"Hey, I just heard about a new three-letter acronym that’s supposed
to revolutionize the whole videomaking world."
"Oh. You mean VDT?"
"How about "HDTV?"
"That’s four letters."
"Oh. Then you’re talking about VOD."
"Hmph. ITV? CD-I? MOV? AVI?"
"Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong. It’s a new recording medium, one that
captures sights and sounds digitally, right inside the camcorder–"
"Oh, yeah. I’ve heard of that. Some kind of CD-ROM format that two giant
consumer electronics companies are fighting about. DVD, isn’t it?"
"You’re getting closer. This is a product that uses tape to record digital
video. It’s smaller than Hi8, has better image quality than Beta, no
generation loss in successive dubs, interfaces easily with non-linear
"Oh, you mean DV."
"Yeah. Digital videocassette."
"Well why didn’t you say so?"
Yes, Another Format
Yes, it’s true. There’s yet another video format looming on the horizon:
digital videocassette. Consumer electronics companies have been singing
its praises for some time now. And as with any new videomaking product,
it’s sometimes hard to separate the facts from the marketing hype.
But once you do so, you’ll see that the promise of DV is no mere pipe
dream. In terms of image quality, DV claims to be the best consumer video
format that’s ever seen the light of day–and manufacturers have the data
to back up those claims.
For example: the much-lauded MPEG-1 video compression scheme boasts image
quality comparable to VHS. To achieve this, MPEG playback devices process
3 million bits of information per second. But DV doesn’t use MPEG. It
uses a video compression scheme that handles roughly 25 million bits per
second; this translates into more than 8 times the resolution power of
Granted, the horizontal resolution you’ll see on the screen wont be eight
times that of VHS; a monitor (and its connection to the video source) can
only go so far in reproducing detail. Other attributes of the image,
however–such as color and luminance reproduction–will rival that of
The audio quality will also be superior to anything currently available
in the consumer camcorder realm–16-bit CD-quality, to be exact.
What’s more, it’s compact. A one-hour DV tape, which is a mere 6mm
(1/4 inch) wide, comes in a cassette that fits easily into the palm of
As if these three items weren’t enough, DV has one major advantage that
sets it apart from all other consumer videotape formats. This attribute
is DV’s ace in the hole, its unfair advantage, its sine qua non,
the attribute without which it probably wouldn’t exist.
It’s, well–digital, I guess you’d say.
I know, I know; many of you are thinking, "Digital, schmigital. I capture
my images on Hi8 and edit on S-VHS, and you know what? It looks just fine
If you’re one of these people, you’re in good company. A very large number
of today’s videomakers are happy with their analog formats, and don’t have
much need of anything better. For this reason, the VHS and 8mm families of
video products will probably be with us for many years to come.
Nonetheless, digital video offers a number of advantages over its analog
counterpart. Two of the most important of these are its ability to hold
a signal and its easy interface with other emerging digital
Digital video’s secret weapon, the attribute that makes it better able to
hold up under pressure, is the fact that it’s encoded in a way that makes
it easier to record. Instead of an actual video signal, the tape records a
long series of bits (zeroes and ones), which require special processing to
decode into a video signal. This bitstream is easier for a magnetic medium
to keep track of than a complex analog waveform. As long as the decoder
can read the zeros and ones, the decoded video signal is identical each
time you play it. For this reason, digital videocassettes can withstand
several editing passes without degradation of the signal.
And then there’s all that cutting-edge equipment we keep hearing about:
nonlinear editors, high definition television (HDTV), video on demand
(VOD) servers and so on. What do all of these technologies have in common?
You guessed it: they’re digital. As long as the camera comes with a
digital output, the DVC format is capable of providing footage for all
these digital video applications–without conversion of the signal.
For years, the real pros (the broadcast folk) have used digital videotape.
They’ve long known that digital video is truly the wave of the future. In
response to this, a consortium of video professionals came up with a
single format that could handle the needs of the digital future in a
cost-effective and convenient way.
DV and DVCPro
The answer they came up with was DV. That’s right, I said DV, not DVCPro.
Because of Panasonic’s development of DVCPro, some have referred to DV as
consumer DVC. But don’t let the lack of three little letters at the end of
the word fool you: DV is a professional format. It records with broadcast
specifications that surpass cameras used in the field today.
This means that when DV takes off in the consumer world, then camcorder
hobbyists will have access to the same quality footage that the pros use.
Before you cancel your plans to buy that Hi8 or S-VHS camcorder, you
should know that DV won’t be available at a comfortable price point for
a while. DV is a new technology, and as with most new technologies, the
pros and the rich kids will probably be the only ones who can afford the
first units that hit the market.
With that in mind, let’s cover the differences between the two versions
of DV currently in the works: DVCPro and just plain DV. The former,
DVCPro, is a video system that Panasonic developed from the industry-wide
DV standard and modified for professional use. The latter is the subject
of this article–DV itself, so to speak.
As you may have guessed, DVCPro equipment has more capabilities that DV.
