Friday, August 29, 2014

Friday Fad: Time Recording via VHS

Friday Fad is for remembering a piece of technology from our not long forgotten past.

Today we are going to remember the absolute torture of being able to:

  1. program the VCR's digital clock, and
  2. set the schedule to record a show in the future. 

The videocassette recorder known by the short acronym VCR was at its greatest peak during the 1980s and 1990s. This piece of technology started as a way to view movies at home using the plastic-encased magnetic analog video film. Early versions of the VCR included only two buttons: Stop & Play. As more VCRs made their way across the market, we had the ability to rewind, slow, pause, fast-forward and record. 

A videocassette

Video stores were membership-driven places allowing you to rent a videocassette of a movie to take home overnight and then you would return the video to the store. There was a time when these stores would add a surcharge to your rental fee if you did not return the video rewound to the beginning. In fact, a major video chain increased market share when it removed this surcharge and provided its own video rewinders in the store to make sure all of its videos were at the start pointing point for the next customer. 

The VCR was analog TV at its peak. It was pre-digital. Fast forward and rewind took time. Fast forwarding through a commercial break required about 20-seconds and the image would get fuzzy while in this process. So you had to have a keen eye to watch what was being forwarded to the point you needed to return to your show.

This is what fast-forwarding looked like on a VCR.

In effect, you ended up paying more attention to the screen while the commercial was fast-forwarding than you would have if the commercial played out in real time. 

Renting movies was incredible but the power of the VCR was in its ability to record a show when you would not be in your home to physically press the record button. The entertainment industry called this ability "timeshifting" which represented being able to schedule a recording of video at a future date. Being able to do this required PROGRAMMING and most American homes struggled with this concept for entire lifespan of the VCR.

The VCR was a failed promise in its ability to timeshift because of three main reasons:

1. Clock programming
2. Menus not buttons
3. Labeling

The digital alarm clock was easily adapted into the American home before the VCR ever could be. People were able to quickly change the time on a digital clock. The reason is because the digital alarm clock had physical buttons on the exterior of its body clearly indicating hour/minute and up/down. 

The VCR clock did not have this. 

The VCR clock had written directions in the paper handbook showing how to access a MENU to find DISPLAY settings then to find the CLOCK to set your time using a remote. The complete failure of clock programming was that the remote had no indicators on it for adjusting time. The guide would explain that in Settings, you could use the Channel button to adjust hours and then the Volume button to adjust minutes. 

And believe it or not, most American homes could not make the jump to use the Channel button to adjust hours and the Volume button to adjust minutes. 

So most VCRs in our homes would flash 12:00 all the time. 

In the dark of night, you could navigate through your home by the flash of that 12:00. Every now and then you would be aggravated by that flashing 12:00. You would go dig out the manual and sit with the remote. You would navigate through the menus while sighing and getting more angry each minute. You would even refer to the handwritten note you put in the margin to help you remember what you did last time. 

And if you succeeded, it was such a prize to share to others in your home. "Hey, notice anything different?" you might ask your family in the living room? To be the wizard who could program your VCR clock was taken with such pride and accomplishment. These people were masters in their own homes. They were special. 

Pride was quickly ruined in the aftermath of any electrical outage or daylight savings. Clocks would again strobe 12:00 for months after one of those events. 

That flashing clock was a phenomenon that spread through culture in the form of jokes, comedic stand-up routines, punchlines in TV shows themselves, talkshow references, and even President Bush telling the LA Times in the early 90's that his vision for the nation included every single American being able to set the clock on his/her VCR. 

If you were able to program your clock, you unlocked the next level of programming your VCR to do something incredible. You could learn how to set a timer to turn on the record and then turn off at the end of a set time. You could timeshift. 

Once your VCR knew what time it was, it could work with the regular TV Guide schedule of programming. You could look in the paper for the guide to see what time something came on and then set the VCR to start at that time and turn off when it was over. 

Sound amazing?! 

It was and most VCR owners could not do this task on their own because it required that the clock be programmed to the correct time. Because most people could not program time, they could not use the timeshift feature. 

