Wednesday, 5 July 2006

The trouble with home video

I'm taking a detour from mobility this week to ask a question: Do you own a video camera?

If you have kids, like me, chances are you bought video camera before or soon after your first child was born, so you could preserve those precious childhood moments. Like me, you probably took dozens of hours of video in the first year – the little one smiling when her toes were tickled, the little one sucking on daddy's thumb, the little one spitting creamed carrots across the room.

Over the subsequent years, as you accumulated more and more tape – more than 100 hours of it in my case – you probably started to ask yourself an important question:

Why did I buy a video camera when I never watch the videos?

My video collection

Watching unedited home video is only slightly less tedious than watching old episodes of Mayberry RFD. The ratio of interesting sequences to boring ones is unpredictable, and it's impossible to remember which tape has that great clip when Uncle Jack's toupee caught fire. You spend hours searching and only minutes watching.

The usual answer to this is that you're supposed to digitize that video and edit it.


Video editing is probably the most unpleasant thing you can do with a computer (other than your taxes). It's slow, tedious, and difficult. For a while I thought the problem was just that I was using the wrong program, but now I've edited video on a PC and on a Mac. I've used iMovie and Pinnacle and Final Cut. I know how to work them all, and I can make pretty good videos with them. But the process of actually editing video using any tool is pure torture because the basic act of sorting through video and deciding what to do with it is tedious. There's no way to fix it.

To explain the seriousness of the problem, here's how I think editing home video compares to having dental work done:

Dental work: Sit in a comfortable chair and listen to your iPod.
Editing video: Sit in an uncomfortable chair and watch the same 30 seconds of video over and over while you try to set the in and out points correctly.

Dental work: Someone picks at your teeth with a sharp instrument, but at least you know roughly when it'll be over.
Editing video: That two-hour digitization session failed because you selected the wrong format. Start over.

Dental work: Before they drill, you get anesthesia.
Editing video: You feel every second of it.

Dental work: You like looking at your smile in a mirror.
Editing video: You never want to see any of your relatives again.

It makes you wonder why people keep buying video cameras. But hey, there's another baby born every minute.

So here I am with a drawer full of 8mm videotape, and my wife has ordered me to stop using the video camera because we never watch the tapes.

The answer: Don't edit the video

Because video editing itself is the problem, I think the only way to solve it is to find a way to make home video useful without any editing at all. One approach is to get software that does the editing for you, like Muvee. I haven't had a chance to try it, but my sense is that it's aimed more at creating a video from a particular event like a birthday party, rather than bringing to life a whole video archive, which is the thing I want to do.

I'd like to propose a different approach, which involves a new device I'll call a video frame.

The video frame is an LCD screen that you can put on a table or wall, just like a picture frame. Many of these devices already exist for electronic still pictures. They're called "digital frames," and they come from companies like Ceiva, Pacific Digital, and Philips. They generally cost $100-$200, and they can hold as many photos as you can put on a memory card.

Although many of these products can display video, the user has to do all the editing, and then put the video clips on a memory card that goes into the frame. That's no better than what we have today. What I want is a frame that doesn't require you to edit the video. You just plug the camera's S-video port into the video frame, hit play, and the whole tape is transferred into the frame's memory. You repeat the same process with another tape, and so on, until your whole video collection is in there. No editing, no reviewing, all you have to do is plug in a cable and hit Play repeatedly.

The video frame identifies the transitions between scenes and separates them (this a normal function for a lot of video software). Hang it on the wall, and it starts playing scenes from your video collection at random. The effect is like a random walk through family memories. You're walking down the hall one day and you'll see your son's third birthday party where he buried his face in the cake. The next day you'll see your dog when she was a puppy and climbed into the laundry basket. And so on.

Video collections sometimes accidentally include scenes that you don't want to see again – for example, I have video of my son getting hit by a pitch at a little league baseball game. I don't really need to see that again, and neither does he. So we'll have a "don't show this again" button on the side of the frame. Touch it when you see a scene that you don't like, and it'll be removed from the rotation. (The thing I like about this is that we still get the effect of edited video, but now it's a gradual process you do fairly painlessly, rather than a lengthy torture session.)

Video cameras today generally include time and date information with the video, so our frame could be set up to do some cool things – for example, you could set it to show video that matches the time of day in the real world. So you'd get sunset scenes at sunset, that sort of thing. Or you could have it match the season of the year, so you'd see lots of Christmas or Hanukkah video in December, but not in July.

I could picture video frames pre-loaded with environmental video. For example, how about random scenes of Tahiti? That would be great for soothing people in the waiting room of a doctor's office.

Cost is an issue

A video frame needs a processor capable of doing MPEG-4 compression on the fly, and a substantial hard drive to store the video. I'm not sure what that would cost today, but I'm certain the price will go down over time – both processors and disk storage are strongholds of Moore's Law. If this product isn't affordable already, it's just a matter of time until it is.

When I was between jobs last fall, I tried to talk this idea around to people in Silicon Valley. It actually got a much better reaction than the info pad note-taker idea I wrote about a few weeks ago. People understood the video frame concept immediately, and all of the ones who had home video cameras wanted it. Unfortunately, we also all agreed that there's probably very little a video frame that you could patent, and so there's little incentive for a startup to invest in it.

But it would be a great add-on product for a video camera company. So listen up: Sony, Matsushita, Canon, I want you to steal my idea. Please build me a video frame and I promise I'll go back to using my video camera. I might even buy a new one.

But until then, the camcorder stays in storage, and I'll concentrate on taking still photos that I can actually do something useful with.

No comments:

Post a Comment