Interactive prototype in Mozilla Hubs (VR-compatible): https://hubs.mozilla.com/epspeC7/tapes

INTRODUCTION.

Project Tapes is an interactive virtual reality art piece that showcases the experiences of people from the late 1970s to the early 2000s enjoying cultural products, specifically one dynamic format, which is video. TV programs, shows, movies, and home videos start playing an important role in people’s entertainment life. VHS, as one of the most popular video formats, is a primary media form and a carrier of videos during the last few decades of analog format that is becoming obsolete since the digital formats and the Internet has taken over.

This project plays the role of a museum + a simulation for the late-20th century analog media focusing on video (broadcast TV, movies & shows, etc.; VHS as the most common carrier).

THREE HISTORICAL APPROACHES.

Resonance: Visually, this project will give users a nostalgic feeling for people born before the 21st century.

Educational: For Gen-Z people, this is more like a historical exhibition.

Reflection: How the way people get information and enjoy cultural products has changed? And how people’s way of seeing the world based on the evolution of media has changed/not changed?

AN ANALOG FORMAT.

Cassette tapes and Cartridge tapes are the mediums that record audio, video, and data. They were widely adopted since the 1960s and became one of the major ways to carry media before the digital age.

It’s not just an ancient technology. It’s also a carrier of culture that represented those decades. As a 90s kid, our generation got huge benefits from this, along with all other technologies from the end of the 20th century that shaped pop culture.

We used to enjoy music using cassettes, and they brought us a lot of great memories, although using it was not convenient as today, like skipping songs. Our album collection was not just a list – it was on our bookshelf, physically.

The same applied to movies, recorded TV shows, and Home Videos. Do you still have your VHS collection on your shelf, or maybe in your storage covered with dust? As the videotape format war went on since the late 1970s, video cassettes, video cassette recorders (VCR), and video camcorders became popularized in the consumer market. It ends up that VHS became the most adopted video format that nearly dominates the videotape market. Some Gen-Z kids making fun of old videos on YouTube with “bad quality” compared to modern videos, leaving comments such as “I thought the air quality was bad before 2008”. Even today, when we were asked to record a video clip, some people would say “tape it,” even though our camcorder or smartphone does not use any medium with cassettes.

We’re going back to a specific era, the 1970s-2000s, the dusk before the age of digital media and the Internet, and the last age when analog media was in the spotlight.

LIFESTYLE IN 1970S-2000S.

How do people get information?

Without the Internet, traditional platforms like newspapers, radio, and TV were the major way for people to get information. While the first two were already there for a while, TV has just stepped into its golden age in the 80s [1].

Need to know if you need an umbrella tomorrow? People get weather reports from TV. You can get your local weather report usually from your local news channel, or The Weather Channel. Noted that the Local Forecast (now Local on the 8s) from The Weather Channel has now become a commonly-used resource for vaporwave arts. The same thing applied to news. People’s way of getting news has evolved from “reading news”, “listening to news”, to “watching the news”. With decades of innovation on television cameras, people were able to witness historical events in a dynamic format. However, once it’s aired, you usually can’t rewatch it unless you have a copy of TV recordings.

Figure. “Information” session. A CRT monitor playing Local Forecast from the Weather Channel.

How do people enjoy cultural products?

Specifically, I’m referring to cultural works in a video form factor that were usually stored in those magnetic tapes.

Compared to the way people watch movies and shows nowadays, there were some major frustrations.

First, Netflix doesn’t exist.  The streamlined experience includes buying/renting videotapes, collecting them, and playing them in a VCR.  There were tons of video shops offering movies and shows in VHS format. Comparing to the modern experience,

  • Buying or renting physical tapes are time-consuming.
  • It may cost more, depending on your preference. What didn’t change today is that you still can buy or rent a movie. However, by using online streaming services with a subscription model, you can watch as many shows as you want at a lower, monthly price.
  • You may have a huge collection of movies and shows, along with your music cassettes and game cartridges in your room. Collecting physical tapes could be a great hobby and some people still prefer that. The problem is it’s space-consuming. It may dominate your bookshelf or even your storage room.

Figure. “Bookshelf” session. A monitor playing an actual footage of a group of people goes to a video shop where you can buy/rent VHS tapes.

Second, the progress bar doesn’t exist. You can’t easily go back to rewatch the scenes like we can do today by dragging the bar. You have to rewind the tape physically. Besides, once you finish watching the tape and would like to rewatch it, you have to fully rewind the tape to the beginning before you play it again. Most VCR players have a function that allows users to rewind or fast-forward a VHS tape when watching it. You can also rewind the tape manually by hand. There are some issues that users may experience:

  • Rewinding tapes are time-consuming.
  • A user’s fault may damage the tape. For example, if you force the fully-rewound tape to turn farther, the tape may be broken.

