An interview with Kasper Skårhøj
In celebration of the release of the first fully comprehensive 3rd party hardware control interface for the ATEM switchers I have interviewed the creator of the hardware Kasper Skårhøj.
First a sneeky peek at the hardware which i feel is the most exciting release since the Blackmagic versions of the ATEM were announced..
(picture courtesy of Skaarhoj)
As you can see this is a compact control panel styled like a traditional broadcast switcher. What you cannot see from the photo is that this product is 100% opensource, meaning your free to make your own controller based on the design. If you prefer you can commission Kasper to make one for you, at a very affordable price point. BEST OF ALL THERE IS CURRENTLY A 30% DISCOUNT OFFER ON THE PRICE SO GET YOUR ORDER IN NOW TO GET A FANTASTIC CONTROLLER AT THE BEST PRICE.
I have put in an order for one of these for myself and will be writing up a full review as soon as I've had a chance to fully test it. Until then I offer the following interview with Kasper where he explains some of the principles behind his approach with opensource equipment.
Who is SKAARHOJ?
I'm Kasper Skårhøj, a sort of multi-engineer-artist-computer-guru. I'm just about to finish a university degree at the age of 37 since I dropped out 15 years ago to become a part of an internet startup back then. The result of that was another significant open source contribution, namely the web CMS TYPO3 which I founded and lead the first 10 years. But I was too contained in that box at some point and had to break free to do other stuff, ended up at uni again, this time in civil engineering, did some creative videos for my church for a while as well as 150 video podcasts for the TYPO3 community. Currently I enjoy a cool job as an elearning consultant at the same university I'm studying at and this gives me the possibility to work in the intersection of art, communication, video technology… and electronics. It's a job I very much define myself as long as I create something useful ;-) And on the side - and maybe more than that soon - I run SKAARHOJ with 3 friends of mine. So far I must admit that I learned the far majority of my productive skills on my own.
What products does SKAARHOJ make for ATEM Switchers?
We make generic controllers for the broadcast industry and initially geared highly towards the ATEM series of switchers from Blackmagic. Our products essentially consists of four things: An Arduino Microcontroller unit with Ethernet, additional self-developed hardware board with buttons, displays, knobs etc, an enclosure to make it look cool and be functional and finally software to connect it to an ATEM switcher. We also sell integration services, customization etc. Since our designs are assembled in small numbers we can't compete on price, but can on other other hand easily offer customizations at prices completely unthinkable for large production batches.
How did you come up with this idea?
Well, it all started out of excitement that Blackmagic put some low cost switchers on the market that could apparently be controlled via ethernet. Add to this that I was at the time playing with Arduino Microcontrollers with Ethernet and decided to try and connect the two. This succeeded very well and then it was sort of straight forward to use this for all kinds of cool things. Many many people have used the ATEM Arduino Library from SKAARHOJ for their own homebrew controllers and applications so far. The idea to create a range of controllers like ours specifically came from my experience with the ATEM Switchers at the Technical University of Denmark where we use them for recording lectures live. We found that the laptop interface was really good for configuring all the settings of the switchers but horrible for switching. And since our hardware solutions had to be very portable, compact and easy to use, we decided to look into creating an interface with buttons for the most important functions such as choosing an input and making a cut. We also realized that we needed a sort of macros to enable for instance a picture-in-picture via the DVE in the 1M/E model and that we wanted it to nicely fade in. This was possible by combining 5 actions into a press of a single button - and a success was born! :-)
What about your new product line up, how did that happen?
First of all, we stress that we are not selling products! We sell the service of assembling and testing all the hardware parts specified by our open source designs. This is among other things to state, that consultancy and customizations around our products is our business model. But anyway, about the new product range, they are different mostly by the new aluminum enclosures. The first versions we sold were basically just a frontpanel of plastic with a printed circuit board mounted on. This worked the same and might be good enough, but still we needed to take a step up to a complete product with a desirable look. We think we have succeeded and are ourselves totally in awe of the enclosure designs we have obtained.
You site states that the products are open source. What does this mean?
The open source nature means that our designs can be replicated by anyone with adequate skills. All information is available. We also try to make the information accessible to more people by providing guides on how to solder, program etc. However, this depends on how much time we have to prepare such materials. We hope to inspire people by giving away our intellectual property and if this succeeds we should see even more cool innovations building on top of our work or just being inspired by it.
