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NewTek new era marked by acquisition and technology changes

In 2005, San Antonio-based NewTek rolled out its flagship product, the TriCaster, a compact device used to produce videos by mixing feeds and adding special effects, among other tasks.

It’s become common enough that the TriCaster’s handiwork might be seen on a television news broadcast, at a high school football game, a City Council meeting or even in a morning announcement bulletin at a middle school. NewTek now offers an array of devices at prices ranging from about $6,000 to $40,000 and beyond, said Will Waters, the company’s head of global product management.

“It’s about democratizing video,” he said. “It allows you to take some specialized hardware along with a computer and then some really fantastic software and it becomes a system that years ago you would need to have a whole television, a full facility, millions of dollars of investment, to be able to broadcast to the masses.”

Inventor Tim Jenison founded NewTek in 1985 in Topeka, Kansas, as he discovered a way to deliver a video feed onto an Amiga personal computer. The company relocated to San Antonio in the late ’90s, Waters said.

In 2019, it entered a new chapter when it was acquired by Vizrt, a Norwegian company that sells products to add graphics to videos. Its graphics can be seen in broadcasts of football and basketball games in the US

Waters, who grew up in the Detroit area, joined NewTek in 2010 as a sales engineer after he had worked closely with the company in a separate job setting up sound and lighting systems for schools, churches and businesses. He has a musical background, with a degree in music from Rochester University.

He recently sat for an interview with the Express-News to discuss the history of the TriCaster, the company’s acquisition by Vizrt and the future of video production. The following has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Will Waters is head of global product management for NewTek, a locally-based company that makes video software.

Billy Calzada, Staff / Staff photographer

Q: You have a background in music. Did you originally study to become a musician?

A: Not exactly. More along the lines of I’ve always had an interest in live sound, acoustics. There’s nothing quite like taking a good band and a good sound system in a highly energetic room and bringing all that together. There’s a certain mathematical property to music that’s very elegant. That’s something that I always found interesting.

Q: How did NewTek come to develop the TriCaster?

A: Around 2005, people were starting to dabble with corporate video. You have all of this messaging going out, and PowerPoint. Instead of having slide decks and overhead projectors and things like that we can use the computer and show that up on the screen. This is kind of a convergence point, right? Because you have the internet, and video is starting to get pushed out there. You have the corporate world, which is doing a lot of things with video or PowerPoint, and then you had an opportunity to take the video signal. What NewTek did — which at the time was a gamble — was say, “Hey, let’s take those three components of what we have here and put it together and create something called the TriCaster.”

Q: I’ve seen pictures of it. It basically looks like a big, colorful keyboard, right?

A: What you’re describing there is the actual control service. And that’s very important because that does allow you to have a certain set of buttons, and a T-bar. If you’re a Star Wars fan, you know that T-bar is really important when you’re blowing up planets. But that’s actually a control for the product itself, which is really just a server that has some special connectors on the back of it to connect to video and then of course is running really powerful software to put it all together. But the truth is this is all being done on commoditized computing parts. That’s one of the fantastic things about what NewTek did, because up until very recently — and the pandemic kind of threw the industry even further in this direction — it was always proprietary parts and really technical circuitry to get a video signal from one place to another .

Q: There are lots of video-editing apps available now. Do you see them as a threat?

A: It’s only a threat if you don’t evolve with the business. This goes back to Tim Jenison. He made a statement back in the late ’80s that said, “In the future, your favorite show will be made by you or someone you know.” I think we can say we’re living in that world today when we look at social media, TikTok, YouTube Live, short stories on Instagram, Snapchat.