Third, YouTube doesn’t exist. You need some empty VHS tapes and record your favorite TV shows using the VCR. Without video sharing service like YouTube or websites hosted by television broadcasting stations, you won’t likely be able to rewatch your missed TV shows, unless it’s being rebroadcasted. More importantly, YouTube is a place to showcase your video pieces. Remember YouTube’s earlier slogan? “Broadcast Yourself”. Back in the age before the Internet, you can’t easily share what you had seen, and what you recorded to more people.

Figure. “Home Videos” session. Showing a clip of a family’s Christmas holiday footage recorded using a VHS camcorder in 1990.

Finally, it does not consist of 0 and 1. VHS tapes are made of Mylar (a kind of plastic) with a layer of tiny magnetic particles on it. The quality of the tape will be downgraded after many times of playing. There is an interesting fact: even in modern days, if a digital video clip were uploaded, downloaded, and reuploaded to YouTube hundreds of times, the quality will be downgraded as well. [2] This applied to other media in digital format as well.

From the frustration I mentioned, we can see that without the Internet, what people saw, listened to, and watched are easy to vanish. Say TV programs – unless you recorded the clip in your VHS tape, those pictures were just stored in your brain. That’s why those clips are preciousness, and now even worth money for people to buy for collection. Some of them played a role as a witness of major historical events, which became historical data. Today, some clips were uploaded on the Internet, so people got chances to witness those historical moments on TV once again, which they never thought they could be.

AS A CARRIER OF CULTURE.

How do people become aware or learn about other cultures from mediums like videos?

Just as rock, wood, and paper as the mediums that documented human history, the new kinds of media that were made since the industrial revolution have changed how people write history that demonstrates human cultures, in a vivid and realistic way. Since the film was invented at the end of the 19th century, videotapes, along with music records and camera rolls, were important carriers of culture in the 20th century. VHS, introduced in the 1970s, became available not only for professionals but also for the consumer market, so it can also accurately showcase a piece of history, or cultural phenomenons, from the perspective of not only people with power but also ordinary peoples.

Rareness

A set of colored photographs of China photographed by Leroy W. Demery, Jr in the 1980s became viral on the Chinese Internet [3]. Back then, not a lot of people have colored cameras in China. These pictures recovered people’s memories about what China looks like back then. For the newer generation, these are also historical materials that are intuitive to observe.

The same applied to video recording. Again, that was the day before YouTube, and you can’t share your video to the world and watch videos from other people. Put this in a historical perspective, this would be more interesting. Before VHS camcorder became affordable to most families in China in the early 90s, there were earlier clips recorded by foreign visitors that were rare to find until they were available on YouTube. Once again, or maybe for the first time for the younger generation, people can see what China looks like from a Point-of-View perspective, even in detail. Just like Leroy W. Demery, Jr’s photographs, these photos are not necessary to be professional, but truly show the world from an ordinary people’s perspective, instead of just the mass media and governments.

Just like this, and the “vanishing TV show”, modern technologies in digital format like CD, hard drive, and the Internet played a role as a bridge to connect us to the blurry past. Maybe VHS won’t be extinct completely [4], but it won’t be a mainstream format that will make most people aware in the future, and the fact is unlike roll film and music records, it does not have any physical advantage compared to modern formats [5]. While those remaining VHS tapes become degaussing and become history, digital carriers save the information and make those accessible (revisit-able) with the power of the Internet.

Figure. “Witnessing History” session. Footage of the live coverages of good news, and bad news. Edited by NBC, from The 50th Anniversary of the Today Show.

Isolation

That was the age before globalization when cultural communication and cultural exchange weren’t as frequent and easy as in modern days. People have limited access to information from other countries. That causes misunderstanding of other countries’ cultures, politics, economic development, and how people from other places live and think. People would be likely to hear information from a biased view/filtered view controlled by the media. Even today, this problem exists – naturally, people tend to hear and believe what they want to hear. The Internet makes the global village possible, and people’s view of the world became more objective than they used to be. But before the Internet, people are living on their own information island. Cultural products that are either representing other cultures (may have stereotypical views) or made by people from different countries are limited to access.

Video Artist Nam June Paik has already imagined that one day people “will be able to switch to any TV station on the earth, and TV Guides will be as fat as Manhattan Telephone Book” in his 1973 art piece, Global Groove [5]. Nowadays, we can do this easier online. And not just TV programs – since VHS camcorders have evolved into HD or 4K cameras even on our phone, plus the platforms like YouTube, and the World Wide Web, people in the U.S. are able to see a random Japanese guy’s vlog show their daily life, and their own perspective of their art, food, and culture. Digital technologies helped build a global village, and gradually (although not yet completely) break the cultural isolation that we used to have.