It’s reportedly easier to edit because the DVCPro tapes record the signal
on a track almost twice as wide as the DV. But get this: there’s
absolutely no difference in image quality between the two formats–none
whatsoever. The formats are not interchangeable, but they do use the same
decoding and playback technology that delivers 25 million bits per
In September 1995, Sony and Panasonic released the first-ever DV
camcorders in Japan. These camcorders carried price tags ranging from
350,000 yen, or roughly $2640 to $4000.
Why the high entry-level cost? "It’s the encoder," says Sony spokesman
David Yaun. "The hardware that changes the analog signal to digital and
back again is what drives the price up at this point."
Panasonic’s first DV camcorder, the PV-DV1000, will probably hit the
market first, but only by a few days. It features image stabilization,
CD-quality sound, Panasonic 5-pin editing control and manual control of
iris, white balance and shutter speed, among other things. One thing the
PV-DV1000 doesn’t have, however, is a digital output. Panasonic spokesman
Bill Mannion claims that the company is waiting to see what sort of
standard the industry will set for digital outputs before they place them
on their camcorders.
Sony’s DV camcorders are similar in price, features and performance to the
Panasonic model. Their lower-priced model has one CCD, while the more
expensive one has three. But the Sony models will include a digital I/O
port that makes the DV encoded signal available to nonlinear editors,
video servers and the like. This I/O port (serial 1394, or "firewire") is
the key to the format’s power, and Sony should be commended for including
in on their earliest models. Will consumers even bother with the high cost
of DV if it’s just a prettier, better-sounding acquisition format? We
don’t think so.
For a short period of time, Sony intended to release a DV editing VCR
before Christmas of 1995. They’ve since changed their minds, however,
owing to the pending deliberations over copy protection standards for the
pre-recorded video industry.
When it does hit the market in 1996, this VCR will more than likely come
with the Firewire 1394 serial bus standard–a super-fast 4-wire copper
interface that supports data transfer rates of up to 400 million bits per
second. With this interface, the digital video signal will become
available to other media–HDTV monitors, video-on-demand servers,
nonlinear editors and the like.
Firewire 1394 does have some drawbacks,
the main one being its limit of 4 1/2 meters in length. In the future, a
better solution is likely to replace Firewire; fiber optics seem a likely
choice, as these will carry huge amounts of data over very long distances.
DVCPro: Edit in the Field
Okay, now that we’ve dealt with professional-quality DV products that
only pros can afford, let’s move on to DVCPro. (Confused? So are we.)
As stated before, Panasonics Broadcast and Professional division developed
the DVCPro format. It’s based on the original DV formula, with one big
difference: it uses a wider track (more tape) to record the encoded signal
than DV, which reportedly makes it easier to edit. This also makes it
incompatible with DV.
A number of DVCPro products should be available in the fall of 1995. The
first products to hit the market will probably be the AJ-D700 camcorder
and the AJ-D750 studio VCR, priced at $22,000 and $27,000 dollars
respectively. Panasonic also plans to release a $5,000 throw-away DVCPro
camcorder at about the same time. Why make a $5,000 throw-away camcorder?
So that journalists and other intrepid adventurers can shoot in dangerous
parts of the world without risking a $20,000 camera.
One of the more striking DVCPro products that Panasonic will release in
1996 is the Field Edit Package. Similar in design to a laptop computer,
the Field Edit Package incorporates two DVC decks, each with its own LCD
screen, and a jog/shuttle for each deck. This unit will allow
professionals to edit their videos with a nonlinear interface while
they’re traveling; because it’s a laptop, you could even edit videos while
flying on a plane from location to location. The price tag?
With this hot new format in the air, how are the supporters of the VHS
and 8mm families going to respond? Most camcorder manufacturers
(including Sony, Thomson, Panasonic, JVC, Hitachi, Sharp, Toshiba,
Mitsubishi and Sanyo) have plans to make DV products themselves, so there
won’t be a big conflict there. And because this is a single new format
that all major camcorder manufacturers have agreed upon, there’ll be no
format war like we saw in the 70s and 80s between Beta and VHS.
Nonetheless, the older formats are adapting to meet the competition of
DV. To help maintain the viability of their VHS format, JVC has developed
two new ways to use VHS tape for digital recording: D-VHS and Digital S.
The former will primarily be used as a storage medium for digital
satellite broadcasts, while the latter will use a special tape to record
high-quality digital video that rivals DV in performance. Each of these is
an article in its own right, so we’ll leave them for now.
So what does all this mean to you, the videomaking public? It means we’ve
all taken a big step into the digital future of moving images. It means
more videomaking power in the hands of the consumer. It means easy
interface with all of the new and exciting ways that video will be
transmitted in the next century. To sum up, it means one thing: a huge
advance in video technology.
With this in mind, it would benefit us to remember what happened in the
audio industry. Within a short time–a few years–a widely-accepted analog
format was completely transplanted by its digital successor, to the extent
that most major consumer electronics stores don’t even carry the analog
format (turntables) anymore.
Could it happen in the video world? It could indeed, but not overnight.
We’ll just have to wait and see.