The trouble with home video

I'm taking a detour from mobility this week to ask a question: Do you own a video camera?

If you have kids, like me, chances are you bought video camera before or soon after your first child was born, so you could preserve those precious childhood moments. Like me, you probably took dozens of hours of video in the first year – the little one smiling when her toes were tickled, the little one sucking on daddy's thumb, the little one spitting creamed carrots across the room.

Over the subsequent years, as you accumulated more and more tape – more than 100 hours of it in my case – you probably started to ask yourself an important question:

Why did I buy a video camera when I never watch the videos?

My video collection

Watching unedited home video is only slightly less tedious than watching old episodes of Mayberry RFD. The ratio of interesting sequences to boring ones is unpredictable, and it's impossible to remember which tape has that great clip when Uncle Jack's toupee caught fire. You spend hours searching and only minutes watching.

The usual answer to this is that you're supposed to digitize that video and edit it.


Video editing is probably the most unpleasant thing you can do with a computer (other than your taxes). It's slow, tedious, and difficult. For a while I thought the problem was just that I was using the wrong program, but now I've edited video on a PC and on a Mac. I've used iMovie and Pinnacle and Final Cut. I know how to work them all, and I can make pretty good videos with them. But the process of actually editing video using any tool is pure torture because the basic act of sorting through video and deciding what to do with it is tedious. There's no way to fix it.

To explain the seriousness of the problem, here's how I think editing home video compares to having dental work done:

Dental work: Sit in a comfortable chair and listen to your iPod.
Editing video: Sit in an uncomfortable chair and watch the same 30 seconds of video over and over while you try to set the in and out points correctly.

Dental work: Someone picks at your teeth with a sharp instrument, but at least you know roughly when it'll be over.
Editing video: That two-hour digitization session failed because you selected the wrong format. Start over.

Dental work: Before they drill, you get anesthesia.
Editing video: You feel every second of it.

Dental work: You like looking at your smile in a mirror.
Editing video: You never want to see any of your relatives again.

It makes you wonder why people keep buying video cameras. But hey, there's another baby born every minute.

So here I am with a drawer full of 8mm videotape, and my wife has ordered me to stop using the video camera because we never watch the tapes.

The answer: Don't edit the video

Because video editing itself is the problem, I think the only way to solve it is to find a way to make home video useful without any editing at all. One approach is to get software that does the editing for you, like Muvee. I haven't had a chance to try it, but my sense is that it's aimed more at creating a video from a particular event like a birthday party, rather than bringing to life a whole video archive, which is the thing I want to do.

I'd like to propose a different approach, which involves a new device I'll call a video frame.

The video frame is an LCD screen that you can put on a table or wall, just like a picture frame. Many of these devices already exist for electronic still pictures. They're called "digital frames," and they come from companies like Ceiva, Pacific Digital, and Philips. They generally cost $100-$200, and they can hold as many photos as you can put on a memory card.

Although many of these products can display video, the user has to do all the editing, and then put the video clips on a memory card that goes into the frame. That's no better than what we have today. What I want is a frame that doesn't require you to edit the video. You just plug the camera's S-video port into the video frame, hit play, and the whole tape is transferred into the frame's memory. You repeat the same process with another tape, and so on, until your whole video collection is in there. No editing, no reviewing, all you have to do is plug in a cable and hit Play repeatedly.

The video frame identifies the transitions between scenes and separates them (this a normal function for a lot of video software). Hang it on the wall, and it starts playing scenes from your video collection at random. The effect is like a random walk through family memories. You're walking down the hall one day and you'll see your son's third birthday party where he buried his face in the cake. The next day you'll see your dog when she was a puppy and climbed into the laundry basket. And so on.

Video collections sometimes accidentally include scenes that you don't want to see again – for example, I have video of my son getting hit by a pitch at a little league baseball game. I don't really need to see that again, and neither does he. So we'll have a "don't show this again" button on the side of the frame. Touch it when you see a scene that you don't like, and it'll be removed from the rotation. (The thing I like about this is that we still get the effect of edited video, but now it's a gradual process you do fairly painlessly, rather than a lengthy torture session.)

Video cameras today generally include time and date information with the video, so our frame could be set up to do some cool things – for example, you could set it to show video that matches the time of day in the real world. So you'd get sunset scenes at sunset, that sort of thing. Or you could have it match the season of the year, so you'd see lots of Christmas or Hanukkah video in December, but not in July.

I could picture video frames pre-loaded with environmental video. For example, how about random scenes of Tahiti? That would be great for soothing people in the waiting room of a doctor's office.

