Visionaries? Prophets? Geniuses? Or just people who happened to be in the right place at the right time? Whatever you call them, the pioneers of the consumer video industry have changed the way we make video. They’ve brought us VHS, low-cost video editors, desktop video and a whole catalog of other innovations that videomakers now take for granted.
There’s a lot we can learn from the stories of these risk-takers and innovators. Each is a tale of humble beginnings, stubborn perseverance and eventual triumph, told by ordinary people like you or me.
What follows is a brief retelling of three such stories. Though the pioneers in these tales come from very different backgrounds, they all have three things in common: an uncanny ability to know what consumers want, a relentless desire to bring it to them at a price they can afford and a healthy dose of good luck.
So prepare for a journey into the past, back to a time when there was no Toaster, no MX-1, not even a camcorder or home VCR…
JVC and the Video Home System
Twenty five years ago in Osaka, Japan, representatives from three consumer electronics companies met behind closed doors at a trade show; the topic of discussion was one that would eventually change the way people use their televisions.
The companies were Matsushita, Sony and JVC, and the topic of discussion was the consumer VCR.
Up until this point, efforts to make a VCR that the masses would buy in massive quantities had failed. The 3/4-inch machines that Sony and JVC had offered were just too bulky and expensive (around $2500 in 1970 US dollars) to elicit any worthwhile consumer response. So the three companies decided to do something that large consumer electronics companies rarely do: share technology. The goal: a 3/4-inch VCR and camera for consumers.
Sony brought along a prototype of their U-Matic, a design that used a 3/4-inch cassette. The unspoken message that this presentation conveyed was that Sony, a leader in professional 3/4-inch gear, intended to lead the way in the consumer VCR market.
Among those present at this meeting were two bright young employees of JVC. One of them, Yuma Shiraishi, was a bright, soft-spoken young engineer; the other, Shizuo Takano, was adept at organization and management. These men shared Sony’s enthusiasm for a consumer VCR breakthrough, but as the months that followed would clearly show, they had no intention of following Sony’s lead.
Not long after the summit in Osaka, it became clear that 3/4-inch technology, which had long seen use in broadcast video applications, was just not the way to win the hearts of video consumers. Shiraishi and Takano therefore decided to re-design the home VCR from the ground up.
But before they did this, they held a brainstorming session to work out the conditions necessary for a successful home VCR. This session resulted in a list of twelve features that their design had to include in order for it to be successful.
The Twelve Commandments
- The device must be connectable to an ordinary TV.
- It must have the same image quality as an ordinary TV receiver.
- It must have a minimum recording time of 2 hours (so it can record feature-length movies).
- It must be compatible with the VCRs of other manufacturers (interchangable tape, etc.).
- It must have a wide range of functions (video camera hookup, etc.).
- It must be affordable.
- It must be easy to operate.
- It must have a low running cost (tape, etc.).
- It must be easy to manufacture.
- It must have interchangable parts.
- It must be easy to service.
- It should serve as a transmitter of information and culture.
These twelve requirements would provide JVC’s team with a focus as the months went by. Takano and Shiraishi personally saw to it that the project stayed on track and kept these principles in mind.
As the VCR project developed, the two men took on different roles. Shiraishi became the chief inventor, gathering and directing the brightest minds he could find. Takano provided the team with an almost military bearing; his example of tenacity and boldness carried them team through difficult times.
At one particularly low point, Takano called them all together to ask a question: "Are you all prepared to commit suicide with me?" By "commiting suicide," he meant in a business sense, not a literal one. Nonetheless, the reference to the Japanese military tradition was not lost on them. One man left the team; for the rest of them, it was all or nothing.
It took the team a few years to come up with a prototype that fulfilled all of their twelve requirements. Even so, they had one major obstacle left to overcome. Sony had developed an impressive home VCR prototype of their own. It was called Beta, and as of 1974, it was much closer to market readiness than JVC’s Video Home System.
That year, Sony officials called another summit. This time it was to show their competitors the new Beta machine. Shiraishi and Takano attended the gathering with some trepidation. What if all their efforts were for naught? With their own VCR still eighteen months from production, the two men had to consider the possibility of defeat. They had to consider whether they should compete directly with Sony, or follow their lead and produce Beta products themselves.
Sony’s presentation showed the two men that Beta could fulfill many of the twelve requirements that JVC spelled out for their own VCR. In many ways, Sony’s product was superior to their own. But as they learned of Beta’s features, one in particular stood out.
One-hour tapes. Beta would use one-hour tapes.
