The Terapin Mine and Videonics Firestore
Review by Dirck Halstead

The rush of technology toward new solutions in maximizing the advantages of Digital in computing and visual fields is changing the way images are captured at a pace that even the most optimistic developers could not foresee.

In the past month, we have tested two new peripherals that have enormous implications for photojournalists both in still and video.Neither one of these new tools were initially thought of in terms of photojournalism, but rather as storage devices that could be used by consumers. But once photojournalists started to tinker with them, the possibilities of what they could do became apparent.


Photojournalists have increasingly moved to the use of digital cameras at newspapers, magazines and wire services. It is common today for photographers on fast-breaking assignments to drop a compact flash card, which has taken the place of film, into a laptop computer and connect to a network by modem or wireless, and within minutes transmit their photos to their editors.

The big problem that photographers have faced with this means of transmission is that in effect, they are lugging a portable typewriter in the form of a laptop computer around with them. Today's camera bags for photojournalists are oversized packs that not only hold cameras and lenses, but laptops and peripherals. The photographers look like Marines on a combat operation when carrying the heavy bags. How, they wondered, would they ever get back to the kinds of loads they used to carry when all they had to worry about were the cameras?

Last year a start-up company called Terapin realized that there might be a market for consumers who wanted to be able to save picture files from their digital cameras, or video and MPEG audio, and be able to share the files without having to rely on a computer, and without having to use huge memory allocations.

What they came up with was a $599 handheld, Internet-enabled personal data storage device with 10 gigs of memory that could hold thousands of photographs and audio tracks, together with other digital information. It would be a fully functional digital audio player/recorder, a digital photo album, and a vast data bank and backup tool that would make management of all this material extremely simple.

As we said, the idea was to produce a device for the consumer market, but once a few wire services got a look at the device, they realized they had seen the future.

One of the wire service photographers realized that he was looking at a handheld device that would free photographers from the need to carry a bulky laptop. Furthermore, it would return photographers to the job of taking pictures, without having to worry about editing in the field, typing captions, and waiting for pictures to be transmitted.

The Terapin Mine is a sleek handheld device about 7 inches high, 3 inches wide, and an inch deep. It features a Linux operating system that accommodates both NTSC and PAL video, and MP3 and WAV audio with stereo playback. It has outlets in its base for a USB master and USB slave, a 10 Mbps Ethernet and a 16-Bit PCMIA Type II slot. It runs on either 4 AA alkaline batteries or an internal rechargeable Lithium-Ion battery.

On the front, on top, is a screen that displays 16 characters by 4 times high-contrast LCD screen. There are 3 front-panel buttons and 3 side buttons for all device controls. Composite video can be played out or still pictures displayed as JPEGs, BMPs, GIFs, or TIFFs to a video monitor or projector using the supplied video cord.

It is possible to upload and download MP3 material via either a USB or MCIA memory card adaptor. At present it is compatible only with Windows 98, 2000, and ME systems; however, for the purposes of photographers who want to use the device primarily to move photographs into a local area network (LAN) or upload to online or FTP sites, that is irrelevant. Terapin plans to have a Mac interface ready late this month.

The key point is that in this one little device you have an incredible amount of storage for photographs. It allows a
photojournalist to undertake a major assignment with only two or three flash cards, since all files can be conveniently moved into safe storage on the Mine, allowing the flash cards to be cleared in order to be able to continue the coverage.

To make the Mine even more useful as a storage device, a free online account comes with it that allows you to move your stored photographs on the Terapin server, where they can reside indefinitely until you are ready to recall them. Reuters' Bob Covington, who has been testing the unit for the past few months, says, "The Mine gives you a safety net. You can have a full record of your images without having to ever touch a computer. The goal is to be able to allow photographers to shoot pictures with a minimum of disruption, and take away the burdens of technology."

You can expect to see this little package in a lot of camera bags in the months ahead.

Visit the Terapin Tech website for more information.


For the video photographer, or platypus who has moved into non-linear editing, new small cameras and software such as Apple's Final Cut Pro have made the job of shooting and editing tape much easier than ever before. New tape formats such as DVCAM have made it possible to shoot two hours on one tape, although most people still use the one-hour mini DV cassettes. Beta users have long had to live with a maximum of 30 minutes of tape time. This can make for a lot of anxiety while shooting a presidential press conference or a concert. Just suppose it would be possible to record three hours while on location, without tape, and to be able to then capture the acquisition material to an NLE system without having to go through the lengthy real-time capture.

Focus Enhancements and Videonics, well known in broadcast and consumer circles for their video mixers and edit controllers, have come up with just such a solution with their brand-new Firestore capture and linear editing source.

In use, it is necessary to add an external hard drive into the chain. We used a pocket-sized IBM 40 gig drive that can hold over 3 hours of video. Before using the unit, we had to have the hard drive formatted as a FAT32 volume, which will allow the files to be read on both MAC and PC computers. The Firestore instantly turns the digital video signal into computer-readable files that can be stored on the hard drive. Using the Firestore in the acquisition process, it is possible to fast-forward, or reverse viewing of clips without having to rewind or fast-forward the tape. This makes it a very valuable production tool, since you can quickly view what has been shot, yet pick up shooting without queuing a tape.

For a shooter or producer on the run, it's possible to download material from the Firestore while in transit to the edit bay, and then simply plug the portable hard drive into the NLE system when you get there and start to assemble clips to the timeline without having to review or capture material first. This could be an incredible time saver in a real-life field situation.

Because the Firestore is so versatile, there are many things it can do.For example, it can record a single frame of video, or grab multiple still frames and make them part of one file or save them individually in their own file. This means that it can serve as a DV still store for production or as an animation recorder.

As with the Terapin Mine, the Firestore can offer a comfortable safety backup to the video maker on crucial shoots, since video can be recorded simultaneously to tape and the hard drive.

In the first reviews of the product, one point was brought up. Why, since its most obvious use was in the field along with the camera, was it designed to look like a small tape deck? The answer basically is that it was originally conceived as part of the edit bay package. And the design followed the thinking of recorder engineers.

Since then, Focus Enhancements has created a field kit that puts the Firestore in a nylon case featuring an internal NP battery slot, an external dc connector and power switch, storage for a hard drive/cable. This makes sense, because the thing that will be used in the edit suite is not the Firestore itself, but the hard drive containing the information.

They have also come up with a 25 watt/hour NP style battery, capable of about two hours of continuous recording time, powering Fiestore and one HDD. The case and battery, which will be available in March costs $325 for the case and $95 for the battery. A single channel fast NP charger costs $325.

Because the unit is so versatile, it will have a major impact on the way video is shot and edited. For $999 (minus the external hard drive) it is, indeed, a big idea in a little box.

Visit the Firestorm website for more information.

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