Video Recording Formats: Are We Done Yet?

While attending a corporate video shoot last week, I was a taken back by the recording gear sitting atop the videographer’s two tripods: not sophisticated prosumer models from Canon or Sony, not a couple of standard consumer beer can-style camcorders, not even a pair of GoPros.

No, what these professional video makers were using to shoot footage of a couple of talking head executives were two off-the-shelf D-SLRs.

Stupidly, I didn’t quiz the pros on why they eschewed specialized video equipment (especially since digital cameras are limited to shooting just 30 minutes—29:59, actually—at a time). But in many ways, this unusual (to me) digital camera deployment represents the confused nature of our nearly 35 year wrestling match with consumer video recording.

And, apparently, the confusion isn’t about to end.

Another Year, Another Format

Of course, “home video” started out as home movies, 8mm film back in the 1930s, a cumbersome format that nonetheless satisfied our needs to capture the moments of our lives for more than half a century.

Then, in 1983, our “modern” and confusing home video movie era began with the release of the Sony Betamovie BMC-100P.

In the succeeding three and a half decades, consumers have had to choose from a dizzying parade of largely incompatible video recording media formats. These included full-size VHS, VHS-C, 8mm, Hi8, MiniDV and different types of built-in and external memory. You get the picture.

In the normal technological universe, format changes are usually generational. But in the video recording world, we’re talking one new format, on average, less than every four years.

And these media format changes don’t include the varying resolution upgrades from VGA to SD to HD to 4K, often incompatible video compression codecs (analog, M-JPEG, MPEG-1, MDV, MPEG-2, AVC/H.264, AVCHD, MPEG-4 and its variations), and ever-shrinking physical forms (two-piece, shoulder, beer can, pistol grip, slab/sport, action).

In the late 2000s, digital cameras became capable of recording in increasingly higher quality video resolution. But in late 2011, the first smartphones able to capture 1080p HD video appeared, signaling the eventual downfall of the standalone camcorder as a mainstream product.

Who’s Left?

Standard camcorder sales have been dropping steadily since 2009, when 5.86 million were sold in the U.S., according to CTA. This year, only 560,000 “standard” (i.e. non-action cams) camcorders are estimated to sell.

Specialty action cams, principally those from GoPro, jumped ahead of traditional camcorder vendors like Sony and Panasonic in unit sales. But, now, action cam sales have stalled with GoPro reporting several consecutive disappointing quarters bridging 2015-2016.

What’s Next?

And, no, apparently we are not done yet. While there are a growing number of digital cameras, smartphones and action cams that shoot in 4K, most employ the existing and aging H.264 codec, which may soon be inadequate to satisfy consumer storage needs, both local and cloud, especially of smartphones that lack memory expandability. And transferring/sharing thick 4K footage wirelessly? Well, forget it.

But there doesn’t seem to be a real-time HEVC encoder in sight to solve these 4K footage storage and sharing crises.

As 4K video capture devices are arriving in traditional video recording forms, perhaps the next phenom video-capture craze will be drones.

Consumer drone sales are inarguably on the rise, but only a percentage of these drones include cameras—what percentage is difficult to project. Our educated guesstimate is around 20 percent of drones include an integrated camera.

But doesn’t it seem weird to call a drone equipped with a camera a “camcorder”?

And if drones are a new thing, 360/spherical/VR cameras are barely post-natal. Samsung, LG, Ricoh, Kodak and Nikon are just a few of the recognizable camera brands who have unleashed 360-degree video capture devices. And these action cams vary radically in form—some are actually spherical, some flat, some cubed and, of course, some are built into drones.

Whether or not camera drones or 360 camcorders become mainstream devices is anyone’s guess. But perhaps this cauldron of continuing camcorder confusion is what led the videographers I spied to settle on old fashioned D-SLRs for their corporate shoot, and leads most consumers to simply shoot the moving world around them on their smartphones.