TVs, Videos, Cameras

(Part of The Future: A Retrospective)


Smart TV

Smart TV
Odds 100%
Year 1993
Cost $1200/1989 ($2000/2007)

The "SmarTV" system described has the same features as Tivo ("a black box about the size of a 19-inch TV set"), except it runs on a jukebox of video tapes. See this 1989 CBR article and this 1989 NYT article, which dares to ask: "If millions plug into a TV system that eliminates commercials, who will pay for the programs they want to watch?"

There's a lot of information online about the SmarTV, or at least more than about most of these products. An internal technical memo from 1989 shows that the Metaview company eventually envisioned the technology being incorporated into VCRs, not sold as a standalone box. Here are a bunch more press clippings.

SmarTV was demoed at the 1990 CES. Press reports put its price varyingly at $3500/1990 and $6000/1989. I can't find any evidence that it was ever sold.

Post-VCR pre-Tivo, the only successful TV watching system I know of was VCR Plus+ (not to be confused with C++). This system lets you type in a numeric code (published in TV Guide) to record a certain program, instead of making you manipulate a complex interface that's different for every VCR. It's built into VCRs now, but it used to be a separate helper product with its own remote control (unless the thing I remember was a different product).

Today a Tivo unit costs about $250/2007.


High-Definition TV

High-Definition TV
Odds 100%
Year 1994
Cost $3000/1989 ($5000/2007)

The Future Stuff article describes HDTV pretty accurately: 16:9 aspect ratio, you'll have to buy a new TV, there are competing standards, etc.

As often happens, they got the timeline wrong. According to random webpage, HDTV sets were first sold in 1998, starting at $5000/1998 ($3700/1989, $6100/2007). But regular HDTV broadcasts only started in earnest a couple of years ago.

Most mid-range TVs on the market today can display HDTV signals (you still need a special tuner or cable box), at a cost of $300-$500/2007. Relatively few people watch HDTV.


Interactive Game Network

Interactive Game Network
Odds 100%
Year 1990
Cost Terminal: $300-$500/1989 ($500-$820/2007) for the terminal,
$120/1989 ($200/2007) annual fee, $1-$2/1989 ($1.50-$3/2007) per event.

Back when they turned descriptive phrases into company names, "The Interactive Game Network will allow viewers to play along without ever leaving their living rooms." It's a parallel signal broadcast alongside live events like sports games and game shows. Correctly predict what will happen often enough and you'll win a prize.

This is a pretty anemic kind of interactivity that was talked about a lot in the nineties but killed off by the Internet. A steady flow of prizes makes a poor substitute for the social interaction of message board bitching.

I also don't think they really thought the game show part through. Game shows are not broadcast live. They're syndicated filler that's broadcast at different times in different parts of the country. Plus, you can't play most game shows with the IGN's interface, a "control box" with which you can "choose answers or options by pressing buttons."

PS: I suspect instead of actual prizes, this would have worked on a point system. I further suspect this whole thing was not thought out very well, despite the "100%" probability which means that the product "exists in a form that can be marketed and sold."


Flat TV

Flat TV
Odds 90%
Year 1994
Cost N/A (??)

We get an accurate description of an LCD flat-panel TV "so slim it can hang on your wall like a picture." It's revealed that Sony sells a flat TV with a 2.7" screen for $650/1989 ($1100/2007), but there's no guess at the cost of a full-size TV.

Like HDTV, a pretty good prediction, though again the timeline is off. Flat-panel TVs started showing up in the late 90s at the very high end of the market, and today most new TVs are flat-screen LCDs. Not predicted: that the same technology would apply to computer monitors.


Video-on-the-go

Video-on-the-go
Odds 100%
Year 1990
Cost $1300/1989 ($2100/2007)

Not video on demand, but a portable video player. This one is the Sony GV-8 and it plays those little camcorder tapes.

The GV-8 was released in the US (it was already out in Japan when Future Stuff was published), and you can find old ones on eBay today. But this idea never caught on until the video iPod in 2005, and even now I'm not sure what the point is. "In the car, while taking public transportation, readying a meal in the kitchen, or lying in a hammock in the back yard" (Sony's Shinichi Takagi) are none of them places I want to watch video on a tiny screen.

The predicted applications are amusingly similar to predictions of the highbrow and business-oriented potential of other new media: "Sales-training tapes could be viewed minutes before an appointment and product demonstration videos could be shown to clients over lunch." Now that's wholesome! Thought experiment: imagine the world in which demonstration videos, not Powerpoint decks, became the accepted way of conveying information in a corporate setting.

There's also a proposal that magazine publishers could start doing video versions of their magazines. Aren't magazine publishers strapped for cash as it is without this huge new capital outlay? But Sony's Steve Hoechster claims that Japanese publishers did just this for the GV-8. However I don't think I trust anyone with the last name of "Hoechster".

This Infoworld article from early 2007, describing a new digital video Walkman, mentions the GV-8. Note that it gives the 1988 price of the Japanese GV-8 as $820/1988.

