Nowadays, we take for granted much
of the technology we find in our camcorders. CCD chips, edit-control
protocols and flying erase heads have greatly expanded our capabilities
as consumer videographers and video editors. These features once
were available only on very expensive camcorders. Where did all
of these advances in video technology come from? Did the consumer
electronics wizards just dream them up out of nowhere to sell
Not exactly. In most cases, these
advances already existed in the world of professional videography.
As consumer videographers became more savvy, they began to demand
more control over their videomaking. In response, manufacturers
simply borrowed the technology from their professional-level equipment,
and gave it to consumers–but only in small doses over several
What follows is a historical survey
of the various video technologies that have trickled down to us
from the professional realm, beginning with the camcorder itself
and ending with a look at DV and the future of video. Along the
way, we’ll try to examine why it sometimes takes so long for manufacturers
to provide key technologies, and why some will probably never
make it into the consumer market.
1982: The First Camcorders
Before camcorders, videographers
(professional and consumer) had to record with an expensive two-piece
setup–a camera and a (somewhat) portable VCR. This limited mobility
and convenience, factors which impeded the growth of the consumer
videomaking industry. The trend, at first, was toward greater
portability in the VCR portion of the system. This led to a preference
for the smaller tape formats like Beta and Matsushita’s 1/2-inch
M format, both of which were available to consumers in what we’d
now consider to be expensive and unwieldy systems.
Then, at the National Association
of Broadcasters (NAB) show in the spring of 1982, Matsushita (parent
company of Panasonic) showed a small M-format VCR attached to
an RCA camera–the first professional camcorder. The unit was
small enough to rest on your shoulder, and included a "dockable"
(removable) VCR unit that you could replace when it wore out or
became obsolete. The optical pickup mechanism was a single Saticon
tube, a device which cameras had used for years.
In the fall of the same year, Sony
countered with their first Betacam, the BVW-1. The Betacam used
a dockable recording mechanism and a tube-type image pickup. The
following year, Sony’s BVW-3 Betacam offered a three-tube configuration
for better color reproduction.
Manufacturers made these three early
models for professionals. They had a startling impact on the electronic
news-gathering (ENG) field, reducing the number of personnel necessary
for a remote video shoot from four or five to just two: cameraman
and reporter. There were, however, no consumer camcorders available
for the first year or so of the device’s existence.
Then, two consumer camcorder formats
battled for the public’s attention: Sony’s BetaMovie and JVC’s
VideoMovie. Both used half-inch videotape, and both represented
the first big shift of technology from the professional video
industry to the budding consumer-videography market. By 1983,
total camcorders sold topped 400,000 units. And in 1984, Kodak
released the first 8mm camcorder, which Matsushita manufactured.
Soon thereafter in 1985, Sony made a big splash in the 8mm camcorder
market, embracing the format as the best alternative to JVC’s
compact VHS-C camcorders. Only three years into the industry,
the battle lines were clearly drawn.
A Chip Off the Old Block
Also in 1985, a new way of capturing
light and converting it into electrical energy, the CCD (charge
coupled device) chip, made its debut. Initially conceived as a
way to make the camcorder smaller, the CCD had the added benefits
of greater stability, durability and resolution than its predecessors.
(See "The CCD: A Tiny Miracle" in the January issue.)
In the professional realm, CCD-based
camcorders caught on quite rapidly, due in large part to the decrease
in size and weight and the increase in picture quality. But in
consumer camcorders, tube-based video pickup systems were still
quite common for a number of years, even as late as 1990. Why
did it take so long for the consumer manufacturers to catch up
with the technology?
Big Numbers and Dirty Tricks
In part, this slow trickle-down of
technology is due to economies of scale. In other words, the number
of professional camcorders sold in a year is only a small fraction
of the total sold to consumers. To gear up factory production
for 5,000 professional units is one thing; gearing up for millions
of consumers is something else altogether.
This is, however, only half of the
story. In the international game of consumer-electronics marketing,
there are a few common tactics employed by all manufacturers.
