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VHSTORY -- HOME TAPING COMES OF AGE

 

STANDFIRST

The first VHS VCR was launched 21 years ago this Autumn. Rick Maybury -- no spring chicken himself -- remembers it well and charts the history of the world’s most successful home video recording system

 

COPY

A little piece of consumer electronics history was made on September 7th 1976 in the conference room at the Okura Hotel in Tokyo. A group of JVC executives nervously unveiled the very first VHS video recorder, and with good reason. Just a few months earlier Sony had begun selling their Betamax VCRs in and JVC had been under pressure from the Japanese Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) to abandon VHS and back Betamax, rather than engage in a damaging format war. VHS made it against all the odds; it was in trouble almost from day one and almost didn’t make it on several occasions.

 

The VHS story began after the launch of the U-Matic industrial and broadcast video recording system in 1969. In a rare display of co-operation the U-Matic specification had been agreed up on by Sony Matsushita and JVC. Buoyed by their success with U-Matic the three companies turned their attention to developing a home video recording system.  At that time the only domestic video cassette recorders were made by Philips, however they were expensive, unreliable and sold in relatively small numbers.

 

Sony elected to develop a compact version of U-Matic, using a half-inch wide tape and the same type of loading system as its bigger brother. This led quickly to Betamax, and after a relatively short period of development it went into production in 1975. In the early 1970’s Matsushita began work on their cassette system, which they called XV. It was dogged by technical difficulties and never progressed much further than the prototype stage. JVC also decided to go their own way and start from scratch. They set up a small development team under the direction of Kenjiro Takayanagi and led by senior engineers Yuma Shiraishi and Shizuo Takano. Twenty years earlier Takayanagi had brought Takano and Shiraishi together to work on video recording systems and in 1959 they had overseen development the KV-1, the world’s first twin head helical scan video recorder, the granddaddy of all of today’s VCRs. 

 

The team’s first job was to work out the basic specifications for their system; this came together in a historic document called the VHS Development Matrix. Incidentally, officially VHS stands for Video Home System, though rumours persist that it originally stood for video helical scan, but JVC PR people concluded that it was a bit too teccy for public taste.

 

The Development Matrix set out twelve objectives. They all seem pretty obvious now but a quarter of a century ago it was considered quite radical. It listed five key features the system must have: the equipment had to be compatible with any ordinary TV; picture quality must be similar to a normal off-air broadcast; it must have at least a 2-hour recording capacity; tapes must be interchangeable between machines, and it should be versatile, which appears to imply that it should be able to tape TV programmes, and be used with a video camera. They identified six key consumer and manufacturing requirements: players should be affordable, easy to operate and have low maintenance costs. It must be capable of being produced in high volumes, parts must be interchangeable, and decks must be easy to service. Lastly, and unusually for 1971, JVC considered the social implications of a new technology, recognising the role it would have to play in what they dubbed the ‘information society’.

 

Soon after the matrix had been finished senior management at JVC had an unexpected change of heart. Budgets were cut, the project was shelved and most of the team disbanded, but Shirashi and what was left of his group decided to continue their work in secret. They built a series of development machines -- the first one was completed in 1973 -- and the current specification was more or less fixed by the fourth prototype. The project gained an important ally following a visit to the company’s Video Projects Division by Konosuke Matsushita, the Chairman of JVC’s parent company Matsushita in 1973. He was impressed by what he saw and his support proved vital. At the time he was considering approaches from Sony and was thinking about backing Betamax.

 

During 1974 the VHS team had the opportunity to see a prototype Betamax video recorder, which was due to go into production the following year. They were surprised to discover that it was a lot larger than their own prototype, and it could only record for one hour, half as long as their own machine. Sony repeated their offer to JVC to join with them and develop Betamax, but the team now had even more confidence in their system and the decision to continue was taken.

