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Television DRM Media The Media Technology

The Forgotten Tale of Cartrivision's 1972 VCR 92

harrymcc writes: In 1972 -- years before Betamax and VHS -- a Silicon Valley startup called Cartrivision started selling VCRs built into color TVs. They offered movies for sale and rent -- everything from blockbusters to porn -- using an analog form of DRM, and also let you record broadcast TV. There was also an optional video camera. And it was a spectacular flop. Over at Fast Company, Ross Rubin tells the fascinating story of this ambitious failure.
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The Forgotten Tale of Cartrivision's 1972 VCR

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  • Analog DRM, no way (Score:5, Informative)

    by wonkey_monkey ( 2592601 ) on Monday September 21, 2015 @10:10AM (#50566723) Homepage

    using an analog form of DRM

    So, that'd be "RM", then.

    In case you're wondering, it was simply that only the rental store could rewind rental tapes (cartridges).

    Not so much rights management as blanket functionality removal.

    • by Waffle Iron ( 339739 ) on Monday September 21, 2015 @10:29AM (#50566819)

      In case you're wondering, it was simply that only the rental store could rewind rental tapes (cartridges).

      I bet that still didn't stop them from having a $1 "rewind fee" policy.

    • by houstonbofh ( 602064 ) on Monday September 21, 2015 @10:38AM (#50566899)

      using an analog form of DRM

      So, that'd be "RM", then.

      In case you're wondering, it was simply that only the rental store could rewind rental tapes (cartridges).

      Not so much rights management as blanket functionality removal.

      DRM is "blanket functionality removal." That is it's intention. It fails, but that is not the point...

      • by TWX ( 665546 )
        DRM is Digital Rights Management. Preventing a special cartridge from being rewound without inerting a pin into a special hole on the rental tape is not digital. It's a literal mechanical lock. Probably easily defeated too, but most people wouldn't bother unless someone else made a machine to do it for them.

        I admit I only skimmed the article. As a kid we watched rental tapes over and over while we had the tapes. One-watch per rental simply wouldn't fly. We also had separate VCRs from our TVs, we ha
        • DRM is Digital Rights Management. Preventing a special cartridge from being rewound without inerting a pin into a special hole on the rental tape is not digital. It's a literal mechanical lock. Probably easily defeated too, but most people wouldn't bother unless someone else made a machine to do it for them.

          Given what I've seen, if the company had succeeded you would have been able to purchase everything from a completed rewinder* to a kit to plans where you have to get all the mechanics yourself.

          So between the one-watch model, the higher startup-costs associated with having to buy the TV/VCR combo, and the reduced portability I can see why the system didn't really take off.

          Don't forget reduced quality over the original broadcasts - tape tech wasn't quite there yet, so it only recorded every third frame. 20 fps vs 60 (rounding).

          Like a lot of start-ups in the multimedia format business, DRM is nothing but a weighted chain. Formats succeed despite DRM, not because of it.

          *Sold even in the

          • I thought Broadcast tv was 24 frames/sec back in the bad old days.
            • No. It was actually 60 fields per second interlaced, 30 frames per second-- and that was for the monochrome signal. Due to technological limitations, the color information was at 29.97 frames per second which means there had to be two frames dropped (off the timecode, not the content) every minute except on the tens (10, 20, 30, etc.) to keep in sync.

              The 24 fps you are thinking of is for film.

        • No one was interested in immediately rewatching a movie in our house. But not being able to rewind the tape if something interrupted the viewing would have been a killer.
      • DRM is "blanket functionality removal." That is it's intention. It fails, but that is not the point...

        While I certainly agree with that point for some implementations of DRM, I think there are cases where it's not altogether bad. Take Netflix, for example -- I am very clear that I am paying for the right to watch items that Netflix has, whenever I want to, so long as I'm internet connected. That's what I signed up for. I don't own every episode of M*A*S*H or Star Trek, but I'm enrolled in a service which lets me watch them on demand.

        Of course, if I, say, buy a movie, then yes, I should be able to watch

    • by Anonymous Coward

      Wouldn't that actually be "ARM" ?

    • by schnell ( 163007 )

      In case you're wondering, it was simply that only the rental store could rewind rental tapes (cartridges). Not so much rights management as blanket functionality removal.

