The Digital Edge
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|Bill Schweber||November 4th 2016|
Funai, the last manufacture of video cassette recorders – better known as VCRs – decided to end production at the end of August, reportedly due to difficulty of obtaining key components (see here and here for two reports with some numbers).
Let's be honest: we knew this amazing product would get its "end of life" notice sooner rather than later, as digitally based recording has taken over, and fewer and fewer VCRs are in use. I'll admit it: I still have a VCR and use it with my CRT display and digital-TV over-the-air converter box; you might call it a modest way of walking the walk and living a more-analog life.
My intention here is not to lament the VCR's passing, as its time had truly come and gone; such is progress.
But from an engineering standpoint, the VCR represents an amazing triumph of electronics and mechanical engineering. If you have ever looked inside one of these units (what? you haven't?) especially while it is loading a tape; winding it around the capstan, tension rollers, and head; and doing what it has to do, you have to be amazed at the electromechanical complexity of this consumer device. Prices started around $1,000 when they were introduced, but followed the trail of semiconductors down to under $100 in the following decades. While I can understand how that price decline was done with the ICs, it amazes me that the vendors were able to do that on the mechanical side, considering the extremely sophisticated and precise rotating-drum head assembly, and the complex mechanical linkages and limit switches within the box.
On one hand, the story of the VCR is one of engineering and manufacturing triumph in inventing and perfecting such an amazing device and bringing it to the masses. On the other hand, it's also a sad tale, as relentless price pressure drove the costs – and the quality – down in tandem. The last few VCRs I purchased died early, and each successive unit suffered from elimination of useful features such as basic user front-panel display. Even worse, they embodied what I will politely call "marginal" quality in design and fabrication. It was a shame to see what was once a much-heralded symbol of the success of electromechanical technology prowess reduced to such pitiful circumstances, sort of like a once-glamorous mansion which has been neglected by the current generation of family owners and is now in a sad, shabby state.
The VCR's essential companion; the arcane remote.
As a final insult, the Funai-made combination VCR/DVD player I presently own (and sold under their own label) has the most user-hostile remote control I have ever seen, and I have seen many remotes. Whoever laid it out was probably told to get the design done by the end of the day, so the buttons are arranged with no logical order, and their labels are tiny and almost illegible (see pages 6 and 7 in the user manual here for all the gory details). It's almost as if the vendor wanted to somehow say to the foolish soul who bought this obsolete technology to give up and get up-to-date with more-modern technology.
Do you still have a VCR? Can you think of any other mass-market, low-cost consumer product with comparable mechanical and moving-part complexity that achieved such success, and at such low cost? Only the hard-disk drive (HDD) comes anywhere close. Did you grasp the sophistication of integrated electromechanical engineering and production it required, backed by a complex supply chain?
Bill Schweber, is an electronics engineer and author who has written for EE Times, was analog editor at EDN and prior to that worked in marketing communications for Analog Design and was also editor of its technical journal.