Highlights from the 1995 Videomaker Expo: The Camcorder Panel Proceedings

Its 11 a.m. on April 27th, 1995; a multitude of videomakers and industry professionals have descended upon the Meadowlands convention center in Secaucus, New Jersey. The event is the 1995 Videomaker Expo–three days of displays, seminars and panel discussions, all on the topic of making video.

At this particular moment, one very important panel discussion is about to begin. Matt York, Videomakers publisher/editor, sits with nine representatives of the major players in the camcorder industry. The topic is one thats central to videomaking: the camcorder itself, the small, humble-looking device that brought the power of the moving image down to the consumers level.

Matt York: Its really a pleasure to be on the stage with this many people from the camcorder industry, both from the professional and the consumer side. I think its really great for the industry and for anyone out there whos involved to get a chance to listen to the wisdom from all these people.

Ill start with a question about the past. What trends have you spotted in camcorder design and use in the last five years?

Bob Ott: Well, on the business and professional side, the trend that we look at is Betacam SP and the three-chip camcorder. Weve also just recently introduced a one-piece camcorder system. Its not a trend in the three-chip Betacam realm, but if someone is looking for something lower-priced, then theyll like the one-piece system.

Matt York: So maybe the trend is more power for less money.

Bob Ott: Absolutely.

Matt York: Bill?

Bill Cubellis: I would say in terms of consumer video, the similar trend were seeing is the dropping of the price point for Hi8 products–the CCD TR100, for instance, which is at an all-time low price point for Hi8 camcorders. But again, on the consumer side, we see different needs. At Sony, weve been trying to make camcorders that are easier to use. Making the camcorder more fun to use and easier for the average consumer is a high priority. For example, theres the Vision series camcorder with the fold-out LCD. Its this sort of thing that were building into some of the camcorders to address ease of use. And, as I said, were also trying to bring the high quality of Hi8 down to a more reasonable price point.

Steve Abend: For the professional wedding videomaker, weve been reacting to many end-user requests. For instance, weve incorporated a manual zoom on the AG-456 S-VHS camcorder, a feature which many videomakers had asked for on the AG-455. We put a VITC generator for time code capability on the 456 to work with our higher-end VCRs. Weve seen many videographers moving up the scale to more professional goods, whereas before they might have bought consumer goods. Now, theyve already risen to the level of the AG-1970 S-VHS editing VCR and the AG-456 camcorder. Some wedding videographers are even starting out with Supercam-type equipment.

Bill Mannion: On the consumer side, weve seen three major trends: the move toward simplicity, the color viewfinder and digital image stabilization. All three of these have basically been introduced by Panasonic in the past few years or so. Weve also seen an increase in picture quality. So in answer to your question, ease of use and better performance for the money are the trends were seeing.

Jerry Cohen: Again, on the professional side, weve also seen a tendency of videomakers to move upscale into professional equipment. JVC really started that trend a few years ago when we introduced the first full-sized S-VHS camcorder at an affordable price. Since that time, others have joined in as well, which we certainly welcome. Now, more and more people are seeing the kind of result that you can get from a three-chip camcorder. I dont want to say its the norm that professional event videomakers are buying that equipment, but its becoming more and more popular.

Were also finding that since we first introduced that camera, most of the customers that were attracted to it were still familiar with consumer-type features and were looking for things like autofocus and video inputs. These are things that arent appropriate when youre working in a professional environment. What were finding is that the customer base is becoming much more educated and is understanding the reason why those features are not appropriate in the professional equipment. So its a rather healthy trend we tend to see continuing on into the future.

Ron Schrag: I would say design has been driven in two areas. One has been the reduction of size and the other has been the reduction of weight. Thats been made possible by a shrinking of the size of all the key components; if you look at the CCDs a couple of years ago, they were 2/3-inch black and white; now theyre only a quarter of an inch. The mechanisms for the decks have also been reduced in size, which allows you to reduce the overall size of the camcorder.

A big word in the last few years has been ergonomics. If you look at camcorders now, a lot more attention is paid to the handgrip, how the fingers are positioned, the total integration of the product and its use. If you look at camcorders several years ago, they have lots of little buttons. Now most of those function buttons have been taken off. Some of the features have become more transparent; for example, the auto exposure or AE dial that allows you to put a lot more features on a camcorder and yet reduce the button count.

Gary Vicari: Well, first on the consumer side, the industry has grown, and VHS full size has started to taper off in its total penetration. In its place, 8mm and VHS-C have begun to grow. So people are saying, "We want camcorders that are smaller. We want camcorders that are lighter." And, of course, as others have said on the panel, "We want camcorders that are easier to use." Whether its fewer buttons or on-screen displays, this is what were hearing from people that are looking at camcorders.

In the particular camcorders that Sharp produces, one of the trends weve identified and other manufacturers have now begun to participate in is the LCD screen category. And I think that we also hear a lot about the utility value of the camcorders. Once every couple of months, consumers pull it out of the closet and then go use it for an event and then it just sits there. So what were seeing, I think, is a public thats demanding additional uses for camcorders, whether they be tuner packs that can be added or other accessories that make the camcorder more a part of their lifestyle. Those are some of the trends that were really seeing nowadays.

Tom Mykietyn: On the industrial side, what weve seen is further embracement of Hi8 as a good solid format to be used for some of the industrial applications, particularly those that involve portable presentations. The advent of the LCD screen as part of the camcorder adds to the usefulness of the product. Now, its not only a camcorder, but also a portable presentation device for small group viewing.