 

The future success of VHS was by no means a foregone conclusion. Betamax wasn’t the only home video recording system JVC had to worry about. By 1974 BASF had demonstrated a fixed head video recording system called LVR (longitudinal video recording). Meanwhile, Philips and Grundig had updated their VCR format with increased recording times and improve reliability, furthermore work had started on the Philips V2000 system, which offered substantially longer playing times and better picture quality using double-sided cassettes.

 

Even after the launch things didn’t go smoothly. Sales were initially quite good but within a few months they had fallen back and once again the format’s future was on the line. The development team’s unshakeable faith in their system encouraged JVC to continue and a successful launch in the US in 1977 gave the format sufficient momentum for JVC to tackle the tricky European market.

 

The first PAL VHS video recorder was the JVC-3320. Sales were quite slow in Germany and Holland due to the dominance of the home brands (Philips and Grundig) but it was a different story in the UK. Sony had started to make a small impression with Betamax but the public regarded video recorders as unreliable, expensive to repair, and liable to become obsolete if one of the competing formats failed.

 

The most important feature of the UK market was an early alliance between JVC and Thorn, who owned the Ferguson brand and several high-street TV rental chains. Thorn had been courted by Philips, in an attempt to win them over to the V2000 system, which was still on the drawing board, but their offer was simply to badge-engineer Philips machines. JVC on the other hand were happy to supply cosmetically distinctive machines to Thorn and various other companies, thus making the choice of machines appear much larger than it actually was.

 

The VCR rental market thrived, spurred on by the emergence of pre-recorded tapes. VHS also became the format of choice for early video pornographers. Indeed, the availability of smutty films and pirate movies on VHS did much to boost the format’s popularity in those early days. It took the law several years to catch up with video recording technology.  

 

By 1981 the format battle was in full swing, but VHS has begun to establish a commanding lead, at least as far as numbers of brands were concerned. In the Betamax camp there were Sony, Sanyo, Toshiba and NEC. VHS on the other hand included Akai, Ferguson, GEC Hitachi, JVC, Mitsubishi, Nordmende, Panasonic, Sharp and Telefunken. By that time the V2000 system had been launched and the line-up included Philips, Pye, Grundig and ITT.

 

Technical developments flowed thick and fast during the early 1980s. AV performance of VHS and Beta both improved dramatically. Betamax picture quality was widely reckoned to be superior to VHS, though the actual differences were very small indeed and better VHS tape formulations closed the gap entirely. New features appeared almost simultaneously on VHS and Beta. They included  picture search and steady still frame, infra-red remote controls.  Then came lightweight portable, battery-powered decks. The first models with stereo hi-fi sound and half-speed or LP recording facilities were launched in 1983. Compact VHS-C decks and tapes arrived in 1982 heralding smaller portable decks, and not long after camcorders. Sony’s response was the Betamax camcorder or Betamovie. It was a record-only system, crude by comparison with JVC’s elegant Videomovie machines. For the first time Betamax seemed at a disadvantage. Rather than develop the format for portable applications Sony were working on an entirely new sub-compact format called 8mm, but from the outside it looked as though only JVC and VHS had all the answers.

 

At the back end of 1983 the market began to show the first signs of polarisation towards VHS. ITT abandoned V2000 and went over to VHS. The first high-profile Betamax defector was Toshiba, who gave up with Betamax in the Summer of 1984, and in September they were joined by Philips-owned Pye. Philips introduced their own range of VHS machines in early 1985, with Grundig following by the Autumn. Sanyo struggled with Beta until early 1985, even though their Fisher subsidiary had started selling VHS machines six months previously. That effectively left Sony isolated.

 

They finally bowed to the inevitable and launched their first VHS video recorder in mid 1988. Sony made it clear they were not ditching the Betamax, and went on to launch a high-performance ‘HD Beta’ variant.  Indeed, to this day you can still get Betamax machines on special order. Betamax lingered a little longer in the US and the format lives on in the broadcast arena, but it was effectively the end of an era.  