How can people take advantage of the Open Source advantage?
Well, even if you buy our designs assembled by us, you still have the complete knowledge to work with someone else than us. This is the well known advantage of Open Source in general that you avoid so called "lock-in" where it's difficult to leave a certain integrator for another one because you might have an infrastructure too dependent on them. So with all information in your hand you can either seek another consultant or expand and change your system yourself if you learn how.
Can people just create a copy of your products and call it their own?
No, they can't. For Open Source there are clear rules, first and foremost the rule that you must give proper and visible credit to the original designer and make any thirdparty customer aware of this. Further, with the licenses we have chosen we also require people to share any adaptations they make based on our products under the same license. This makes sure that any additional work to our open solutions will stay open and continously be a contribution to the world of free knowledge. We have adopted the well known GNU-GPL and Creative Commons BY-SA licenses. On our website you can read how we wish to be attributed in derivative works.
What is the best way that a user of your products could contribute to the opensource code base, if for example they have added some functions and want to share them with other users?
This is all handled by the infrastructure of GitHub. That means; Get an account at GitHub, checkout the ATEM Arduino library and make a branch. When you have added something useful you create a pull-request and I will get a notification plus a chance to review the code. Not only our software is in GitHub actually, also the hardware schematics and other designs. We intend to use this for version control and collaboration with others. In addition we have a wiki at skaarhoj.com/wiki/ Contributers can also add documentation that way.
How do you make money?
Our thinking is that a lot of people are willing to pay for the service of assembling our designs. These are the people who want to save time, who might not have the skills to do it themselves, who wants the experts - us - to do it, quality assure it, test it, make the mistakes along the way, take care of the hassle of ordering all bits and pieces. So what we sell is really the service of putting our designs together along with the necessary components. It's like an IKEA furniture which you ask someone to fetch and assemble for you. In addition we also offer extensive customizations of course.
Someone might think that a controller that costs more than a Blackmagic TeleVision studio itself is way overpriced. What do you say in return?
I don't think it's fair to assume that a controller necessarily should be cheaper than the mainframe. To be honest, when I saw the price of the Blackmagic Broadcast Panel I thought that it was a very high pricetag for a bunch of buttons, but I liked the idea that they had probably decided to sell the switchers at a low price so everyone could join in and still give the "pros" with money their beloved "T-bar" and traditional user experience for a price that doesn't scare broadcasters. Now that I'm making hardware myself I have realized that those broadcast quality buttons are themselves extremely expensive, even in large quantities. Or SmartSwitches (buttons with displays), they have a crazy price tag. Add to this the price of running small production batches that can't be mass produced in china and you end with a price like ours. We have decided that we would rather have no business than a business where we are struggling to make it work. Our prices are sustainable; they will allow us to stay in business and still provide our inventions for free as open source. So, if you can afford it, support us.
What features would you like to see Blackmagic Design add to the ATEM products?
I think TeleVision Studio is a killer product for the whole educational sector but it misses one crucial feature; Picture-in-picture. This is currently only possible via the DVE in 1M/E. If blackmagic could squeeze that little thing into TVS they would do themselves a favour. Then I hope to see an upgrade to 1080p60 some day for the whole product line - that would make them incredibly more useful for event graphics and AV installations. But more than anything I hope they will publish the complete API down to the level of UDP packets. At this point I have figured out everything I need to make the ATEM Arduino library work myself, but more knowledge wouldn't hurt and in particular I fear a sudden change to the protocol that might not be easy to reverse engineer again. I understand the concerns Blackmagic might have and they seem to regard the protocol as unfinished yet, but just knowing if they in principle want to support microcontroller based implementations - that would be nice to know and a good basis for a dialogue in the interim! So far all the feedback I get seem to only confirm what an advantage it is for the sales of ATEM switchers that people can create small custom controllers themselves.
So, where can I buy one?
On our website! http://skaarhoj.com/ We have all products listed with nicely detailed pictures and videos. If in doubt of anything, people can just write us an email. In the shop we currently have a 30% IBC pool order discount which runs until end of friday the 14th of September, so this is the chance to get an original SKAARHOJ for a great price!