Amazing Week, Day 3: Video cameras

Part of Amazing Week 2012

Back around 1981 I first got a chance to play with a video camera. It was a Sony HVC-2000P. It was about the size of… well, I can’t think of too many modern items that are that size. A box of cereal, perhaps, with a can of beans glued to one end to represent the lens? It weighed about 2.5kg, so imagine the cereal box had a couple of bricks in it.

But that was just the camera. To actually use it, you had to plug it in to a portable Betamax video cassette recorder, the Sony SL-3000, via a thick snake-like cable. This VCR piece was about the size of the biggest box of store-brand cornflakes you can buy, and was also filled with bricks — it weighed over 9kg.

The idea was that you wore the 9 kilo VCR on a strap over your left shoulder, and propped the camera on your right shoulder, and wandered freely. I was a fairly sickly and weedy child, so I left the VCR on the ground, and my video footage was mostly of ducks swimming around a pond and other subjects that stayed within range.

The camera viewfinder was tiny and monochrome, so you didn’t really get a chance to see what you had recorded in any detail until you got home. But there was something magical about being able to see the ducks on TV, and see myself on TV, and then rewind and watch it all again. A whole 300 lines of resolution!

That was how it started. And now my mobile phone records 1080p high definition video. We live in a YouTube world, where kids think nothing of pulling a camera or phone from a pocket and recording something, and distributing it to hundreds or thousands of people mere minutes later. Most people now have video recording and editing capabilities that put to shame the BBC’s state-of-the-art equipment from the 1980s.

As a result, we’re seeing an explosion of independent documentaries, and I believe that historians of the 22nd Century will look back on the early 21st Century as a golden age for documentary movie making. Me, I make little home movies for friends and family. Not that I wouldn’t like to make documentaries, but it’s hard work and extremely time consuming.

But perhaps the most important impact of the video camera has been its effect on society. Stories that would once have been dismissed or covered up are now documented by the ubiquitous video cameras everyone carries, and find their way to the Internet. In the UK, police are realizing that the only real solution is transparency, and there are now trials underway where officers are fitted with wearable video cameras that record everything that happens while they are on duty. Meanwhile in the US, Google are working on a consumer headset that will not only record video, but upload it live, straight to the Internet.

So thanks to the modern video camera, the transparent society is coming, like it or not. Personally, I think that on balance it’s a good thing. It’s certainly an amazing thing, if you look back at those 1980s analog video cameras.