Cost is an issue

A video frame needs a processor capable of doing MPEG-4 compression on the fly, and a substantial hard drive to store the video. I'm not sure what that would cost today, but I'm certain the price will go down over time – both processors and disk storage are strongholds of Moore's Law. If this product isn't affordable already, it's just a matter of time until it is.

When I was between jobs last fall, I tried to talk this idea around to people in Silicon Valley. It actually got a much better reaction than the info pad note-taker idea I wrote about a few weeks ago. People understood the video frame concept immediately, and all of the ones who had home video cameras wanted it. Unfortunately, we also all agreed that there's probably very little a video frame that you could patent, and so there's little incentive for a startup to invest in it.

But it would be a great add-on product for a video camera company. So listen up: Sony, Matsushita, Canon, I want you to steal my idea. Please build me a video frame and I promise I'll go back to using my video camera. I might even buy a new one.

But until then, the camcorder stays in storage, and I'll concentrate on taking still photos that I can actually do something useful with.


Anonymous said...

I have been using muvee software for about 1 year to create my home videos. It is very nice software and IMHO it is already sufficient for many ordinary end users (just like me). I am now even planning to buy a new camcorder... :)
Of course, for some users, it is not satisfying because "too automatic".
Btw, muvee also supports "don't show this again" button. It is called MagicMoments.
Honestly, I worked for muvee Technology before and that was because I am a happy customer. I am now working with another company, so don't take this comment as advertisement.... :)

Anonymous said...

We have tape piles too and I;ve often wondered if I ought to bother converting the contents to DVD.

Maybe an app or service to turn these videos into DVDs would also be a low-tech solution. At least DVDs are a little easier to setup and watch, or play at a party.

Michael Mace said...

Anthony wrote:

>>Honestly, I worked for muvee Technology before and that was because I am a happy customer.

Thanks for the full disclosure, Anthony! That's very high-integrity of you.

Mike R. wrote:

>>Maybe an app or service to turn these videos into DVDs would also be a low-tech solution.

I think it would help, and of course the latest video cameras write directly to optical disks. But I'm not buying one until I figure out what to do with the actual videos.

Reading both of your comments, I'm starting to think maybe there are two problems that I bundled together. One is the act of editing video. I'll be interested in checking into Muvee for that (they offer a free trial version, so I have no excuses for failing to try it).

The other is finding a way to put video on display. We need the video equivalent of a photo album.

To make home video really satisfying, I think we need to solve both problems.

Anonymous said...

Most of the old home video I've seen is pretty uneditable. Not that it cannot be edited, it just cannot be edited into anything decent, so you spend hours editing it only to discover that it is not that improved. The problem is that the video in most cases was not shot with editing in mind, so garbage in, garbage out. This is not to say that our precious family memories are garbage, just that the typical long, boring shot waiting for something to happen is exceedingly hard to edit into a video we want to watch over and over again.

I don't have an answer for the old video--mine are sitting on the shelf--but going forward I think the answer is to change the way we shoot video so it does not stay on the shelf.

NetTapes said...

A very intersting topic Michael.

I totally agree that sharing home video is a huge pain point.

Our company is trying to address this problem in a different way. We offer a full service solution for converting your raw video tapes to short interesting clips for watching and sharing online with friends and family.

We want to bring alive all the beautiful memories and stories that are hiding in your shoe boxes.

We offer a service called SharePak that provides this service for a very low affordable price of $19.95 per tape. We also convert video tapes to DVDs for a low flat rate price of $9.95 per tape. We believe that affordability of such services is key to mass adoption. We want to make that possible.

Our blog,, contains a lot of thoughts on this topic.

NetTapes said...

BTW, We wrote a blog entry on this exact topic recently. You may find this of interest.

Anonymous said...

I'm just thinking about putting the good stuff on DVD and looking for a solution as I stare at the 70 tapes with 140 hours of nonsense.

I guess my solution is:
1. watch these many hours on the TV, recording the places on each tape you want to preserve plus run time and content.
2. decide the order in which you want the segments recorded to DVD
3. Then record to your computer only the segments you want and in the order you want. In my case, I think I am down to 20 hours at most, but probably only 10.
4. (optional) play with the transitions using some $150 program
5. record to DVD
My thought is that step 1-3 combined as a computer task is the real problem. You end up with so much time invested, that you feel forced to do step 4 as well.
I'll do 1 & 2 on my couch, enter my selections in order to a Word videolog that I update with clip name on the DVD contents listing, using that to find those precious moments when the family comes to see the vacation photos.

Michael Mace said...

Anonymous wrote

>>watch these many hours on the TV, recording the places on each tape you want to preserve plus run time and content.

To me, even that first step is the killer. That's why I'd rather have the whole video library on my wall, where I could see (and rate) a different scene every day, on the go. It feels good to watch five minutes of home video. But 100 hours of it? I'd rather fly through Heathrow Airport AND get minor dental work.