The goal of these tactics is to glean every possible penny from
consumers when a new technology is introduced. Consider: if the
latest thing in video technology is the CCD pickup, and the manufacturers
immediately put a CCD in every camcorder they produce, what have
they gained, in terms of market share? Sure, they might gain converts
away from those manufacturers who don’t have CCDs in their camcorders
yet, but they could accomplish the same thing by incorporating
the new technology in only one or two higher-priced units. This
has become a recurring theme in every aspect of the consumer electronics
market, from televisions and radios to home-theater systems and
For the consumer camcorder industry’s
first five years, editing was an afterthought. It was, at best,
the process of copying selected footage from a source VCR or camcorder
to a record VCR, and perhaps adding titles or an extra audio track
along the way. The most common type of edit control? Two index
fingers, practiced in the art of hitting the play, record and
pause buttons at precisely the right moments.
Professional video editors had the
luxury of sophisticated systems that could perform a series of
pre-programmed edits. Through large panels of buttons and switches,
you could program these systems and tell them what to do. "Okay,
player deck: rewind to the beginning of the tape; then play the
scene that starts exactly at one minute, three seconds and five
frames. Record deck: start recording at precisely that point,
and stop when the player deck gets to one minute, twenty seconds
and twelve frames," and so on.
These edit-control systems seemed
intimidating at first, but they could make the job easier once
you learned how they worked. In order for them to operate, you
had to use expensive VCRs that had the ability to accept commands
from a special kind of wired remote–the edit controller. For
the first five years of the consumer camcorder industry, the only
way you could get a professional edit of your consumer tapes was
to take them to an edit bureau, where they would copy the material
to a professional format for editing on their expensive systems.
In 1987, the consumer camcorder
industry was toying with inexpensive ways to make the two-button
technique of consumer video editing easier. It wasn’t as though
the technical problem was a difficult one. Why not simply attach
a wire between the camcorder and the VCR that makes both pause
buttons release at the same time, when you only press one of them?
In this way, one of the first consumer editing protocols, Sony’s
Control-S, was born. (A protocol is a standardized method used
by machines to transfer information from one device to another.)
Not long thereafter, camcorders and VCRs began appearing with
Control-L and Panasonic 5-pin connectors, and it became possible
to transmit fast forward, rewind, frame advance, record, play
and other commands from a wired remote. No sooner had these standard
interfaces become available than a number of small companies–Videonics
and FutureVideo among them–began making edit controllers that
would take command of these new consumer devices.
At the same time, the big manufacturers
were looking for ways to expand the camcorder market. The industry
as a whole was booming, but it was also fiercely competitive.
What direction would the market take when most of the potential
weekend video hobbyists already owned a camcorder? The answer:
to a wedding–or a bar mitzvah, or perhaps even a high-school
soccer game. In a word, the industry went "prosumer."
The Quest for Accuracy
From the very beginning of the consumer
video market, there have been people who made use of their consumer
video gear to make an extra buck. Problem was, the early consumer
gear wasn’t up to the challenge at first, and the video quality–as
well as the bottom line of these early businesses–suffered.
As more and more consumers began
to use their equipment professionally, the manufacturers’ consumer
divisions met some of their prosumer concerns. We’ve already seen
the development of the consumer edit-control protocols (Control-S,
Control-L and Panasonic 5-pin); however, a few more steps were
needed before the prosumer videographer could truly lay claim
to the more advanced systems that professionals took for granted.
For one thing, the new consumer
editing devices were only as accurate as the decks they controlled.
Most VCRs and camcorders of the mid-1980s used very crude systems
to keep count of a tape’s elapsed time, usually in hours, minutes
and seconds. This system was very inaccurate, offering edits that
were difficult to keep within a second or two of the planned in
or out point. Then, the real-time counter offered a slight advance,
but consumer gear still couldn’t achieve the zero-frame accuracy
that the pros made regular use of.
Of Time Code and Lenses
How did the pros do it? With a little
bit of technology called time code. Time code is a system of writing
a specific address for each frame of video directly on the tape
itself. A time-code counter number is easy to recognize; if it
includes hours, minutes, seconds and frames, it’s probably time
code (see figure 1).
With time code, you can do many
things that you can’t do otherwise: you can make a quick series
of choppy, five-frame edits in a video program; you can start
or stop recording your video exactly where you want; and you can
eliminate the tedious process of re-recording an edit each time
the VCR starts recording a little bit early or late. This is why
the prosumers wanted time code so badly; if they could purchase
an inexpensive VCR and/or camcorder that used time code, they
would be able to perform accurate edits without shelling out big
cash for the stuff the pros used.