Mike Zorich: Well, I was afraid that being the last up here, I would repeat a lot of what youve already heard. But from the viewpoint of Canon, there are a couple of trends in design and use that weve seen. I think in terms of design, theres no question that camcorders have become smaller and lighter and a little bit more intuitive. I think weve also seen a tremendous increase in the reliability of the automatic features like autofocus and autoexposure. So I think that has helped people create better video.

In terms of functional features on the camera, weve seen lenses grow dramatically. Five years ago, it was not common to see 12:1 or 15:1 zoom lenses on camcorders; they were very difficult to manufacture in miniature sizes. Here at the show, were debuting a new product which is the first 20:1 optical zoom lens in a compact Hi8 camcorder. So the ability to obtain a much stronger optical reach is much better than it was a few years ago.

In terms of usage, I also think that its very interesting to see the role that consumer products have played in the professional environment over the past five years. Im sure there are many of you in the audience today who would classify yourselves as professionals, meaning that you use the products that we represent today to make a living. Interestingly enough, despite the fact that most of you do in fact call yourselves professionals and we as manufacturers representatives refer to you as professionals, many of our products are still categorized as consumer. So theres a very fine line there that we see between what is in fact consumer and what is professional.

Matt York: What impact has low-cost consumer video had on our society, and/or on the individual within our society?

Mike Zorich: I think that a very natural response to this question is that it has provided us with more information, sometimes more than we have the ability to digest. Today, were seeing broadcast TV programs such as Americas Funniest Home Videos. We have examples such as the Rodney King incident that allows consumers to share more information with the world at large. I think that this can be both a good thing and a bad thing, but it gives us the ability to expose truth more effectively than weve ever been able to before. Due to the reduction in camcorder prices, more people than ever before are now capable of going out and visually telling a story. So I think in terms of the impact thats leaving on society, were capable of seeing a lot more and getting ourselves exposed to a lot more information than weve ever had the ability to see before.

Bill Mannion: I think were just at the very beginning of seeing the impact of camcorders on society in general. Yes, its improved family ties and given us memories, and yes, its improved communication, and were seeing history and eye-witness accounts of things weve never seen before on the news channels. But as the different channels of communication develop, like the ability to pass video information across computer networks, I think ultimately were going to see the camcorder in a completely different light. Its going to be an integral part of the house and the family. It will be connected to the computer and sending images back and forth. And I think thats where were going to see a very dramatic shift in the effect of camcorders on society.

Matt York: Consumer videomakers are starting to edit their videos in larger and larger numbers. Since editing is such a time-consuming task, where are people finding the time?

Ron Schrag: The experience that weve had in market research is that people seem to be money rich and time poor. You have dual-income households where the parents are involved in the kids activities, which doesnt leave a lot of time to sit down and edit. Usually, they tell us that after theyve attempted it once or twice, they stop.

Bob Ott: I tend to think that theres something interesting going on in the industry. Lets put it this way: ten years ago, you spent 300 or 400 dollars on a Canon still camera. Youd throw 35mm film in it that cost four dollars a roll, and you went out and processed it for seven dollars or so. Today, you buy a consumer camcorder for 700 dollars, you buy a tape for 10 dollars and you get two hours worth of family entertainment out of that.

The same things happening with computers. Computers are coming into the home now. Its true that theres not enough time for editing, but I find myself sitting at the computer for four and five hours at a stretch. So we tend to think that the consumer and the professional camcorder are definitely going to marry with computer technology. And at the other end, its all digital non-linear editing, so youre actually bringing the video into the computer disk and now youre starting to look at it on the icon-based level. And the prices of these products are coming down. Its not out of the question that two or three years from now, youll be able to walk into Computer City or Comp USA and see your Pentium 150 processor or your 686 processor. And what will be married to that is a non-linear editing system for video at a reasonable price. Consumers will start to buy them because theyll say "Hey, I spend two hours on the computer looking at whats on America Online; Ill spend the next two hours using my computer to edit that videotape we shot of the kids."

Matt York: What impact is the digital revolution having on videomaking?

Bill Cubellis: When we get to the point that we see things like digital video discs and other digital media on the consumer level, its going to have a high price tag. This technology is going to upper-level consumer products. And one of the things that is important to realize is that when youre doing real-time videotaping, you need to compress that video in real time, and thats why it requires tape. Tape has the ability to record an awful lot of information where for instance a MiniDisc or perhaps a floppy disk kind of format doesnt.

Steve Abend: A couple of weeks ago at the National Association of Broadcasters, we introduced Digital Video Cassette recorders and we got a tremendous reaction, but our market strategy and end-user strategy is that the innards will be sold to broadcasters first. As the technology becomes more affordable, well be selling it to the lower end, but we dont see that happening for several years.

Jerry Cohen: Getting things back to camcorders specifically, I think in the professional area we havent seen the real impact that someday in the future digital technology will have. Essentially, a camcorder is an analog device. We have light that comes into the lens, and the light, of course, is analog. The CCD is an analog device; it isnt a digital device, as many people think it is. There is a certain amount of digital signal processing that might go on inside the camera, but in the end, an analog signal is laid down to tape.

I think that in the future, as more things are done with digital signal processing in the professional area, this will allow us to improve the quality of the device. But to really be practical, to really be able to get two hours of high-quality recording at a reasonable price, tape has an awful lot going for it. And because it has so much going for it, and because it in turn gets better and better, then these other storage media have an even higher benchmark that they have to continue to shoot for. The bottom line is that the tape that we see today is going to be with us for several years, and its going to get better. Theres not going to be a revolution where suddenly everything becomes obsolete overnight.

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