 

HD Beta was Sony’s last attempt to revive the format’s struggling fortunes. It coincided with a similar development from JVC, who devised the Super VHS system. The first Super VHS VCRs were launched in Japan in 1987 amid much optimistic talk, that it would take VHS into the next decade and beyond. Technically it was most impressive, unfortunately it failed on two counts. The best results could only be obtained on TVs fitted with specialised S-Video input socketry. Very few sets had this facility ten years ago -- even now only about half of today’s new TV have it -- and improvements in picture quality were not that easy to spot on off-air recordings. It may just have succeeded if there had been any pre-recorded movies but hardware sales never came anywhere close to achieving the critical mass need by the film duplication companies. S-VHS is still with us, but it remains a niche product, appealing mostly to owners of high-band camcorders, who use S-VHS equipment for editing.

 

By the end of the 1980s and early 90’s improvements in video tape, deck manufacture and video processing had taken VHS to the limits of its performance capabilities. Manufacturers turned their attention to so-called added-value features, like simpler timers, and the inevitable gadgets. The story of video recorder timers could fill an entire book on its own, the quest to find a easier way to program a VCR timer has taken us down some very strange paths indeed. Suffice it say they continue to confound a lot of people, but they’re a whole lot better than some of the wacky and sometimes downright daft ideas we’ve had to put up with. 

 

The design and layout of video recorder has undergone some fairly fundamental changes in the past ten years too. Mid-mount decks started to appear in the late 1980s, though ironically that marked a return to the first generation ‘piano-key’ VCRs, which had centrally mounted tape carriers. JVC brought us the sideways deck mechanism in 1987, there was a brief flurry of interest in VCRs with digital effects systems at around the same time. At the press of a button the picture could be ‘pixellated’, ‘solarised’ or frozen, for no apparently good reason. A couple of decks also sported picture-in-picture displays, though again no-one could figure out why. Philips came up with a couple of crazy features in 1989. They included a VCR with a talking remote control handset, and one really bizarre machine with a LCD screen, built into the front panel.

 

Manufacturers have stopped trying to outdo each other with daft features but the scramble for market share continues. On-going price reductions on mid-market models has put the squeeze on cheaper mono machine and they’re now on the way out. Three-head mono VCRs have all but disappeared, leaving just 2-head budget machines and a handful of 4-head mono models (the extra heads give improved LP and trick-frame performance). NICAM machines are likely to account for more than 50% of all sales by the end of next year, there’s speculation that mono decks will have been dropped by most manufacturers within a couple of years.

   

The big question is how much longer can VHS survive, and what is going to replace it? There’s seems little doubt that VHS video recorders will be around for another ten years at least. The format is simply too well entrenched, and there’s too much software in circulation for it to disappear overnight. In any case it will take any new format at least that long to become fully established.

 

At the moment there are five possible contenders. Ready and available is DVC or digital video cassette. Developed by Sony for use in camcorders it has industry-wide support, though at the moment they’re the only ones to market a homedeck VCR. The DHR1000 costs around £3000 and it’s aimed at serious video movie makers. It makes one helluva home cinema machine too, it’s just a shame there’s no pre-recorded tapes. Also in production, though not yet available here, is D-VHS. Digital, (or ‘data’) VHS was primarily designed by JVC as a VCR for digital television. Currently it’s the only format capable of recording an uncompressed digital datastream from terrestrial or satellite transmitters. D-VHS video recorders are backwards compatible with ordinary VHS (and S-VHS) recordings, so it’s off to a good start. A recordable version of the DVD format has been developed. It’s more or less ready to go but manufacturers and the movie industry are reluctant to let it loose. They’re concerned about a range of issues, including copyright and piracy, and damaging their market shares for VHS equipment, while the format still has some life left in it. Waiting in the wings is a new fixed-head digital tape system developed by Philips. DigaMax bears a lot of similarities to the ill-fated DCC audio cassette system; it shares similar microchip tape head technology and tracks are recorded linearly; cassettes can hold up to seven hours worth of high-quality video.