A video iPod costs $250/2007 ($150/1989). The new Walkman costs $350/2007, but it's not sold in the US yet.


Dial 'M' For Movies

Dial 'M' For Movies
Odds 20%
Year 1999
Cost N/A

Finally! Video! On! Demand! Not quite. Order videos over the phone and they're delivered to you over your phone line as you sleep. In a departure from normal Future Stuff predictology, the movies are delivered not to a specialized box but to "your computer". Admittedly, it's a specialized computer that "doubles as a TV," but they did envision the 1980s version of a computer expanding into a greater home role.

The name of the service is Advanced Broadcatching. "Broadcatching" is now a term for downloading audio and video made available through syndication feeds. That makes me think this term of art has been lying in wait for 20 years for someone to implement something similar to "order videos and they're delivered to you as you sleep."

It wasn't possible in 1999, but for the past couple years it's been possible to use neo-broadcatching to fulfill the Future Stuff dream of movies downloaded to your computer while you sleep. The problem is that the companies that distribute the movies aren't exactly buying in. "Those video rental stores" mentioned in Future Stuff are indeed hurting, but it's mainly because of the Netflix model, where you order videos over the phone (read: Web) and have them delivered to you through the mail. An interesting blend of accurate and missed predictions here.

"Steven Benton of the M.I.T. Media Lab" (who, according to the web, did seminal work on holography, and died a few years ago) is brought in to forecast the business implications. "[F]ree broadcasting as we know it will cease to exist and everything will become pay TV." Benton also seems to envision broadcatching techniques taking over movie distribution altogether, to the extent that movie premieres would not be glamorous semipublic events at movie theaters, but parties at the director's house or something. I'm not totally that's sure what he's saying so I'll just quote Future Stuff:

The movies available will include golden oldies, those just-seen-at-a-theater-near-you, and quite possibly brand-new films—even premieres. You could have the opening-night festivities right in your living room. "Should be great for champagne sales," says Benton.

I'm going to chalk this whole "premiere" thing up to a flight of fancy brought on by the conceptual jump from old films to recent films to new films.

Bonus: includes self-erasing movies that you can only watch once.


Desktop Video

Desktop Video
Odds 100%
Year 1990
Cost $1500/1989 ($2500/2006)

Desktop publishing sure was a blast. It made your stuff look good even if you didn't know what you were talking about. With desktop video, you'll be able to equal the technical skill of "most cable productions, with the same rolling, twisting, and turning of images, as well as dissolves, fades, 3-D animation, and chromakey..."

"Commodore has the computer system, and they call it the Amiga 500." Future Stuff barely missed the chance to predict the Video Toaster, which did come out in 1990 and became a cult hit. I originally thought this was talking about the Video Toaster, but that cost $1500/1990 on top of the $1500/1990 Amiga 2000. Maybe they only talked to people at Commodore, who weren't exactly forthcoming about third-party add-ons.

What ever the heck it's talking about, this entry conveys the excitement of DIY video editing well, and it talks about a product that actually arrived on schedule and made a noticeable impact.


3-D Home Video

3-D Home Video
Odds 100%
Year 1991
Cost $3800/1989 ($6200/2007)

"For over thirty years, 3-D has been little more than a fad and a lot less than a major entertainment technology." And so it remains. On the other hand, those 3-D "Magic Eye" puzzles were pretty popular in the '90s. I'm calling this a toss-up.

No, just kidding. This is a Toshiba camcorder with two lenses and I don't know what they were expecting, but it was a commercial failure. According to this page (w/picture), only 500 of the unwieldy devices were made, and they're still sought by filmmakers. A videocamera that takes 3-D images is kind of cool, but even in the 1980s I'd think the development of said camera would be mostly a corporate charity product and less something you'd do to make money.

The camera shoots to standard videotape, but you need a special player and one of those sets of 3-D shutter glasses where only one lens is open at a time. What do we have in this line today? Here's a $400/2007 add-on that makes any camcorder shoot in 3D. There's also The Easy, Cheap, Disposable 3D Camcorder, which is just two camcorders taped together.


Dual Deck VCR

Dual Deck VCR
Odds 90%
Year 1990
Cost $650/1989 ($1100/2006)

Cassette recorders (audio and video) were essential to the 80s and early-90s infovore. Dual-tape cassette recorders were common and let you dub one tape onto another or perform a primitive kind of editing. But with video casettes you couldn't even watch a video while recording a TV show.

Future Stuff's dual deck VCR does solve this problem, but so does having two VCRs. And $650/1989 doesn't sound like much less than the cost of two VCRs at the time. Indeed, I had two VCRs for many years, when I was collecting Mystery Science Theater 3000 episodes and "circulating the tapes", but I never saw or thought of buying a double-deck VCR.

GoVideo (né Go-Video) is still in business and still (I think) sells a double-deck VCR. Price is around $200/2007—about the cost of two cheap DVD/VCR players.


