Saturday, June 13, 2009

TV: what replaces the VCR?

I thought I was set for last night's digital TV transition, I've been watching free digital TV over-the-air for a while. Then I realized... the VCR!!? No more sticking a tape in 5 minutes before you leave in order to record some must-see TV, only to find you overwrote the middle of the Lawrence Welk PBS special after the funny Andy Rooney rant, and then trying to pencil in a meaningful update to the table of contents on the two tape labels and the box to remind you of the random bits of video on the tape worth keeping.

I wonder how many others will be in the same situation? I guess I could get a DTV converter box only for use with the VCR, but tape is so last-century. Once demodulated, the HD signal is fully digital (it's just MPEG-2 1s and 0s), so turning it back into high-frequency modulation of magnetic particles on squeaky spools of plastic film coated with rust seems completely unnecessary. My Samsung LCD TV already has a USB port to read video files from a USB flash drive, it seems it would be a simple software upgrade for it to write video files to USB.

I guess two years ago when electronic companies were planning today's TVs, the bandwidth of HDTV seemed so massive that it would flood any storage device. The digital broadcast TV data rate is 19.4 Mbit/s, which means a 1-hour show fills 8.7 Gigabytes. But nowadays that's half a $25 16GB USB drive. And I think most broadcast "channels" squeeze several digital channels into that bandwidth, so the real rate is less.

As with all other media, the digitization of TV means any small rectangular box with computer chips can now work with video, and indeed cameras, computers, phones, and videogame consoles all do. (The future of video is a bigger discussion than the VCR replacement...) The tuning of over-the-air broadcasts has become the province of digital TV capture "cards" for computers such as the Pinnacle PCTV HD Pro stick; plug an antenna into it, plug it into a PC's USB slot, and watch or record broadcast TV. But that means dedicating a computer computer to recording TV programs, something I tried without success with my desktop. The capture card is already a computer, it could just write the 1s and 0s to an attached USB flash drive without requiring a PC. You would need some simple interface (it couldn't be worse than the VCR's flashing "12:00" UI) to tell the capture card to record a show. You could have a keypad and LCD phone-like UI on the capture card to program it; or the capture card could show its UI on the TV screen, but that would require plugging it into an HDMI input on your TV in addition to the USB slot. Either way it's getting fiddly again.

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Monday, March 9, 2009

CD and digital music reminiscing

Gizmodo remarked on the (sort-of) 30th anniversary of the CD format, prompting the following reverie (and also more begging for a downloadable "golden master tape" format):

a) There were no consumer cd burners available until something like a 15 years later.

You're right. I worked at a PC multimedia chip company in 1994. We had a $3000 2X Yamaha CD burner to make CDs of software releases and developer kits. If you so much as looked at it funny you'd get an under-run and the CD-R was worthless. It could duplicate a music CD, but with the blanks costing $10, why would you? Sony and Philips must have known bootleggers would eventually copy CDs, but as with vinyl and cassettes, you send cops with sledgehammers after that crime.

To show off our chip's audio quality we wanted to get a high-quality audio sample. This was in the day when 8-bit sound cards were the norm, the sample.WAV files in Windows played "boinnggg" noises, and at best CD-ROM drives had an analog audio connection to the sound card. So we rigged up a SCSI CD-ROM drive to an Adaptec controller, used special ASPI commands to read the 1s and 0s off a music CD, and converted them to a .WAV file that was the same song. There was no name for this process, this was seven years before Apple's "Rip. Mix. Burn" ads and 4 years before the first MP3 players. The resulting file was an unimaginable 17MB long.

I knew at the time it was going to be a huge deal. Not that we had made a copy — you could already do that with cassettes. The original song was divorced from any kind of media, turning it into a computer file that could be duplicated and manipulated at will. Eventually, a computer with a huge hard drive could be a jukebox. Many companies realized this sea change, they predicted and eventually came out with a hard drive music player for the trunk of your car, a hard drive music player for your home, etc. (I don't recall anyone predicting the dominant model of carrying your music collection with you in an iPod.)

This "home copying" to a computer didn't feel like piracy, any more than making cassettes of your albums for your car was piracy. Napster arrived 5 years later in 1999. Massive piracy required the confluence of music CD ripping, the Internet, and faster-than-dialup connectivity plus MP3 compression. The whole must have been completely unimaginable to Sony and Philips engineers in 1979.