Roll back to 2015: We actually looked at the fact that you had networks, you had computers, but really it’s about flexibility. Not only do you need to have a product that does the cool, fun stuff from a video magic standpoint, you need to be able to get the video from place to place. With that, we developed a transport called NDI (or, Network Device Interface). I’m sure at home you have an HDMI cable. Well, it only goes so far, right? I mean, it’s six feet, it’s 12 feet. That means that you have to tell your story, or put your studio, in a particular configuration. But in a world today where we’ve got the network, the phone in my pocket is theoretically connected to every other device on the planet. So why can’t we use that transport method and use that camera on that phone to be able to have any studio anywhere be able to pick up that signal? This is what NewTek did at the time, creating NDI.

NewTek's TriCaster TC1 video production system.

NewTek’s TriCaster TC1 video production system.

Q: What are your thoughts on how video production will change over the next 10 or 20 years?

A: Right now, the thing that everybody talks about is cloud. We’re in this cycle in technology where we are just working with edge devices linked to someone else’s computer in some data center somewhere. I think what we’re going to see is that ultimately, the flexibility is what people are looking for. Does it really matter where your (computing is done)? I mean, when you pick up your iPhone, do you care that the facial identification is happening on the phone but telemetry is sent up to somewhere to give you a result? The same thing is happening in video production. We ultimately do need to tell stories. With the proliferation of source devices you have the ability to get new angles. Your eyes are never just looking at one thing, usually you’re taking in various inputs. You know, you get really bored when you’re just watching the same angle all the time. As a consumer of video, you want to be compelled to see the interesting thing.

Q: Is it safe to say that a big part of that is integrating more with people’s phones?

A: That’s one avenue. But you know, the mobile phone is what we see and we deal with now. In the world of video, the world of technology, there’s a lot of things that we see in the future that can be integrated into how we’re working with wearable devices — you know, integrating directly into headwear.

Q: How is, or was, Vizrt’s focus different from that of NewTek?

A: Vizrt has a very interesting history in and of itself. What made this possible, really, with NewTek and Vizrt is, fundamentally, the mission of the companies was almost exactly aligned. NewTek is giving a voice to storytellers through video and Vizrt is about creating better stories through video.

Q: Has Vizrt led Newtek in a new direction?

A: Anytime you have new ownership, you get an adjustment to the direction, but I would say overall it’s been a very good thing. A lot of times when companies are purchased the acquired company kind of feels left out: “What’s happening here?” What Vizrt was able to do for NewTek was that Vizrt had multiple offices around the planet. What that allows you to do from an international expansion perspective is really important, because when you have places that you can hire more staff, you’re able to utilize offices as a logistical platform to be able to get into more corners of the world.

Q: With the pandemic lifting, do you plan to move your local employees back into the office?

A: We’re under consideration for what we consider to be a modern way of working. San Antonio is definitely a hub for us, a collaboration hub, especially for our video-mixing domain, which is based here in San Antonio, along with the NDI group. Some jobs and some employees very much desire a dedicated space. I think others are more into a hybrid workflow. At the moment, we’re a bit in that hybrid world.

Q: You just referred to San Antonio as a “hub,” but it’s still Newtek’s headquarters, right?

A: Subsequent to (Vizrt’s purchase of NewTek), Vizrt restructured itself to form the Vizrt Group. Under the Vizrt Group corporate brand, there are three business units: There is the original Vizrt brand, there’s the NewTek brand and then there’s a third company called NDI. The NewTek hub is centralized and based here in San Antonio. It is the gravity well, if you will, for that entire business.

Q: Has Vizrt’s acquisition led to NewTek’s presence being lessened in San Antonio?

A: No, I wouldn’t say that it’s lessened in San Antonio. I’d say we’ve benefited from significant growth. We’ve added headcount in many places around the world — for instance, expanding our European sales and support teams. We’ve been able to add support personnel in Southeast Asia as well as being able to take advantage of a logistics center in Austria. But we haven’t decreased our footprint, really, here in San Antonio. If anything we’ve added to that. The beautiful thing about being a hybrid-based company is that we’re no longer constrained by certain geographic reasons for talent recruitment, for instance. But it’s always really important to be able to collaborate. So San Antonio is still our big focus.

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