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The Evolution of DVR Technology

29 August 2017

From the VCR to TiVo to DVRs built into cable boxes, having what we want, when we want it has evolved significantly over the past thirty years. As storage moves to the cloud in many industries, it shouldn’t be long before DVRs move to the cloud as well. This should greatly reduce storage and device costs but requires large internet bandwidths that can handle streaming Ultra High Definition (Ultra HD) television. Let’s take a quick look at the past few decades in recording history to get a sense of how we’ve gotten here and where we’re going.

Thirty years ago Video Cassette Recorders (VCRs) were all the rage. Video Home System (VHS) had emerged triumphant over Betamax as the default format for VCR tapes. The movie rental market was picking up steam, with the first Blockbuster Video Store opening in Dallas Texas, October 19, 1985. The VHS video rental market took off like a rocket in the late eighties and early nineties. In 1994 Viacom purchased Blockbuster for $8.4 billion, less than a decade after they first opened. Most houses had a VCR by the early nineties. Consumers reveled in the ability to watch a movie at their own convenience and as many times as they wanted.

Image Credit: WikipediaImage Credit: WikipediaVCRs also could be used to record television shows, offering the consumer the ability to fast-forward through commercials and challenging the broadcast television model for the first time in fifty years. VCR technology wasn’t particularly threatening when it came to recording television. The recording quality of VCRs were not great and the VHS tapes used for the recording degraded when used multiple times. Fast-forwarding through commercials was tedious and imprecise and also could lead to annoying tape jams. Throughout the nineties, VCR companies worked hard to improve upon these issues but for the most part, consumers used their VCRs for rental videos, not skipping commercials. Eventually, Digital Video Disc (DVD) players replaced VHS tapes and video rental companies like Blockbuster simply migrated to the new format. Once again, although great for playing rentals, DVDs proved poor at recording and playing back television. It would take a new technology out of Silicon Valley to make recording television easy.

Throughout the nineties, VCR companies worked hard to improve upon these issues but for the most part, consumers used their VCRs for rental videos, not skipping commercials. Eventually, Digital Video Disc (DVD) players replaced VHS tapes and video rental companies like Blockbuster simply migrated to the new format. Once again, although great for playing rentals, DVDs proved poor at recording and playing back television. It would take a new technology out of Silicon Valley to make recording television easy.

In 1998, Jim Barton and Mike Ramsay developed a device they called TiVo and began public trials in the San Francisco area. After exhibiting at the Consumer Electronics Show in January 1999, TiVos started shipping later that year and quickly took off. The TiVo was essentially a Digital Video Recorder (DVR), serving a similar function to a VCR in that it allowed a television viewer to record programming for a later time. Instead of using VHS tape as the recording medium, DVRs used an internal hard drive. This innovation introduced a number of improvements such as little degradation for reuse and software to improve the replay of the recorded television. Although not the first DVR, TiVo included many features that greatly improved the television recording experience for its users. TiVo included such features as automatically recording programs that the user might be interested in, the ability to pause live television and rewind and replay up to a half an hour of recently-viewed television, and of course the ability to easily fast-forward through commercials.

At first cable companies and broadcasters tried to stop DVRs by challenging their legality, but the genie was out of the bottle. Whatever small victories they achieved against the DVR industry, they were short lived as consumer adoption exploded. Toward the end of the 2000s, cable companies started to shift focus and rather than try to combat DVRs, they started offering DVRs as part of their service, offering to rent the devices to their subscribers and eventually integrating them into their cable television set-top boxes. Meanwhile, digital services had popped up earlier in the 2000s as an internet alternative to video rentals. As the decade progressed, companies started to popping up to offer streaming video content. By the end of the decade, the DVD rental market had imploded and Blockbuster declared bankruptcy. Meanwhile, Netflix, Amazon, and several other companies were achieving massive subscriber growth to their streaming services. By 2010, having already started integrating DVRs, cable companies started to incorporate streaming services. However, due to exclusivity deals inked by major players in the industry, they have simply become another option; they haven’t displaced the market as they did with DVRs.

This year, Amazon, in partnership with Sling Television and also with Hulu, both streaming services, are offering cloud-based DVR service. Essentially, if a Sling or Hulu subscriber is using an Amazon product such as Amazon Fire TV or Amazon Fire Sticks or Tablets to stream Sling, they will be offered 50 hours of storage for $5 per month. This makes a lot of sense from Amazon’s standpoint. Through Amazon Web Services the company has a lot of cloud storage space available; the service should help sell their devices. However, the market won’t take long to catch up. Just last month DirecTV announced they were launching cloud DVR service for their subscribers. It seems clear the cloud is the next step in the evolution of television and movie content delivery. It shouldn’t be long before the cable providers start offering cloud DVR services as well.



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