A Brief History of Video Storage


Among the list of barriers facing the next version of high-definition television — Ultra HD, or “4K” — is the matter of how to store it. Blu-ray Disc, so named for the color of the laser that pulls the images and sound off of the plastic disc, likely isn’t big enough for 4K.

There’s no real answer yet to the question of “then what,” but it’s safe to assume some kind of format scuffle is next. Why? Because this happens almost every time video gets better.

The long history that is storing video for “anytime/ anywhere” consumption dates back to the 1930s. That’s when General Electric plunked a 16-millimeter film camera in front of a monitor, synced it to the monitor’s scanning rate and called it “Kinescope.” (The inventor was named Vladimir Zworykin.)

Then came “Quadruplex,” in 1956, and the first analog recording method that used two-inch tape, instead of film (which cost a lot more). Its creator, Ampex Corp., also won a format war — against contenders like Bing Crosby Industries, among others. (The “quad” referred to the four magnetic heads that had to be mechanically aligned to work, making maintenance a nightmare.)

Other videotape formats came and went (one-inch IVC helical scan, anyone?), but the next biggie was Sony’s “UMatic” ¾-inch video tape recorders (VTRs), in 1971. Studios loved U-Matic machines because of the uniformity and interoperability of what was the first cassette-based method — any cassette would play in any U-Matic, without all the constant manual futzing.

Next: Cartrivision, in the mid-’70s, and the first consumer-facing videocassette format. Then, the big Betamax vs. VHS scuffle in the early ’80s.

Remember laser discs? Early ’80s. It too won out over a competing format from RCA. LaserDiscs were far sturdier than tape, but too spendy for mainstream. Plus they didn’t record.

Digital video discs (DVDs) emerged coincident with standard-definition digital TVs, in the mid ’90s, and also survived a minor format war, although less notorious than Betamax vs. VHS.

The most recent format feud crowned Blu-ray Disc as the winner, over HD-DVD. That’s when high-definition TV entered the scene, with six times the picture information of SD. That was about seven years ago.

Ultra HD will surely add another chapter to the story that is packaged video storage. Does it foreshadow another format clash? History tends to repeat, especially in this topic. So if the timing pattern works the same (half as much time as the prior battle), we should be knee-deep in it by the summer of 2016.

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