An obscure company of self-described video and computer fanatics in Topeka, Kan., has created a remarkable device that converts an Amiga computer into a broadcast-quality desktop video production system.
For $1,595 the Video Toaster from NewTek Inc. offers real-time video digitizing and manipulation capable of just about every special effect you've seen on television -- and some you haven't. What's more, it is easier to use than most computer software.
In fact, the only thing you need to know about the computer is how to turn it on.
For instance, if you want to replace one video image with another using a special wipe with a Venetian blind effect, here's what you do: Use the mouse to point at a graphic symbol depicting the effect on the Amiga monitor's screen. Click the mouse button and then control the speed of the wipe by moving the mouse. There are 132 special effects available, with more to come.
The networks, local TV stations and commercial video makers are the obvious early buyers of the toaster. But NewTek's marketing director said the firm is really after the millions of home camcorder and VCR owners who would like to produce their own high-quality videos.
The Video Toaster is a complex expansion card for Amiga 2000 or 2500 computers that contains four custom very-large-scale integrated chips.
Designed by NewTek owner Tim Jenison, it works in conjunction with the Amiga's special "blitter" chips, which give that computer unique graphics-processing abilities. But the expansion card does not use Amiga graphics, which are not nearly video resolution.
With the card are eight disks of software. They include the special effects and the control panels. There are two frame buffers where you can freeze and store video images. You can keep as many as you want on the hard disk and have any two available simultaneously for use with the special effects. Freeze frames occupy 700 kilobytes of disk storage each.
There is a character generator for overlaying titles and credits in a variety of fonts and sizes of type, in 16.8 million colors and with any kind of shadowing you want.
Additionally, a paint program lets you modify video images to any extent you wish, also in 16.8 million colors and any degree of transparency. If you have artistic talent you can turn a face into a one-eyed Cyclops or span Yosemite Valley with the Golden Gate Bridge.
Finally, there is LightWave 3D, a three-dimensional modeling and rendering program with which you could design your own version of the Stealth fighter and mount a successful raid against Saddam Hussein in an action video.
As they say on the late-night kitchen utensil shows, you could expect to pay $90,000 to $120,000 for television studio equipment to do all of this.
But even if you don't already own an Amiga or a camcorder or even a VCR, the Video Toaster will enable you, for $10,000 to $15,000 starting from scratch, to have virtually the same functions as a television production studio.
It is tempting to say that the expansion card could create desktop video the way Apple Computer and Aldus Corp. created desktop publishing with the Macintosh, Laser Writer and PageMaker. But that analogy isn't precise. Desktop publishing on 300-dot-per-inch resolution laser printers is not as good as in print shops with 1,000- or 2,000-dot-per-inch typesetters that cost $40,000 and up.
On the other hand, the quality of video produced by the expansion card is equivalent to network television standards, according to Mark Randall, NewTek's director of marketing. It meets both Electronics Industry Association and Federal Communications Commission video specifications.
To get started, expect to pay about $2,500 for an Amiga 2000 with the required 5 megabytes of memory and a 40-megabyte hard disk. For the faster Amiga 2500, the cost will be about $1,000 more. Amiga dealers also sell the Video Toaster.
In addition to the Amiga monitor, which serves as the control panel, you need at least one video monitor, preferably two. One will display the video image before modification and the other shows the result. That output can be recorded directly on any VCR with just a video cable connection.
The expansion card accepts four simultaneous video inputs, which could be cameras, VCRs or a combination, and allows you to perform cuts, fades and wipes between any of those sources and two still-frame buffers for stored images plus a color background generator.
Richard O'Reilly is a Los Angeles Times staff writer. Readers' comments are welcomed. Write to Richard O'Reilly, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, Calif. 90053.