maximum performance across all light ranges, from bright to poor. It also has the necessary frame rate of 30-90fps, programmable gain via a two-wire interface, on-board 10bit ADC a 10bit parallel output.
This output feeds directly into the Zoran processor. It is here where much of Pure Digital's intellectual property resides. According to Furlan, the team chose to go with Zoran as they already had a history of working with the company for its one-time-use cameras. However, they chose the Coach 8 specifically because, "it's very integrated, with a high-quality image-processing pipeline, as well as high-quality image compression—ware, versus DSP—B," said Furlan. In addition, Zoran made the full image-processing pipleline available to Pure Digital so they could perform the configurability they wanted, while still achieving the full 30fps, even in low light.
Fast digital image processing
The frame rate brings up an interesting point and speaks well of the Coach 8's processing power. Typical still cameras take a second or more to process an image, so how does the Flip manage 30 in a second? According to Furlan, as discussed previously, the video resolution is 640x480, which translates to approximately 0.25Mpixels. "So, a camera that can process and store a 4Mpixel image in 1s can process a 0.25Mpixel image in 1/16 of a second." Also, typical digital still cameras can process multiple frames per second. "In the end, it's the speed of the underlying hardware that permits us to process a video frame 30x per second," he said.
Secret sauce? Exposure control algorithms
The configurability of the processor also allowed Furlan's team to implement proprietary algorithms and core intellectual property to overcome one of the main obstacles to smooth digital video: auto exposure control. Careful control of both sensor gain and exposure across the range of scenes with appropriate smoothing is mandatory to ensure the user doesn't see significant changes in exposure on a frame-by-frame basis. This control of exposure, gain and image processing over a range of lighting conditions is a detail that's often overlooked, said Furlan.
Digital still cameras don't have this issue, as it's one exposure, one shot, while more expensive digital camcorders have external sensors and electromechanical light control. But the Pure Digital team had to do this digitally.
The "Eureka" moment came with the development of proprietary damping algorithms to implement a non-linear response curve off stasis to give a smooth 'landing' quickly, without instability in the system. "For slow or little change, we keep the auto exposure stable or make very small changes which cannot easily be discerned by viewers," said Furlan. While the auto exposure has no impact on the underlying video frame rate, it does improve the perception that as the camera moves from one scene to the next, there were no significant jumps in brightness.
The end result is a digital camcorder experience for $150 that rivals that of camcorders in the $500- to $600-range.
Zoran Coach 12
The COACH 12 processor family members support stills, HD 720P and HD 1080P video capture. Other features include efficient H.264 high definition video codec with integrated HDMI interface and face tracking, which detects and tracks multiple faces simultaneously so that the photographer can focus and track a subject anywhere within the frame.