Figure. “Seeing the World” session. Shows the real street footage at New York, USA in 1991, and Beijing, China in 1996.

LO-FI IS NOT JUST FOR NOSTALGIA.

At the end of the virtual exhibition (next to the door, where is the user’s spawn point), you will see a TV playing a very-distorted video clip of a movie’s ending credit from a very degaussed VHS tape, along with a modern flat LED TV plays a clip of the shutdown of BBC’s analog TV broadcasting.

Compared to its successors (DVD, Blu-ray (1080P), and 4K) with an aspect ratio of 16:9, VHS has lower quality with 4:3. Besides, commercial films that we have seen in the movie theaters have even a wider screen. When we enjoy our favorite movies at home in VHS format, the picture you were seeing is either horizontally cropped or compressed with blanks on the top and the bottom – it has a term called “letterboxing”. The same applied to the transition period for analog TV. For the television broadcasting industry, During the transition period from 4:3 to 16:9 (either in SD or HD), producers have to make sure that all subtitles and essential elements have to fit in a 4:3 screen, even though the channel is offering 16:9 programs at the same time. In order to fully transition to 16:9, the letterboxing technique was adopted to make the full 16:9 image shown in a 4:3 TV. This was adopted by several TV stations during the last few years of analog broadcasting.

Figure. TVB Jade, A Hong Kong TV channel, has transitioned from 4:3-optimized image to letterboxing mode for analog TV on March 6, 2017, 3 years before the end of the analog TV broadcast. The entire 16:9 image is jammed into the 4:3 screen, except the digital on-screen graphic – the “TVB Jade” logo on the upper-right.

Figure. TVB Jade (in HD), approximately in 2009. During the 4:3-16:9 transition period, the digital on-screen graphic and subtitles have to be fit in the 4:3 frame.

Low-fidelity (lo-fi) has now become an art form, or a style that is used for video editing. While HD and 4K offer sharper images and better sound quality, lo-fi, which has lower image quality, blurry sounds, and sometimes even with snowflakes inside of it, has become an aesthetic. Vaporwave – a subculture, also a new art genre that appeared since the early 2010s, is a representative demonstration of it. Besides, Nam June Paik’s video arts have also been adopting lo-fi effects.

Lo-fi is a form of nostalgia. Apparently, its image and sound effects shows what VHS tapes look and sound like. The VHS Camcorder app introduced in 2015 allows users to record video clips in a realistic VHS graphics – it offers an authentic VHS quality, allowing users to also add & edit time and date like most of the VHS camcorders, plus some functions like color filters and adding texts with retro typefaces. Using this app, you can fool people by saying that this video clip is from 30 years ago.

Moreover, lo-fi is one of the demonstrations of the media industry, especially televisions, in the age of VHS along with other analog media. Previously, I mentioned that people can record their TV shows using their VCRs. TV, back then, has the same 4:3 image. While when you were watching TV, you won’t feel it’s blurry at all, since it was broadcasted in the first time; and what we see from the internet that has degraded image could be from dated VHS tapes. But either way, it was analog TV. Just like VHS, it is an analog format, and it’s also going away. At 12 AM, December 1, 2020, Hong Kong officially flipped the switch for analog TV; for some countries and regions, like the United States and Japan, have always gone forward to end analog TV broadcasting in around the 2000s and early 2010s.

Figure. “Goodbye Analog” session. Say goodbye to an era. On the left hand side, The very degaussed VHS tape shows an editing credit of a movie shows that VHS tapes as a magnetic material are vanishing with the history. On the right side, a modern, flat TV shows a footage of the end of the analog TV broadcasting for BBC One. Both are showing the end of an era in a special way.

REFERENCES.

[1] Why the Golden Age of TV Was Really Born in the 1980s, https://www.vulture.com/2016/10/golden-age-of-tv-was-born-in-the-1980s.html

[2] This Is What Happens When You Re-Upload a YouTube Video 1000 Times!, https://youtu.be/JR4KHfqw-oE

[3] Leroy W. Demery, Jr.’s Albums | Flickr, https://www.flickr.com/photos/lwdemery/albums/with/72157613804333021

[4]EnterTech: Vanishing VHS may never die completely, https://www.sctimes.com/story/entertainment/tech/2016/07/27/entertech-vanishing-vhs-may-never-die-completely/87439248/

[5] Do you think VHS tapes will make a comeback like records?, https://www.quora.com/Do-you-think-VHS-tapes-will-make-a-comeback-like-records

[6] Nam June Paik – Global Groove, 1973, https://youtu.be/7UXwhIQsYXY

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