 

It would be rash to make any predictions, but we reckon it’s worth putting ten bob on recordable DVD, assuming of course that it takes off. Tape-based systems suffer from three inherent drawbacks. They have many more moving parts to wear out, magnetic recordings are easily corrupted or erased, and tape has vastly slower access times, compared with disc-based systems. VHS is a real survivor and in spite of its limitations it’s going to be around a while longer, lets wish it a twenty-first and look forward to the silver anniversary in September 2001.

 

BOX OUTS

 

BOX COPY 1

FIVE CLASSIC VCRS

* JVC HR-7700, £720, 1981

The most advanced machine of its day with a motorised front loading deck mechanism, infra-red remote control, trick play and Dolby noise reduction. A real bargain for only £720...

 

* Sony C7, £630, 1980

A true classic, one of the first VCRs to have automatic tuning, infra-red remote control, trick play facilities and outstanding picture quality. It looked the business and they were built like brick outhouses

 

* Akai VS-12, £800, 1984

Not the first stereo hi-fi VCR but easily the best equipped. On screen displays and remote timer programming were a feature on Akai machine ten years before everyone else

 

* Panasonic NV-L28, £450, 1989

Another milestone VCR, this time the first VHS video recorder with NTSC playback on an ordinary PAL TV. Timeless good looks and video performance that would shame some of today’s mid-market machines

 

* Mitsubishi HS-B70, £1000, 1988

Unofficially the first PAL Super VHS VCR, it actually received a round of applause at a secret press preview in Japan... Superb picture and sound quality and loads of extras

 

BOX COPY 2

FIVE CURRENT CLASSICS

 

* JVC HR-J935, £450

A real breath of fresh air, JVC’s dynamic drum system is the first really new and useful playback feature we’ve seen in a long while. Now you can whizz though a movie in under half an hour, and not miss a thing!

 

* Philips VR-969, £800

At a time when it’s difficult to tell one VCR from another the VR-969 must rate as the most distinctive machine on the market with that analogue clock stuck in the middle of the front panel. It works really well too...

 

* Akai VS-G2DPL, £500

They’ve still got it! Akai have been major innovators over the years, and they’re still capable of a few surprises, like this sub-£500 home cinema machine with built-in Dolby Pro Logic decoder

 

* Panasonic HD-625, £400

No wacky features or gimmicks, just a good basic specification and top-notch AV performance and the kind of build quality that means it’ll still be earning its wages long after its contemporaries have bowed out at the local car boot sale

 

* Sony DHR-1000, £3000

The first and so far the only DVC video recorder. It has the lot, stunning good looks, AV performance to die for and an excellent range of editing facilities. The only thing it can’t do is play VHS tapes...

 

 

BOX COPY 3

THE TAPES THAT MADE IT POSSIBLE

You can’t talk about the history of VHS without mentioning developments in video tape. When the first VCRs appeared twenty one years ago the maximum running time was just two hours and at the time some doubt was expressed whether they could be extended. Within a year of launch the first 3-hour cassettes appeared and by the mid 1980’s thinner base films had allowed four hour E-240 tapes to be developed. In 1989 BASF announced a 5-hour tape; it eventually disappeared following concerns over performance and reliability on older machines.

 

Tape coatings, changes to the magnetic formulations and trick additives have had an enormous impact on tape performance over the years. The most noticeable changes has been the reduction in noise levels, brought about by the use of finer and more efficient magnetic particles. Tapes have become a lot more stable as well. Drop-out, caused by shedding of the magnetic layer has been dramatically reduced by the use of longer lasting coatings and binders.

 

Scotch were so confident about the quality and longevity of their tapes they offered a ‘Lifetime’ guarantee, that the rest of the industry were forced to follow. Better quality tape has also helped improve VCR reliability; tape head wear is reduced and there’s less contamination of the deck mechanism.

 

The arrival of stereo hi-fi VCRs in the late 1980’s brought with it a range of improvements in tape manufacture. Quality control procedures had to be tightened due to narrower tolerances, lubricants and new coatings were developed to reduce friction and Fuji introduced their now famous ‘double coating’, technology to maximise stereo recording quality.

