Sustainable Technology: Open-standards vs Write Only Memory

My second digital 8 camcorder stopped working last week. This just days before my daughter plans to take her first steps. I now have two camcorders which record but are unable to play. Write only memory. This focused my attention on a problem that has bothered me for a while. l b jHow do I maintain electronic images, movies and documents in a form that will be viewable when my daughter is old enough to enjoy them? The image (left) of this young political pundit stayed in one popular consumer format (Kodachrome slide) for 25 years. But in the last 10 years I've had to convert it from NTSC Betamax to Amiga IFF/ILBM to TIFF to JPEG, in order to view it on the latest consumer device. Government archivists and businesses face a similar problem on a much larger scale. Many important documents, images and videos are unknowingly archived in closed formats which depend on a particular vendor supply chain of licenses, software and hardware. Fortunately it is possible to convert between digital standards. For text documents we have multiplatform tools such as StarOffice and to convert between incompatible formats and an open (pkzip compressed XML) standard. For images we have gimp and an open-source multimedia library called gstreamer provides a good base for a universal multimedia translator.

Video is more difficult
But video presents unique problems. Transcoding is very time consuming and the numerous digital multimedia physical standards tend to have a short shelf life. Consumer digital 8 seems unlikely to survive as long as Betamax. Lossier small form factor standards seem poised to take the spotlight from MiniDV. Some are even predicting that DVDs will be replaced soon which would make them far more ephemeral than VHS or laserdisc. The interesting thing about this prediction is that it would require considerable investment in internet infrastructure, storage and servers. I wonder what company might benefit from that?

Once you've solved the physical media storage issue by keeping your videos in a fast, secure, persistant, magical "futurenet", you still have the issue of standards. Video is usually wrapped in a container such as Quicktime[tm] or Windows Media Framework[tm] and compressed with various coder decoder (codec) standards. These standards tend to be privately licensed and are seldom available on every platform. There is no obvious way to play certain Intel Indeo[tm] coded videos on recent Apple[tm] computers and it is difficult to find licensed Cinepak[tm] or Windows Media[tm] players for GNU/linux. Current DVD video standards require "analog hole" copy protection schemes such as Macrovision[tm] which is difficult to implement securly across the dozens of video cards that GNU/linux supports. And if the preliminary standard for next generation DVDs is accepted, all DVD-HD capable players will include the cost of a Microsoft[tm] codec license, extending the monopoly into yet another realm.

Pirates or Paranoia?
Digital multimedia allows lossless reproduction and provides the opportunity to bridge divergent international video standards NTSC, PAL, SECAM... but this accentuates the problem of piracy. So copy protection, royalties, taxes and laws were designed and region codes reintroduced an artificial technical barrier to cultural exchange. Such measures are understandable, but by focusing on large content suppliers they may be overlooking some consumer needs. When the owner of a DVD collection moves to a different region does he forfeit the right to view his DVDs? If I create multimedia content in a particular format, does the content still belong to me? Will I be able to legally transcode it without loss to the next format du jour? Will I be able to play it on the operating system and hardware of my choice or record it to VHS for the grandparents? I don't know. The current U.S. political climate appears to favor overturning the Betamax case court ruling which legalized VCRs. Technology companies such as Sun expressed concern over this legislation but few lawmakers understand the significant barriers to technical innovation such shortsighted laws are creating. Would JXTA be considered illegal peer to peer technology? What about the linux/unix `cp` and `mkisofs` commands? When my camcorders return from the repair shop I hope to capture a few favorite clips in an open standard such as theora just in case.

That's why my PowerMac at home has a half Terabyte of mirrored hard drive storage. This tower can hold 4 hard drives. I can't wait until the Hitachi 400GB drives start shipping for consumer purchase.

Posted by Flip on July 20, 2004 at 12:59 PM GMT+00:00 #

Yes my 170G wasn't enough for even our DV compressed video. With mirrored local drives you reduce your chances of failure, but faster internet connections and peer to peer technology such as JXTA should allow videographers to leave the system administration chores to someone (or something) else. That way they can spend more of their time creating content.

Posted by bnitz on July 21, 2004 at 02:32 AM GMT+00:00 #

"How do I maintain electronic images, movies and documents in a form that will be viewable when my daughter is old enough to enjoy them?" Ach, I wouldn't worry about it... I've yet to meet anyone who enjoys seeing their own baby photographs anyway :)

Posted by Calum Benson on July 21, 2004 at 06:27 AM GMT+00:00 #

You have me there :) O.K. so how do parents perserve photos in order to embarass the kids at their 16th birthday party with "look at the grape jam all over her face in this baby picture!" BTW, the day after I posted this and Hawkings gave his talk on the indestructability of information, the write only camcorder stopped working altogether, but the other one mysteriously started working. Methinks they're quantum twins.

Posted by bnitz on July 21, 2004 at 01:13 PM GMT+00:00 #

Convert them to real FILM..... Projectors will be around for ages, are incredibly simple to fix, and the media can last a long time if stored properly. This is much like standard after standaed of incompable software. I have files from 88, in order to view them, I have to dig up a legacy box, figure out how to run Dos3.3 again, and the program, and then hope I can find an antique printer. As such, microfiche is the long term solution. A friend even had to buy a CPM machine off ebay.....

Posted by Ron Amundson on July 21, 2004 at 05:16 PM GMT+00:00 #

That may be the best long term solution for professional archivists. Too expensive for me, but after 2 years of digital photography I'm starting to take more slides again. Mainly because the 50ms delay between button press and digital capture is far too slow to capture the changing moods of a toddler!

Posted by bnitz on July 22, 2004 at 02:28 AM GMT+00:00 #

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