So how did so many people record shows without automatically recording?

The answer is: buy blank tapes and hit the record button on your way out of your house while hoping you don't run out of tape time before making it home. 

Most videocassettes had 6-hours of tape encased in plastic. These also had a cardboard or plastic case to keep dust particles out and make them more organizable. These also came with sticky labels which could be attached to the top-face of a VCR and the side like a binder. You could mark the contents of your tape on the side and top in order to help you know which tapes had your shows on them and which were blank.

Great idea. Didn't work out for most people. Most people don't label or keep the label current to the contents of the videocassette. Here is what most people did:

In most cases, you would remember on your way out the door that you wanted to record a show. You would visually look at whatever VCR tape you had closest to your hand at the time. The plastic viewer allowed you to see how much tape was used on one side compared to how much was left on the other. 

Using your most scientific judgement, you would estimate the amount of time the tape on one side would allow you to record and pick the one with greatest amount of space available. Then you would insert the tape into the VCR, hit the RECORD button, and walk out. 

This meant the VCR would be recording the entire time you were away until you returned to hit the STOP button or if the tape ran out of time.

Just a few problems with this:

  • Run out of tape, missing entire show
  • Run out of tape missing just the end of your show but you don't know it until you are watching it and the tape quits playing. 
  • Taped over a show you didn't want to tape over.
  • Someone changed the channel and taped what they were watching instead of what you wanted to watch.

But if the time was set correctly on the VCR, this opened up the possibility to set a timer to record a show at the time the show broadcast. Being able to do this was the equivalent of pulling Excalibur from a rock.

In summary, the VCR was truly an amazing tool for its time. The systemic failure and frustration with this type of technology was really on our inability to understand the idea that buttons can serve multiple purposes without being labeled as doing such. It also reinforced the idea that we are unable to keep items properly organized and labeled to accurately reflect the contents of what is actually stored on them. 

Imagine how much longer the VCR may have lasted if it had a clock with adjustable buttons available on the front of the device itself with the ability to adjust hours & minutes by pressing up/down. Imagine if VCR cassettes used dry-erase labels for easier organization and labeling. Could the VCR still be a market competitor now if these were available then?

What do you remember about VCRs?

Tuesday, August 26, 2014


Today I want to introduce you to a cool website and app called Thinglink


Free App:

Thinglink is a tool for adding multimedia layers on top of a static photo image. These layers are called "tags" and the tags can be web links, comments, photos, or videos. All you do is tap on the screen to add text or paste a link to other content (including videos from YouTube). 

To save a ThingLink, you must create a free account because your image is actually saved on the website. They will give you an embed code you can use to add your image to your own website. 

An example: My office tour -

On my Digital Learning website, I posted a photo enhanced by Thinglink that is a view of my office. Different objects in the room have the layers of information attached by the red circle buttons on them. You can tap on the different circles to get more information.

The image is viewable on multiple devices including computers and mobile devices.

The idea is adding on layers of interaction onto images so consider these possible project ideas:

Virtual tour
Interactive reports
Digital portfolios
Interactive maps
Interactive book talks
"Talking" art-work
Study guides

A Thinglink showing how Thinglink can be used in your classroom.

Examples of student projects:
Digital storytelling 
5 Senses Worksheet
Learning Functions
Musical Thinglink
Historical Images

Increase your digital fluency by incorporating multiple apps to create a final project using Thinglink.  

Use a collage-making tool like Pic Collage to blend multiple pictures into one image before opening the image in ThingLink.  

Record an explanatory video using either Screen Chomp or Educreations and save the video to your online account. Take a photo of the assigned worksheet and make it a Thinglink to play helpful tips on the assignment. 

Use your iPad camera to take a photo of student artwork and then film the student explaining their technique or their art to viewers on a Thinglink picture of their work. 

Photograph a book cover and allow students to write a review of the work or develop a Sock Puppet or Puppet Pals HD re-enactment of the story to embed into a Thinglink. 

If you have other ideas, questions, comments or if you make a Thinglink - share below in the comments section.