Home Video - A Brief Evolutionary History
Since retiring from full time work in December 2017, I've been investing a good bit of time on a project that has been high on my “retirement to-do list”: the digitization of my personal collection of video tapes, DVD’s, home movies, etc. I initially began experimenting with this process while I was still working full time, but now have had the time to engage in earnest.
During the days prior to the availability of streaming services like iTunes and Amazon Prime Video, I had accumulated a significant amount of video in various forms, with the storage media evolving over the years as the technology revolution marched on: VHS tapes, 8mm video, DV and MiniDV tapes, and most significantly, commercial DVD’s. Converting this content to an easily retrievable form from a digital database has been a long time goal that was now within reach.
With more time available post-retirement to devote to this project, the key question remained: “What hardware and software is needed to do the best job of converting the content?” “What are the basic components required to create your own media server to easily access your personal movie and home video collection?”
Before we get into the nitty-gritty of conversion and capture of video from old media (which I have reserved for a later blog post), let’s define what we mean by the term “media server” and take time to review a brief history of the evolution of digital video content. By “media server”, I am referring to a combination of a) sizable storage space on one or more hard drives attached to b) a computer with suitable processing power, which is equipped with c) software designed to manage and “serve up” the digital assets stored on the hard drive(s).
Most of us already use “media servers”, often without realizing it. For example, you probably have some sort digital media stored on your desktop or laptop computer and/or mobile device which function as media servers in a variety of ways. This might be: playing music (through iTunes or a third-party streaming service like Spotify), displaying photos and videos (through Apple’s Photos app or other photo managers), or cataloguing other digital content for our consumption (such as a database of documents and other multi-media content through products such as Evernote or DevonTHINK Pro Office, for example). Each of these “media server” applications operates in the same fundamental way, providing alternatives for organizing, storing, retrieving, displaying and scanning through your content as quickly and conveniently as possible.
The history of consumer technologies available for creating, managing and consuming video content over the past few decades evolved something like this. First, the advent of the VCR and camcorder brought video into most people’s lives in the early 1980’s. Most of us over the age of 40 remember the video rental craze of the Blockbuster days, which quickly morphed into a DVD rental craze, before being subsumed by today’s streaming of digital video into our homes, made possible by the ever-increasing bandwidth of high-speed internet connections.
Netflix is in everyone’s vocabulary now, but the company started out as a fledgling DVD rental “through-the-mail” service. I was one of those early adopters who gladly paid the monthly subscription for the privilege of swapping rental discs with Netflix by mail in those little plastic sleeves and prepaid remailers. This initial Netflix-by-mail model was designed to eliminate “the agony of defeat” associated with driving to the video store only to find that the movie you really wanted to watch was already checked out for the night.
However, it didn’t take long for Netflix to see that the real future in providing consumers access to video content was through an all-you-can-eat buffet of streaming media via the reasonably robust internet connections which were becoming commonplace. Now, Netflix is a major player in the production of original TV series and movies and is competing with long-established movie and TV production companies, as well as other emerging sources of digital content such as Amazon Prime and a host of niche providers. Who would ever have thought a few years ago that Netflix would become a serious contender in the Academy Awards race.
I admit to being an easy mark for the many companies now offering streaming video services these days and I currently subscribe to (or have tried out) a number of such monthly subscriptions (another topic for later blog post), until these services became established in the marketplace. However, until the burgeoning streaming video services reached critical mass, I continued to amass my own collection of video content that I either purchased or created over the years. When “true nirvana” appeared to have arrived (i.e., large hard drives, media-savvy computers, high-speed internet, super-fast wireless home networks and streaming digital-video boxes attached to high-definition TV’s), I finally stopped buying commercial DVD’s, except for an occasional purchase of a highly-valued classic film in BluRay to upgrade my existing collection.
Harnessing my inventory of DVD’s, VHS cassette and camcorder videotapes (both analog and digital) into a true “digital media library” is something for which I eventually developed a very workable solution (given today’s technology) and I am anxious to share my discoveries with you. By the way, my earlier reference to “true nirvana” is decidedly tongue-in-cheek, as we are a long way from seeing these enabling technologies become “easy to use” for the average consumer. This is why I am embarking on what I envision will be a series of articles, dividing my description of this project into digestible chunks - eating the elephant “one bite at a time”, so to speak.
My next blog post will probably be called “A Home Media Server for the Rest of Us” because the home media server has been a particularly “nerdy” area of consumer technology and not for the faint of heart until relatively recently. With the advent of recent improvements on both the hardware and software side, I think it may be ready for prime time, as it is a setup that many people who have personal collections of video content would enjoy using.
You’re a candidate for a “home media server” if 1) you haven’t yet abandoned that old collection of purchased video content on DVD, 2) or you have a stash of home movies captured on camcorder tape you wish to resurrect, and 3) you wish to create an easily viewable collection of the “gems” hidden among those outdated media types. If so, stay tuned for the next blog post in the TV + Home Theater category, in which I will describe the hardware setup required to rip and store the media library content.
A final blog post in this series will describe the steps I took to build my media library and the software I use to catalog, manage and “serve out” my media library content to my streaming box (an Apple TV 4K).