The first consumer camcorders that
employed time code were European VHS units. Over on the other
side of the Atlantic, video enthusiasts enjoyed the use of vertical
interval time code (VITC) as early as the late 1980s–even on
inexpensive VHS-C units. Over here, prosumers were doing all they
could to tweak their existing gear for time-code use. Small electronics
companies began offering time-code generators that would record
time code onto the linear audio track of your VCR. Still, time
code was clearly something that the manufacturers had decided
to offer other consumers in the world, but hold back from the
U.S. market. (To this day, no manufacturer’s consumer division
offers a VHS camcorder with time code in the U.S.)
Then, in the early ’90s, Sony introduced
its first U.S. camcorder with Rewritable Consumer Time Code (RCTC),
the Hi8 CCD-V801. Immediately afterward, it did a strange thing:
it withdrew the camcorder from the market. The company released
a similar breakthrough product in 1993, the CCD-VX3. Along with
RCTC, it had another crucial feature that the pros take for granted:
three CCD chips, instead of one, to improve the color reproduction
of the images it recorded. To this day, Sony’s consumer division
hasn’t released any other three-chip 8mm-family models, and only
a handful of camcorders have incorporated RC time code since its
A similar development occurred in
1991, when Matsushita, Canon, Sony and Hitachi agreed to develop
a standard for removable lenses on consumer camcorders (the VL-mount
system). Here was a way for home videographers to enjoy the same
flexibility that home photographers had in their 35mm film cameras.
Unfortunately, only two companies–Sony and Canon–have ever released
a model that used the VL-Mount system, and the one VL-mount camcorder
that was still available in early 1997 is no longer being manufactured
(the Canon L2).
What gives? There’s clearly a benefit
to having these systems available to consumers. What sort of games
are the consumer-electronics giants playing with us?
The answer lies in the word prosumer
itself: an unwelcome blending of the worlds of the consumer and
The Perfect Camcorder You Can’t
For almost a decade, the technology
has been in place to produce a low-cost, consumer three-chip camcorder
with removable lenses and time code. Yet no such beast has ever
seen the light of day, nor is likely to anytime soon.
The reasons for these developments
in the industry are complicated, and not easily explained. There
are, however, a few basic truths we can attest to; truths which
shed light on the situation:
- Professional gear is expensive,
largely because those who purchase it have deep pockets.
- Consumer gear is inexpensive,
because consumers don’t have deep pockets.
- If inexpensive consumer gear can
perform the same functions as the professional gear, what’s to
stop the pros from buying the inexpensive stuff?
Also at work are those same economies
of scale we discussed at the beginning of the article. In short:
if a company has a choice between selling one million $400 camcorders
or ten thousand $2500 models, which course do you think it is
more likely to pursue?
This, in a large part, explains
why the trickle-down of professional technology to the consumer
realm is just a trickle, and not a torrent. There are other factors,
to be sure–factors like consumer apathy, the corporate structure
of America’s electronics-distribution system, and others.
Our purpose here isn’t necessarily
to bash the manufacturers for not doing what we want them to do;
in the long run, they’ll always try to do what’s in their best
interest. They should, in fact, be commended for bringing a number
of important developments to market–the most recent of which
is DV, the exciting new digital format that’s making waves among
DV certainly offers much of what
professionals want in a camcorder format: great resolution, little
generation loss, easy interface with nonlinear systems, etc. But
if you’re in the market for a low-cost, three-chip, zero-frame-accurate
DV camcorder with removable lenses, chances are you’ll be in for
a long wait.
Joe McCleskey is Videomaker’s technical
Timeline of Important Camcorder Developments
- First camcorder shown at NAB
(National Association of Broadcasters) convention
- 400,000 camcorders sold worldwide
- 8mm format first developed by consortium
- 8mm format first developed by consortium
- Kodak releases first 8mm camcorder
- Invention of the CCD image sensor
- Control-S, Control-L and Panasonic
5-pin edit protocols developed
- Videonics and FutureVideo offer
consumer-priced edit controllers
- Videonics and FutureVideo offer
- First Hi8 camcorder (Sony CCD-V99)
- Debut of America’s Funniest
- 10 million camcorders sold worldwide
- First RCTC camcorder (Sony CCD-V801)
- First camcorder with V-Mount
lens (Canon’s L1)
- Panasonic’s WJ-AVE5, the first
- Panasonic’s WJ-AVE5, the first
- Sony and Panasonic offer 3-chip
- Sony and Panasonic race to release
the first DV camcorders
- Pocket-sized DV camcorders introduced
(JVC and Sony)
- Release of Sony’s DHR-1000 DV