      Yes, but it can also been seen as a rather clever technical solution to the question of "how do you get people to only watch a movie once if that is what they paid for?" Of course the smarter approach would have been that adopted by the later VHS rental industry - just pay for how long you keep it, not how many times you watched it. But these guys were writing the rules as they went along in an entirely new market, and it's at least a concept that was worth exploring given the technology at hand (and potent

    • by GNious ( 953874 )

      using an analog form of DRM

      So, that'd be "RM", then.

      In case you're wondering, it was simply that only the rental store could rewind rental tapes (cartridges).

      Not so much rights management as blanket functionality removal.

      Soo, Mechanical Rights Management ?

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday September 21, 2015 @10:11AM (#50566725)

    In the history of technology, the first to develop a technology and attempt to bring it to market is usually not the one that is ultimately successful.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Tablizer ( 95088 )

      In the history of technology, the first to develop a technology and attempt to bring it to market is usually not the one that is ultimately successful.

      That's why Microsoft was so successful: they let the market test ideas, and then stole, bought, or cloned only proven ideas.

      When they did NOT follow this formula, such as for Bob, Zune, their first tablet, and Windows 8 tablet/desktop mishmash, they failed.

      • by houstonbofh ( 602064 ) on Monday September 21, 2015 @10:43AM (#50566935)

        In the history of technology, the first to develop a technology and attempt to bring it to market is usually not the one that is ultimately successful.

        That's why Microsoft was so successful: they let the market test ideas, and then stole, bought, or cloned only proven ideas.

        When they did NOT follow this formula, such as for Bob, Zune, their first tablet, and Windows 8 tablet/desktop mishmash, they failed.

        Funny that you mention Bob. Yes it was a failure... But one of the marketing team, Melinda French, did all right by it. ;) Also, Bob was ported into Office as the "Office Assistants" that created much derision, but also saw a lot of use with non-tech types. And the concept behind it, especially the heuristic learning of behavior tied to content, is what eventually became Cortina.

        • by Tablizer ( 95088 )

          It's true they gradually learned from their mistakes and found eventual use for the technology, but had they followed the original formula, they wouldn't have had unleashed Bob and Clippy on the world.

          Was the bumpy early journey worth it overall? Close call either way I'd reckon. It's not like Cortina is wildly popular, and they could have purchased similar technology from outside.

    • by Jhon ( 241832 ) on Monday September 21, 2015 @10:51AM (#50566983) Homepage Journal

      Edison didn't invent the light bulb -- he invented a way to make it cheaply (no platinum) and last longer.

      • Edison didn't invent the light bulb -- he invented a way to make it cheaply (no platinum) and last longer.

        The Edison light bulb could be wired in parallel. The single most significant step forward and the one most easily forgotten. Lights could now be individually controlled and the failure of a single bulb wouldn't plunge you into the dark.

    • by jandrese ( 485 )
      Sometimes products are just ahead of their time. This certainly looks like a case of a gadget being released before the technology was ready. Symptoms generally include excessively high price points that make the technology too expensive for mass market audiences. This is why you often see sour grapes from people who go "massive hit X wasn't even first, they were the knockoff imitators!", not realizing that the original product was bad simply because it was too expensive to be practical.
    • I ordered two out of an ad in Popular Electronics. nice transformers, power supply, lots of good resistors and transistors to salvage. periodically I dip into my parts bins, and if I don't have a new resistor, I go back to the pulls from Cartrivison. often have the half-watt value, and none have tested out of tolerance. put the power supply section of my first into a cabinet, 3-voltage adjustable supply, and used that on the bench for years. had to sell it to get through my second college run and caree

    • In the history of technology, the first to develop a technology and attempt to bring it to market is usually not the one that is ultimately successful.

      Daimler-Benz seemed to do reasonably well after inventing the modern internal combustion automobile and all... "By unit sales, Daimler is the thirteenth-largest car manufacturer and second-largest truck manufacturer in the world."

      Marconi had a pretty solid monopoly on wireless communications for quite a few decades.

      Holt's (patented) continuous track tractor

  • LOL ... porn ... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by gstoddart ( 321705 ) on Monday September 21, 2015 @10:12AM (#50566729) Homepage

    So it really is true ... all new technology must support porn.