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Monday, April 7, 2008

computers: old storage media

Remember 3.5" floppies? Here are 90 of them, free for the taking.
90 3.5" floppies plus a 5.25" floppy and a 2GB microSD card
Ignore the “2.0 MB” label, these actually store about 1.44 MB. So that stack represents all of 132 MB, or less than a fifth of a CD-ROM. I remember when these first came out for the Mac and cost $10 each.

Those floppies are junk, you can't even give them away. I consolidated the information from them to a few MB on a network drive. Many were backup and transit disks (so-called "sneakernet") with only slight differences between directories and files. I couldn't find a good tool to help me consolidate them. I wanted a split view explorer that would show floppy details (including bootable or not, DOS version, hidden files, etc.) in one pane and in the other pane intelligently search a hard drive for likely matching files and directories. Probably a DOS version of such a tool was on one of the floppies!

Several of them are installation disks for nifty integrated phone answering machine +FAX software like Ring Zero and QuickLink that came with modems. Back then the mental stumbling block was “Your computer can be your telephone,” just as now the stumbling block is “Your computer can be your TV.”

The disk in the IBM sleeve on the left is a 5.25" floppy from 1983 or so that stores 360KB. I have several dozen of those I still need to archive. I also have an 8" floppy with some documents I made on an IBM Displaywriter, plus a 3.5" magneto-optical disk, a Jaz disk, and a Sun 1/4-inch cartridge. Compared with the 80s and 90s, we are in a period of incredible media stability.

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computers: relentless storage progress

Here's the picture from my old storage media post.
90 3.5" floppies plus a 5.25" floppy and a 2GB microSD card
That speck on top is a 2GB microSD memory card for my phone.

close-up of 2GB microSD cardIt holds 1,360 of these floppies, or a stack 15 times taller (4.5 meters—14 feet tall!). Or 5,555 times more than the 5.25" “IBM” floppy in the picture.

When you just switch letter prefixes around you lose sight that 2 gigabytes is an insane number. It's roughly 2000× a megabyte, 2000000× a kilobyte. 2,000,000,000 characters! If you write pure ASCII text, you could never, ever fill it up. But of course the computer industry finds a way to inflate simple sequences of letters. The text of my post on old floppies was only 1,647 characters; Blogger turned into a 16,000 byte web page; it's 100,000 bytes including the two images; it would have been 4,200,000 bytes if I had used the original photos instead of resizing them for the Web. If I had made this a presentation in evil Microsoft PowerPoint it could easily be 1,000,000 bytes. If I had made a video zooming in from the pile of floppies to show just the memory card, it would have hit 100,000,000 bytes. But it wouldn't be 10,000 times more information.

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Monday, January 15, 2007

design: great media storage

When furniture designers create storage, they usually create a rigid geometrical grid, of, say 13 inch squares. Then they photograph it with pretentious piles of art books and a handful of CDs tastefully arranged in each square. But that's profoundly stupid. An LP record is 12 inches deep, but a CD is only 5 1/2 inches deep; a DVD is almost the same depth as a CD but taller. So the false logic of the storage grid wastes space.

I've had an inchoate idea for variable-depth media shelves for about 15 years. Architects Markoff-Fullerton brought the vision to reality, and Jesus Esparza of Cabinet Solutions built them. It worked out better than my fondest hopes.

media shelvesDVDs/videotapes, then CDs/cassettes, then LPs, then 45s. The uprights are closer together than ordinary bookshelves so there aren't wide expanses of LPs to tilt and warp. The three cabinets to the right hold two equipment racks and miscellaneous. The wall bracket holds my beloved incomparable Rega Planar 3 turntable.

Note how the shelves are perfectly evenly spaced from floor to ceiling. Bruce Fullerton is da man. He also met my space budget for each media, though I'm maxed out on singles.

media shelves
This shows the varying depth. It's good for sound quality since it breaks up reflections from the side walls. Note how the supporting shelves are recessed and darker so the uprights, in a lovely stained ash veneer, are more prominent.

I had the idea to take the same design and rotate it 90 degrees for shelves on the other side of the room:bookshelves
(This alcove is where the equipment cabinet was going to go before our acoustic consultant Richard Bird of Rives Audio recommended firing the speakers across the room instead of down the room. There are only a few shelves because there was going to be an elaborate stainless steel mantel continuing from the fireplace that would wrap into the alcove to create a metal container for firewood... too expensive.)

Jesus Esparza of Cabinet Solutions with his masterwork.

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