 

BOX COPY 4

VHS TIMELINE

1971

JVC begin development work on home video recording system

 

1972

VHS Development Matrix sets out main features and specifications. Philips launch first domestic video cassette recorder (N1500) for £315, equivalent to more than £1800 today!

 

1973

First VHS prototypes built in secret

 

1974

JVC development team see prototype Betamax machine and conclude it is no threat

 

1975

JVC persuade Hitachi, Matsushita, Mitsubishi and Sharp to back VHS format. Betamax launched in Japan

 

1976

Japanese government international trade Ministry (MITI) ask JVC to drop VHS and join forces with Sony. September 9th, JVC launch HR-3300, the worlds first VHS video recorder at Okura Hotel in Tokyo

 

1977

VHS launched in US

 

1978

VHS and Betamax launched in Europe

 

1980

JVC HR-4100, first portable VHS system

 

1982

Sharp launch first VHS-C portable deck. Akai introduce on-screen displays and remote timer programming

 

1983

First VHS VCR with LP recording speed (Hitachi VT-17). First VCR with stereo hi-fi sound (Panasonic NV-850)

 

1984

First VHS-C camcorder (JVC GR-C1)

 

1985

Panasonic launch first full-size VHS camcorder (NV-M1)

 

1986

First LCD remote handset from Hitachi (VT-130). First unofficial NICAM stereo test transmission of Duke and Duchess of York’s marriage

 

1987

CTL index system introduced. VCRs with digital effects (still, mosaic, picture in picture) come, and go... Panasonic promote bar-code timer programming system, Grundig develop teletext timer. JVC launch first and only sideways loading VCR (HR-D740). Super VHS format launched in Japan.

 

1988

First S-VHS video recorders launched in Europe. Legislation to force VCR owners wipe tapes after 28 days proposed. NICAM stereo test transmissions begin in London, Yorkshire and S. Wales

 

1989

Panasonic launch first S-VHS camcorder and VCR with NTSC replay (NV-L28). Amstrad back bar-code programming system.

 

1990

JVC announce digital audio system for VHS. Amstrad launch Double Deck VCR, Sharp smash £400 price barrier for NICAM VCR

 

1991

Panasonic launch NV-W1 multi-standard VCR. Akai debut first VCR with built-in Dolby Surround decoder (VS-650).  Startext, the original name for PDC or programme delivery control test broadcasts begin. VCR Plus, (known as Video Plus+ in UK), launched in US

 

1992

VHS VCRs with digital sound launched in Japan. Video Plus+ timers built into VCRs. Sharp launch VCR with built-in satellite tuner (BS97HM)

 

1993

Samsung announce patent for A-VHS, for sharper clearer picture; it sinks without trace. Panasonic abandon bar-code programming. Specifications for DVC (digital video cassette) format announced. Philips launch voice operated VCR remote handset

 

1994 

JVC announce W-VHS high-definition recording system. Sanyo launch digital view-scan, audio buffering system that replays sound during picture search. Rival high-capacity optical digital video disc (DVD) systems announced by consortiums led by Toshiba and Sony with Philips

 

1995

JVC announce D-VHS format and demonstrate Dynamic Drum VCR. First DVC camcorders go on sale. Prototype solid-state digital camcorder shown by Hitachi.

DVD (now digital versatile disc) standards agreed

 

1996

First DVD machines go on sale in US and Japan by year’s end. Sony launch first DVC video recorder.

 

1997

DVD reaches Europe, D-VHS video recorders launched in Japan. Philips plan to launch DigaMax digital recording system in Europe

 

1998

First MPEG-2, broadcast quality digital tape and disc recording systems planned

 

1999

First recordable DVD decks

 

2000

US finally admits existence of Aliens, demonstrate captured extra-terrestrial video recording system. JVC claim it infringes their patents, Sony launch rival system...

 

---end---

Ó R. Maybury 1997 2508

 

 

 

 

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