GV - January 1997

When is Video Not Video?
by Sheldon Liebman

When different industries begin speaking to each other, there is always the possibility that they won’t be using the same language. This is especially true as the computer industry has continued growing and has engulfed other industries, both low and high tech.

Sometimes, the words being used by both sides are the same but the meanings are different. In these cases, there is the danger that the two sides will think that they understand each other when in reality they don’t.

As we search for the true meaning of the word "video," which is now used heavily by the computer industry, let’s start by looking at a few other key definitions that have been redefined over the past few years.

A Moving Experience
Ten years ago, when I was first involved with Digital Arts, we tried to convince animators that using a computer was a great way to save time and create more consistent results. Even more difficult was the fact that we were touting the personal computer as the path to glory at a time when even workstation based products were looked upon as too slow to do the job.

In the middle of all that confusion about whether computers could perform animation, a simple term made the task even more difficult. To animators, the term had a very specific meaning. To computer graphics programmers, the term also had a very specific meaning. Unfortunately, the meanings weren’t the same and more than a few system sales were delayed or canceled as a result.

The word was "rotoscoping." To a traditional animator, this was the process of creating animation that mimicked the motions of the real world. Walt Disney Studios and all of the other large animation houses had been doing it for years. If you want to animate a character dancing, you could film a live model doing the very steps the character would later perform. Then, you’d draw each frame of the animated character on top of the live image to ensure that the motions matched.

Meanwhile, in the fast moving world of 3D computer animation, images were becoming more realistic through the first applications of textures, reflections and shadows. In the never ending quest for the next best special effect, experiments were being done using live video as the source for these mapping functions. It was quickly discovered that you could map successive frames of video onto successive frames of computer animation and get pretty impressive results. Unfortunately, someone decided this should be called rotoscoping too.

It would probably have been more reasonable to call the effect "moving textures," but that didn’t sound catchy enough. So, the computer graphics industry started trying to convince traditional animators that their definition of rotoscoping had been changed. At Digital Arts, we supported this function, but we started out by referring to it as "animated texture maps." And whenever someone would call and ask if we supported rotoscoping, we’d ask them to describe what they were talking about. Eventually, we went along with the rest of the computer graphics industry and just started calling it rotoscoping too. But it always bothered me and I know it bothered a lot of traditional animators.

What’s really interesting about this particular situation is that it isn’t over. One of the biggest areas of growth in animation today is the use of "motion capture systems." If you look at it closely, motion capture is really just a new way of doing rotoscoping and they still have the name wrong! With motion capture, you attach probes to various parts of a live model’s body and film the model doing the movement you eventually want to assign to your animated character. Instead of drawing each frame over the corresponding live image, the positional data for each frame is brought into the animation system and assigned to the animated character. In this way, the motion of the synthetic actor exactly matches the motion of the original live actor. Sounds like rotoscoping to me!

In fact, one of the original pioneers of 3D computer animation used (real) rotoscoping in one of his more famous commercials. When Robert Abel created "Sexy Robot" in the early 1980s, neither motion capture nor moving textures were being used. To get his computer generated woman to move as realistically as possible, Abel filmed a live model with bright colors on her joints. When it came time to create the commercial, animators brought in each frame of video and positioned the 3D character to match the live model. Although it only aired on television once, this :30 piece was played countless times at SIGGRAPH and animation festivals all over the world.

Presenting in Multiple Formats
Another confusing phrase is "multimedia." To listen to the computer companies tell it, you’d think that multimedia was invented just a few years ago. However, if you speak with any presentation professional who’s been around more than five years, you’ll immediately understand that the computer definition of multimedia doesn’t really match the traditional meaning of the word.

Before there were computers, creating interesting presentations involved using lots of different types of equipment. There was video and film for motion with sound, there were slides from one or more projectors and there was sound. A complex presentation may have used all of these types of media. In fact, that’s where the phrase multimedia came from. It referred to using MULTIple types of MEDIA together.

Today, the term multimedia usually refers to a computer presentation that combines still images, sound and animation in an integrated presentation. Technically, it’s probably ok to refer to this as multimedia, but the end result is all presented from one medium - the computer! In fact, through the use of clip art, video clips and sound libraries, many multimedia presentations are completely created on the computer without the need to use any other type of device.

What’s Wrong with This Picture?
These two examples demonstrate how easy it is to create confusion when one industry "borrows" a term from another without completely thinking about the consequences. In what may be the biggest blunder of all, the same thing is happening with the word "video."

When computers were first introduced, I’m not sure anyone imagined that they would merge so completely with the video industry. In fact, early computer displays that were compatible with video didn’t have the term in their description. The first PC displays to support color were called Color Graphics Adapters, or CGAs. Many CGA cards contained an RCA connector that could be used to drive a standard television monitor. At Digital Arts, we told our customers that they could create real time motion previews of their animation by plugging the CGA card into a VCR and recording the results.

As computer graphics displays evolved, the RCA jack disappeared. First came EGA, which stood for Enhanced Graphics Adapter. Then came VGA, the Video Graphics Adapter. We even have S-VGA or SuperVGA. That might not be so bad except that we also have S-Video and SuperVHS. Nothing about these signals is compatible, but they’re both "video."

VGA uses 480 lines, NTSC has 525. VGA is a progressive scanning signal, NTSC is interlaced. VGA is digital, NTSC started as analog. And finally, VGA is a component signal and NTSC began as a composite signal. Of course, if we include PAL and/or SECAM video formats in the equation, things get even worse.

But it doesn’t stop there. If the computer people always called it a VGA, we might be able to ignore that it has the word "video" in it’s description. Unfortunately, every company, every magazine and every electronics store refers to VGA cards as "video cards." It would be so much easier if they were described as "display adapters," a more appropriate description of what they do.

Then, we could reserve the phrase "video cards" for the newer crop of products that actually take video into computers or put out a true video signal from a computer. Since there really isn’t a better term to use for these products, this is how they should be described. Today, when someone is talking about the product used to take video into a computer, it’s usually referred to as a "compression" or "capture" card. If you’re getting real video output, one frequently heard description is the "video out" or "NTSC out" card.

At one point, there was a crop of products that were referred to as "video VGAs." The two most popular were from Truevision and Magni and almost brought us back to the days of the original CGA cards. These products were dual purpose cards that created both a standard VGA signal that could be displayed on a computer monitor and a traditional NTSC video signal that could be displayed on a television monitor. Very few people, if any, saw the irony of creating a "video video graphics adapter," but there they were for everyone to see.

Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed…
As the world becomes smaller and industries continue to overlap and move toward each other, it’s likely that there will be more confusion, not less. However, we can each vow not to make this problem worse. When you’re trying to figure out how to refer to a product or process, try to come up with something original. Even if you think you’re borrowing a phrase from a completely unrelated industry, avoid the temptation. When all the dust has settled, who knows what bizarre combinations of industries will take place. After all, who would have predicted what’s happened already?

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