    From the first photography, to the first page-flip animations ... it's all porn, and always has been.

    And yet humans still idiotically think they can curb such things, despite hundreds of thousands of years of evolution which says "humans are hardwired for sex".

    All these isms which say porn bad, sex bad ... I figure they're mostly moronic because they completely ignore the fact that it's always been a part of humans, and isn't going to go away because your ism says so. In fact, if you ism wants it to go away, that's probably a sign your ism is crap.

    If the first thing people do is say "in what way does this facilitate seeing boobies?", you're never going to get rid of it.

    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward

      If the first thing people do is say "in what way does this facilitate seeing boobies?", you're never going to get rid of it.

      Well, we got rid of Cartrivision.

    • by trevc ( 1471197 )
      The latest is the banning of Sex Robots because, as Robot anthropologist and ethicist Kathleen Richardson, from De Montfort University in the UK, warns "these robots will encourage the sexual objectification of women and children."
    • I think "Sex makes the world go 'round" is a lot more reassuring than "Money makes the world go 'round".
      • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

        by Anonymous Coward

        Sex doesn't make the world go 'round, though.

        Sex makes the world move in a reciprocal motion.

    • Right. My cell phone is mostly for porn. So are the bluetooth speakers I pair it to. My awesome electric car mostly drives me to the adult video store and back. My roomba has an inflatable doll on top, my XBox is hacked to play "Custer's Revenge," my solar panels just power a rotating bed, and my Kindle is for reading Wesley Crusher: Teenage Fuck Machine [amazon.com].

      • Hmm. And here I thought alt.ensign.wesley.die.die.die was for an entirely different purpose.
    • by CODiNE ( 27417 )

      All these isms which say porn bad, sex bad ... I figure they're mostly moronic because they completely ignore the fact that it's always been a part of humans, and isn't going to go away because your ism says so. In fact, if you ism wants it to go away, that's probably a sign your ism is crap.

      I understand your distaste for people trying to enforce their morality on you. However "People have always done something" is a poor determination of whether or not something is "wrong".

      You've got murder, rape, child a

      • No, he's saying "people have always done this normal human bodily function and human need" (enjoying sex, sight of nude bodies, etc.)

        Those harmful behaviors you list are different matter

    • by swb ( 14022 )

      I think it was probably pretty cutting edge offering porn in 1972!

      I mean, this was pre-VHS/Betamax and depending on how you want to date it, almost pre-Deep Throat and the brief mainstream fascination with X rated movies as more-or-less acceptable entertainment of the 1970s. I think it was an era where some local vice squads would still raid a place *showing* a porno film.

      My general understanding was that general public interest in porn spike with Deep Throat and there was a brief window where it was seen

      • by Anonymous Coward

        Ah.... No...

        Haven't you ever heard of stag parties. 8mm film was the way it was delivered before VCR's. And if I remember correctly most homes had film projectors. I have two in my basement, one from the late 50's and one from the late 60's. I can remember as a child in the early 60's watching hour long Micky Mouse and Pluto movies. I think you had to buy them at the time. There was even 8mm film on a roller about the size of a cup coaster that was about 15 minutes long.

        Stag films were passed around from fr

    • despite hundreds of thousands of years of evolution which says "humans are hardwired for sex".

      "Men are hardwired for sex"

      There fixed that for you

  • by jpellino ( 202698 ) on Monday September 21, 2015 @10:18AM (#50566765)
    The equivalent of $7,172 in 2015 dollars, skip frame 1:3 recording and no rewind. And they failed you say? Early bird gets the worm, second mouse gets the cheese.
    • by Kjella ( 173770 )

      Well Prima Cinema is apparently still in business where for $35000 + $500/rental you can see first-run movies at home. If you're a multi-millionaire apparently that's an ok price not to go to the cinema and hang out with the plebs. Really early adopter prices are hard to compare to "sane" price, because the whole point would be you had it first. And you did it because you had that much disposable cash.

      • And, really ... nobody has any sympathy for early adopters. Sure, they buy new tech and blaze the trail, and eventually the price comes down. But caring that someone was willing to spend thousands (if not tens of thousands) on new technology now has obsolete tech? No way.

        Those guys who dropped $10K on plasma screen? Or any other piece of brand new tech? Nope, sorry ... can't even begin to care that the last time I saw any in a store they were being liquidated for $400 or so.

