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December 2014
Issue: June 1, 2013

AJA Video Systems turns 20

By: John Abt
It’s hard to believe that my wife Darlene and I started AJA Video Systems 20 years ago. Broadcast and filmmaking technology has advanced at a pace that is a million miles away from what the standard was when we started out — and that’s exactly what keeps the business exciting and will continue to do so into the future for AJA.

Luckily, I entered broadcast technology right at the cusp of the transition to digital. Armed with degrees in electrical engineering from Sacramento State University with a focus on digital technology, I spent eight years as a broadcast engineer with the local Sacramento CBS affiliate where I met my wife, who was also a broadcast engineer. From there I moved to Grass Valley to work with medical video outfit Eigen, where in 1985 — more than a decade before HD hit professional broadcast — we were working on the medical industry’s version of a high-definition digital video framestore. From there I spent eight years at the Grass Valley Group, working on two of their first big exciting digital products.

IN THE BEGINNING

Starting AJA in Grass Valley was both a good business and lifestyle choice — I grew up in this community, and because of the legacy of companies like Grass Valley Group, Eigen, Litton Engineering and Cyan Engineering, there was an incredible wealth of talented engineers in the area. When AJA was founded, we started out leasing space in the Litton Building, which was famous for incubating many of Grass Valley’s tech companies.


Young Abe Abt, whose initials inspired the company name, with the original Litton Building sign.

AJA started as a company of two, and the whole first year was spent developing our first products: dongles that were parallel-to-serial, and serial-to-parallel digital video converters. At the time, we were doing all of the mechanical and engineering design, fabricating sheet metal, some custom hardware and all of the assembly ourselves. We brought those products to our first NAB in 1994, and they were incredibly well received. 

The speed at which technology advances is mind-boggling, and we entered into the arena just as the (sometimes painful) transition from analog to digital was getting underway in broadcast and in film as well. NTSC had been invented in the early 1950s and had largely remained the same for 25 years until digital came along and forced a massive industry changeover. Then came the transition from SD to HD; and now we are looking at 4K. At that time, and once again today, the field is wide open for a wealth of new products, and we continue to build out our team as we did back then, adding additional engineers, assemblers and more as AJA evolves and adapts to the industry’s changing needs.

Shortly after that first NAB, AJA started making mini-converters and that carried the business with well-paced growth for the next four years through to 1997. We released our first PCI card, a single framestore, in 1998 and then debuted our Kona line, the first SDI video I/O cards that worked with Final Cut Pro on OS X in 2002. That kicked off a long history of engineering collaborations with Apple, who asked us to develop the Io; we designed the hardware and Apple wrote the Io’s driver. Products that leveraged new Apple technology followed suit, including the Io HD, Io XT and our family of Ki Pro recorders. We were also the first hardware licensee of the Apple ProRes codec. AJA’s relationship with Apple has figured prominently in our success, and since then we have gone on to form other joint technology partnerships with other major industry players like Adobe, Autodesk, Avid, Sony, Canon and myriad OEM partners.


John Abt in the early days of AJA.

Being a part of this business is incredibly rewarding. On many occasions I’ve been able to experience the thrill of introducing a totally new product concept into the market, as we were able to do, for example, with Ki Pro, our first portable digital file recorder. Ki Pro was also very much a group effort in development, with the idea originally coming from Jon Thorn, our product manager, and was designed with input and ideas from across engineering, marketing and partners until it gelled into the original Ki Pro. We now have several different products in the Ki Pro family, including Ki Pro Rack, which replaces the VTR in the machine room, and Ki Pro Quad, our first 2K/4K recorder. 2009 also marked the year that AJA moved into a custom-built 66,000-square-foot facility just a few hundred yards from the original Litton building.

THE FUTURE

I still get excited about the promise of new technologies, and with the arrival of 4K in both film and broadcast, we’ve been working fast and furious at AJA engineering to design some exciting new products. We’ve also seen some of our existing technologies move laterally into new markets, making huge strides in digital signage, AV and other multi-format broadcast arenas. 

I’m an engineer at heart, I love designing new products, and even as the CEO of a 20-year-old company with 170 employees, I keep my office in the engineering building and work with our teams to design products that meet today’s workflow needs and predict the needs of tomorrow’s content creators. 

John Abt is the Founder/CEO of AJA Video Systems (www.aja.com) in Grass Valley, CA.