The initial production run of Sony’s new machine wouldn’t have the ability to record a feature-length movie on a single tape. Shiraishi and Takano had their angle; JVC would exploit this chink in their opponent’s armor to great advantage in the years to come.
We all know what happened next. There was a long and bitter war waged between the two formats in the late 1970s. By 1980, the Video Home System (VHS) surpassed Beta in units sold. And by 1985, more than 80 percent of the world’s VCRs used VHS technology.
More Production Tools, Please
By 1986, among the developed countries of the world, home VCRs had become almost as common as 33 1/3 rpm record players. But VCRs weren’t the only way people were using video in the home. A few years previous, a new factor had been thrown into the world video mix: the camcorder.
With the growth of the consumer camcorder industry, the face of home video began to change. Now, people didn’t just want to watch videos; they wanted to make their own.
But when those thousands of new camcorder owners bought their first camcorder and started taping, one thing soon became clear: you had to edit your videos if you wanted a decent end product. Sure, you could hook your VCR to the camcorder and edit that way. But wouldn’t it be nice if you, as a consumer, had access to the same type of equipment that the pros used to make video?
Mark Haun, a young California entrepreneur, wondered the same thing. As of 1986, he had already seen the wide range of capabilities that the home VCR possessed. He and his partner, Michael D’Addio, started a company that made use of the VCR for a non-video application–computer hard drive backup onto videotape.
But Mark wanted a device that would help him to easily edit his videos. Tinkering in his garage, Mark had pulled apart a few old Panasonic VCRs and put together a device that he used to edit videos of his children. This showed him two things: the need for such a device, and the ease with which it could be manufactured.
Mark and Michael, seeing the untapped potential for a consumer video editing product, decided to create Videonics, a company that would fill this niche in the market.
But what would their first product be? Mark’s garage tinkerings eventually provided the answer: the Direct-Ed.
Direct-Ed: It Works
"It’s amazing that the Direct-Ed works at all," quipped one reviewer in response to the new product. His point was not so much that the Direct-Ed lacked in quality; he was referring to the fledgling company’s attempt to put everything a home video editor would want into one small box.
Mark Haun himself agrees with the comments of the reviewer. "Our early problems were of our own making. We were trying to do too much with one product. It was computer-controlled, and it required custom chips and software to make it work."
In spite of this, the Direct-Ed sold 100,000 copies. Not a smashing success, but respectable for a small company’s first sojourn in the world of consumer electronics.
In those early days, Mark and Michael experienced many of the typical problems that young companies go through when they’re first starting up. Mark recalls some very frustrating times in the product development process. "We always enjoyed it, though. It’s kind of like having a baby. When you’re in the middle of it, you swear you’ll never do it again."
For a few years, the company struggled along as most new companies do. They needed a product that would really start the ball rolling and provide them with some revenue. As it turned out, that product wasn’t an editor; it was a titler. The TitleMaker 1 took Videonics from a barely-successful company to a smash hit. What were the secrets of its success? "Elegance and raw functionality," says Mark.
Another reason for its success was the changing face of consumer video. A brand-new category of videomaker was in the process of being born, one that straddled the line between professional and consumer: the prosumer. These videomakers didn’t just want to tape their kids with their camcorder–they wanted to make some extra cash shooting weddings, legal depositions and anything else people wanted to pay them for.
But most of them couldn’t afford the high-end gear that the pros used. Sure, as the prosumers’ business grew, they could certainly use a switcher and/or a special effects generator. But who would make a decent product at a price the typical prosumer could afford?
Videonics again saw the need and filled it with the MX-1 audio/video mixer. Here was what many prosumers were waiting for: a quality switcher, SEG and mixer that consumers and prosumers could buy for less than the average price of a Hi8 camcorder.
What has been the result of Videonics’ success? Those products that were once only available to the pros are now commonly available at consumer prices. The tools that videomakers use to enhance their product–both professionally and personally–have become commonplace. And although these products come from many different manufacturers in today’s market, there was once a time when the consumer videomaker had only a camera and videotape to work with. That’s all changed now, due in large part to the efforts of Videonics.
The DTV Revolution
Mark Haun isn’t the only entrepreneur who has dreamed about placing more power in the hands of consumer videomakers. Tim Jenison also remembers the days when videotape editing was the sole province of the professional, and video hobbyists (like himself) could only dream of low-cost editing gear.