Internet TV said...

What's really a killer is transferring hours of video to your pc, forgetting about it, reformatting your drive and then remembering!

MrSitcom said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
MrSitcom said...

I've just completed a bad experience with I really hate bad customer service and unfortunately, that's what I experience using Nettapes.

Before I explain my story I will point out, I had a camera that was acting a little off and I had trouble playing back my tape on it. So when I saw went online to see if there was a company that could transfer the tape to DVD, I found Nettapes. I filled out their online form and left them a message saying that I was having a little bit of trouble playing it back on my camera. I feel you should know that upfront but it really has nothing to do with the poor service I was about to receive.

Just after Christmas, I sent my tape off, and all seemed great at the beginning. I got an email from them saying the tape arrived and it would be about 2 weeks before they would get it transferred. My credit card was charged immediately. After 2 weeks had passed, I wrote them an email asking for a follow up. They replied pretty quickly and said that due to the holidays they were a little behind but expected to ship my DVD by the weekend. That seemed fair, but that was the last response I received until recently. I followed up again 2 weeks later with another email...with no response...then again a week later, with no response. My wife called the number on the email, and a man with a thick India accent repeated the "we are backed up because of the holidays" excuse. Then he said he could not respond to us and that we would have to use email to correspond. My wife explained that we haven't received any recent responses to our emails and he just went into a robot response mode and kept repeating until we hung up. I did follow up with more emails and no responses. My wife also sent a few emails...with no response. I tried calling a few more times and only got an old fashioned sounding answering machine. The outgoing message on the answering machine repeated that they were backed up because of the holidays...even though it is well into February now. I left messages telling them my order # and that I was no longer interested in their service and wanted them to ship back my tape and refund my money. I never got them to answer the phone on any attempt to call them. Finally nearly 6 weeks later, I received an email that said they were having troubles transferring my tape and wanted to know what I wanted to do...with no reference to any of my previous messages. I responded saying..."as I stated in earlier messages, please return the tape and refund the money". No response. A week later, I received an email saying "your order is complete and is shipping out today". I didn't know what to think...they pretty much ignored my request to return and refund my money. But I figured maybe they worked through the problem and if the DVD arrived and all was good...then fine...I wouldn't use them again...but at least thy completed the job. When the DVD arrived, I popped it in, I discovered there was a problem alright. The audio was fine, but the video was only on the left side of the screen. More the half the screen was a digital mess. The transfer was totally useless. They didn't leave a note on it, no other emails. They still ignored my request to refund, etc. At least I got my tape back...but I was out $14.

Now it was time for follow up.

I went back to their website to see if they listed any other email addresses. I figured since the one I was using didn't get any responses, maybe another one would. I found 3 different emails there, including the one I was sending messages too. I then emailed them all to express my displeasure with the company and asked them why they ignored every message I left and then demanded a refund...again.

Figuring I wasn't going to get a response again, I then went online to see if I could write a review at epinions or complain to the BBB, and I did a google search on and found other people that were having troubles with delays and no responses. I posted up a review that pretty much matched what I typed above. I also took the tape to a local TV station who had no troubles transferring it to DVD with a few tracking adjustments.

Then the responses started coming from an unnamed (did not put his name on the emails) Nettapes source that sent me half-hearted apology, did admit to being backed up, and did offer a partial refund...but then went on to basically say they did nothing wrong.

Then this guy went on to the message board I posted the review on and posted a response that I was unfair and then lied about offering the refund earlier and that they contacted me about the problem with the tape and tried to turn the focus of their lack of customer service onto the tape I sent. Email after email came in now...wish it was before...never taking responsibility for their own problems and trying to lame blame on anything but the problem I was complaining responses and ignoring my requests. If they had responded...they wouldn't have even got to the tape problem.

I don't like poor customer service, and that's what this company has...poor customer service...and a poor product.

In my opinion, I think it's a side business somebody set up in their garage with a few tape machines and when they actually started getting multiple orders they discovered they were in way over their heads. If they are so swamped...hire a few more people and do the job right.

They have since removed the phone number from their website...why bother taking calls if everybody that's calling is mad at you?

What this experience has told me is that there is a demand for this type of service and I'm strongly considering starting up my own competing business that offers everything they customer service.

I hope Stashspace and other companies that are mentioned here take notice. People like to be treated nicely. Communication is good. Answer your phones and don't be scared to talk to your customers.

Until they grow up a little...stay away from

Unknown said...

haha... i'm not sure dental work is worse than video editing. but then i do have a fear of dentists. still i think i'm just gonna have someone do it for me professionally. i don't want to transfer video tape to dvd all day long!