Digital Video Recorders (DVR) – An Interesting History

To say that the invention of the VCR (Video Cassette Recorder) caused a lot of excitement would be an understatement. Up until that point, the only way to see a movie or television show was to either catch the TV broadcast or go to a movie theater. When the VCR came out, people could finally watch movies in the comfort of their own homes, at any time they chose. In the past 30 years, VCRs evolved into TiVo and then to our current DVRs. But, the evolution will continue as long as humans continue creating and consuming media. Storage in many industries is moving into the cloud, and it’s likely that DVRs will as well before long.

Thirty years ago, when VHS tapes beat out Betamax as the default home movie format, VCRs quickly became ubiquitous. The first Blockbuster Video Store opened in 1985, and the VHS rental market exploded soon afterwards. By the mid-90s, most families owned a VCR, and less than a decade after Blockbuster opened, Viacom purchased the company for an incredible $8.4 billion.

VCRs were also able to record TV shows, meaning that consumers could fast-forward through commercials. At this time, corporations didn’t view this as a huge issue – VCR recording quality wasn’t great, and recordable blank VHS tapes wore out after a few uses. On top of that, fast-forwarding through commercials could cause tape jams, so in many cases it was still preferable to sit through the commercials.

During the 90s, companies tried to fix these issues, but they never completely got them ironed out before DVDs (Digital Video Discs) took over. Blockbuster and other rental companies migrated to DVDs, and the VCR fell by the technological wayside. DVDs had more precise rewind and fast-forward capabilities, didn’t have to be rewound before they could be re-watched, and never encountered tape jams. Unfortunately, they were still poor at recording and playing back television.

In 1998, Jim Barton and Mike Ramsay invented the TiVo. The device began shipping after an exhibition at the January 1999 Consumer Electronics Show, and quickly took off. Much like the VCR, the TiVo allowed users to record television shows to watch later. However, unlike the VCR, the TiVo stored recordings on an internal hard drive rather than on tape. This meant that you could record in higher quality, and you could re-watch the same recordings as many times as you wanted without wearing out the tape. TiVo made the TV recording experience easier in a handful of other ways, too, such as allowing the user to set certain programs to be recorded automatically. It also allowed the user to pause live TV programs, and rewind or replay up to half an hour of recently-viewed programs. As long as you let the program get ahead of the TiVo by a few minutes, you could also fast-forward through commercials.

Cable companies and broadcasters tried to challenge the legality of DVRs like the TiVo, but they were too late. Consumers had already widely adopted DVRs, and there was no going back. So, cable companies figured that if they couldn’t beat out their competitors, they’d have to join them. Near the end of the 2000s, many cable companies began offering DVRs as part of their service packages, at first allowing their subscribers to rent the DVRs, and later integrating the DVRs into their cable TV set-top boxes.

At the same time, online video streaming services were also on the rise. By the end of the 2000s, the DVD rental market was in the last stages of collapse, and Blockbuster had declared bankruptcy as Netflix, Amazon, and competing services rapidly collected subscribers. Having already given in to DVRs, cable companies made a new concession to the new players – by 2010, most cable companies included streaming services as part of their packages. Once again, though, the cable companies were too late, and the major streaming brand names had already fortified their places at the top of their industry. Cable companies tried to adapt, but were unable to recapture the market. They used to be the leaders of the television industry; now they’re just another option.

So, what’s the next step? Cloud-based DVR services, most likely. They’re actually already in use – in 2017, Amazon launched the first cloud-based DVR service in collaboration with Sling and Hulu. This is likely the first of many such services.

Interestingly, Anthony Wood, the inventor of the original DVR, doesn’t use one. He didn’t stop with the DVR, but instead kept innovating, and released the first Roku streaming device in 2008. He uses his own Roku device at home, and doesn’t even own a DVR. When asked why, he said that he sees DVRs as a “stepping stone feature” that only maintains its relevance today due to the complexity of licensing and availability of specific shows. In other words, Wood believes that there are still a few legal drawbacks to streaming, but we will eventually move beyond those issues into a market where almost all video distribution and consumption is achieved through streaming.

One thing type of footage that may stay off of the cloud (except for backup purposes) is security footage. Online storage is great and convenient, but important files – like footage that may be used as evidence at some point – should always have a copy stored offline as well. This is where DVR systems are still useful, even when most of the TV we watch for pleasure has gone digital. Modern closed circuit television (CCTV) camera systems are coupled with DVRs, which allows for the storage of footage as well as the ability to search through the footage, sorting by date, time, and by which camera you need to see. There is some variation in the type of DVR used, such as whether it is PC-based or embedded, but they are always present in effective CCTV security systems, and they will likely remain there even as other industries switch completely to cloud storage.

 

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