For Tim, this was a time when the cam (video camera) was still separate from the corder (videotape recorder). It was also a time when IBM computers boasted four-color graphics and the Mac was an inscrutable little sealed box. Home computers didn’t offer much help for the videomaker back then. Sure, they could control decks and help you with scriptwriting or other menial text-based tasks. They just didn’t have the hardware muscle to do any decent manipulation of video images.
This didn’t stop Tim from developing his earliest software product in 1979, a home computer-based character generator. Still, he dreamed of a time when the home computer and the home video camera would merge.
Then, in the early 1980s, a product was developed that would provide Tim with a vehicle for his computer/video ideas. Commodore came out with the Amiga, a home computer that supported thousands of colors and put out an NTSC signal without any extra hardware (something that most Macs and PCs still won’t do). Nonetheless, it would still be a few years before anyone would exploit the capabilities of the Amiga for videomaking.
Why did Commodore make the Amiga with such a great graphics capability? Because they originally envisioned it as a high-powered game playing machine. They wanted users to be able to connect it directly to their TV, just like the popular Nintendo or Atari machines of the day.
Tim remembers reading about the Amiga’s video capabilities before it was released to the public. Seeing the machine’s potential as a videomaking device, he not only got himself on a list to be one of the first Amiga owners anywhere; he dropped everything he was doing and founded his desktop video company, NewTek.
White, Wheat or Rye?
NewTek’s first product, the DigiView still-frame video digitizer, was a smash success. In its day, it was the biggest selling video digitizer for any computer platform. In fact, it was one of the only consumer products that was capable of capturing a true color full-screen digital image.
According to Tim, the success of the DigiView brought a community of graphic artists and videomakers to the Amiga platform. But even though his first product was a huge success, he still dreamed of providing videomakers with something better. He wanted to develop a product that would combine many videomaking functions–switching, 3D animation, editing, etc.–in a single, easy-to-use package.
As originally conceived, the Video Toaster–as it came to be called–was primarily a digital nonlinear editor, with all of the other goodies thrown in for good measure. But as it turned out, the hard disk storage capacity for digital video was not readily available for the product’s initial release. The company’s solution was to simply ship the Toaster with the features they had already developed, and add the nonlinear editing capabilities as hard drive prices fell.
And so the first version of the Video Toaster was born, a combination switcher, 3D animator, paint and special effects unit. Even though it didn’t do all that Tim originally hoped it would, it was an immediate success. Local television stations used it as a low-cost, high quality switcher; prosumer videomakers used it to add stunning titles and graphics to their programs; a few Hollywood television producers even used its 3D animation package, LightWave, for special effects.
But perhaps the most important thing the Toaster did for the videomaker is this: it got the word out about desktop video. Perhaps more so than any other product, it let the world know what a great team the home computer and the home video camera could be.
Hoping to capitalize on the success of the Toaster, a flood of desktop video products hit the market in the early 1990s. At the same time, the IBM PC clone and Macintosh computer platforms became more video-friendly than they ever were before. While this is certainly not solely due to the invention of the Video Toaster, one must wonder how different the market would be if Tim Jenison and NewTek had never existed.
Of course, this article doesn’t pretend to cover all of the important men and women whose innovative products have influenced the videomaking world. Such a work would fill many volumes, and would have to be updated almost daily.
At present, new innovations in video are arriving at a staggering rate. It seems like every time we turn around, there’s some new development that promises to change the way we use our camcorders. Digital videocassettes, MPEG, video dialtone and a host of other innovations promise to make the next few years very interesting times for videomakers.
To the ancient Chinese, the phrase "may you live in interesting times" was considered a curse. To the videomaker in this day and age, it often seems more of a blessing. Perhaps if the ancient Chinese had video cameras, they’d have seen things differently.
Where Are They Now?
Yuma Shiraishi and Shizuo Takano still work for JVC. Takano is now senior managing director of JVC’s video products division.
Mark Haun and Michael D’Addio continue to bring professional-quality video products down to the consumer’s price level. One of their latest releases is the Video Palette, an all-in-one TBC, video analyzer, processor, enhancer, special effects generator and color corrector.
Mark continues to dream about the future of videomaking. When asked about the coming age of digital video, he had this to say: "As we wait for the bandwidth for video over the net, what can entrepreneurs do?"
Tim Jenison and NewTek have recently announced their latest product, the Toaster for Windows, which will include the Toaster Flyer nonlinear editing interface.
As for the future, Tim foresees a DTV market that continues to grow and offer more power to the consumer videomaker. "The thing I love about this business is that the raw materials we work with get faster and cheaper every year. There’s no other industry like it."