Talking VCR Remote Control

Talking VCR Remote Control
Odds 100%
Year 1990
Cost With VCR, $450-$600/1989 ($750-$1000/2007)

Programming the VCR can be difficult. That's why Sharp has invented the talking remote control, which works with a special VCR to guide you through the process.

Really, VCR Plus+ is a better system. It short-circuits the whole problem by turning the process of programming a VCR into the process of looking a number up in a magazine and then typing in the number. Sure, a few big corporations have to do a little extra work every week to help maintain the simple interface, but that's what they're there for.

"With the increasing sophistication of video equipment, talking controls should become widespread." Thankfully, that didn't happen. Voice control would have just been one more complicating factor.


HAL: Telephone-Activated VCR

HAL: Telephone-Activated VCR
Odds 100%
Year 1990
Cost $190/1988 ($310/2007)

This is a voicemail-like system that gives you a phone-tree interface for programming your VCR. I'm sure you'll be glad to hear it works with both VHS and BETA VCRs: it acts like the VCR's infrared remote.

It looks like this was produced and sold, though Advanced Video Dynamics is now out of business. Judging from the Future Stuff description, it sounds like HAL made it easy to program a VCR from work but did nothing to help when you were right there in the room with it. But according to this page, HAL also had a "Home Mode" where it acted just like (and was cheaper than) the Talking VCR Remote Control covered earlier.

Again, VCR+ Plus is a better system, but HAL's functionality works a lot like modern DVRs, which can be programmed over a network.


Electronic Still Photography

Electronic Still Photography
Odds 100%
Year 1990
Cost Camera: $2,500/1989 ($4000/2007). Playback and printer, $3000/1989 ($5000/2007) each

"Photography is going digital...[b]ut the quality isn't great and the price is high." The architecture's kind of clunky too. Your photos are recorded on a "miniature video floppy disk", and to see them you must connect an expensive device to your TV. Then you can print them, or send in the disk to the digital camera company. Which company this is is not mentioned. The camera described sounds a lot like the 1991 Kodak DCS-100. The DCS-100 was sold with a large, unwieldy visualization device, but it used a standard SCSI hard drive, so you could connect it directly to a computer—specifically a Mac, since back then SCSI was pretty high-end stuff in the PC world.

It's a big pain, but this primitive system does have the most fundamental advantage of digital photography: it reduces the marginal cost of taking a picture to almost zero. You'd have to take a lot of pictures to justify it, though—and then discard almost all of them, because the only long-term storage is paper or those expensive-sounding video floppy disks, which bumps the marginal cost back up.

Future Stuff takes the opportunity to predict Fark-style Photoshop fakery by 1993. "By interconnecting with a computer, you should be able to... make that telephone pole disappear or add a beautiful sunset to pictures of your rained-out trip to the Caribbean." They greatly underestimate the amount of skill this would take.


Memory Card Camera

Memory Card Camera
Odds 80%
Year 1995
Cost $250/1989 ($400/2007)

Future Stuff now hedges its bets by mentioning memory cards as an alternative to the previous entry's "video floppy disks". The "credit-card-size" card has a capacity of about 2 megabytes, and moves from your camera to (you guessed it) "a special playback device". Only then can it go onto your personal computer (or "digital tape"). This extra step is really aggravating, but very few computers back then could have displayed a color photo.

Of course, by 1995, things were different. The personal computer was the obvious and immediate destination for pictures taken on a digital camera. Digital cameras were still expensive, but many of them wrote to flash EPROM (though I don't think the chips were removable). There were other ways of getting photos onto a computer—a friend once had a digital camera that wrote to standard 3 1/2-inch floppies—but there's continuity from this Future Stuff entry to today's memory-card-based digital cameras.

The manufacturer here is Fuji, but there's no specific camera mentioned—just the card the camera uses.


Camera Stabilization Lens

Camera Stabilization Lens
Odds 100%
Year 1991
Cost 2 to 3 times more than regular lenses

"Demonstrated on a vibrating platform, it produced rock-steady pictures." It's the Canon L series 300mm lens! I know I wanted one for Christmas.

The upside of all these camera-related entries is that camera geeks have huge amounts of information online about every kind of camera. Here's a primer on the L series of lenses, which look like scale-model space stations. The downside is that I find it boring to go through all this stuff. Fortunately, this is the last camera entry.

Future Stuff says Canon says the "optical compensator" technology "should eventually find its way to even the simplest snapshot camera." This did happen, at least for digital cameras. My current camera's nothing special but it was advertised as having vibration-compensating doodads. I did a test, waving the camera around while taking a picture, and it came out fine. I was able to get blurry photos with a longer exposure.


This document (source) is part of Crummy, the webspace of Leonard Richardson (contact information). It was last modified on Monday, March 31 2008, 00:26:30 Nowhere Standard Time and last built on Tuesday, October 21 2014, 15:00:03 Nowhere Standard Time.

Crummy is © 1996-2014 Leonard Richardson. Unless otherwise noted, all text licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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