        Early adopters get first loo

        • by lgw ( 121541 )

          Those guys who dropped $10K on plasma screen? Or any other piece of brand new tech? Nope, sorry ... can't even begin to care that the last time I saw any in a store they were being liquidated for $400 or so.

          I Spent $3K on a plasma screen ~15 years ago, and it was a great TV for 10+ years: better color than LCD ever managed, no malfunctioning pixels ever, and that price over 10 years isn't bad at all. And it the time, a 42" screen one person could lift was a miracle.

          So a couple years ago I replaced it: with a 60" plasma screen, for $3K. Terrific panel, very black blacks, no artifacts even with very fast action, still better color than any LCD screen. I'm sure it will be solid for 10 years as well. And I can

        • Thank you, you get it...

          Lots of people have "media rooms", far fewer have a real home theater...

          As in, a real theater with a real movie projector that shows what the cinemas show, a THX certified sound system, and a high end screen...

          You know you're in the right house when there are two employees in the home theater, one to operate the projector and one to provide food and beverage service. At that point the cost for the movie is trivial...

      • Yes, but Prima Cinema is a very narrow market, but one that does exist.

        That being said, you can also get the actual film reels if you have that much money, you just have to ask.

        I saw Far and Away in a private home theater about 2 weeks before it hit the cinema back in 1992 at a private home theater. Complete with a 35mm projector operator and a food and beverage server.

        People with that kind of money can get that, Prima Cinema is actually a step or two below it, for the "almost wealthy".

        • Is film even used anymore? AFAIK, movies are now distributed digitally. 35mm film is extremely expensive to produce and ship, and has a relatively short life span. And, it's not controllable, like a digital system is (talking DRM here).

          • Yes, many prints of 35mm film are made for every release.

            Many theaters have not upgraded to digital projectors, they cost big bucks (for the kind that can project an imagine to a theater sized screen).

            Also, backups are often done to 35mm film, since it is pretty well known how long it will last and how to store it, so even digitally produced movies often have a dozen or more 35mm prints made for salt mine storage.

    • by LWATCDR ( 28044 )

      I have heard it as pioneers get slaughtered settlers get rich.
      It is funny but people forget just how much things have changed and how expensive a lot of things were back then.
      Of course back in 1972 you may have gotten your tv for free, you didn't pay for internet, computers, smart phones, tablets, music subscriptions and so on. Over all I like today better than the good old days except that back then we could go to the moon.

      • I remember how expensive VCRs were, even in the 80s. We had 1, but lord was it pricey! And I wasn't allowed to touch it!

        Everything has gotten a lot cheaper, all things considered...

        I recently purchased an el-cheapo TV... Polaroid (who knew they made TVs!)...

        4k resolution, 55" screen size... $399 delivered to my door...

        It isn't the best TV in the world, but that is a heck of a deal... (Thanks Nebraska Furniture Mart!)

      • Yeah, and wages were $2.00 an hour... Perspective.

    • To be fair, most "portable" video recording systems in the early 70's were skip frame.
      • The Ampex VR-6275, available in 1967 for $1495, was a 1 inch color video open reel recorder. Not skip-frame.
      • To be fair, most "portable" video recording systems in the early 70's were skip frame.

        I remember reading about the Cartrivision, and being willing to cut the limitations described some slack on the basis that it came out in 1972, which is *very* early on in terms of domestic videocassette recorders.

        That was, until I'd remembered that the Philips N1500 [wikipedia.org] also came out in 1972 and didn't have a lot of those limitations. It was the first model to support their flop "Video Cassette Recording (VCR)" format. In particular, it doesn't appear to have been skip frame. In fact, from what I've read, th

    • The equivalent of $7,172 in 2015 dollars, skip frame 1:3 recording and no rewind.

      Recordable tapes or purchased tapes could be rewound. Only rental tapes were blocked.

  • The early bird gets the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      Why is it the second mouse? What did the first mouse get? Do mice eat worms? Do they compete with birds? I don't get it.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      FALSE.

      With my DOUBLE MOUSETRAP, the second mouse gets whacked too.

      • A: You can't just tape two mousetraps together and patent it!

        B: Oh, I beg to differ. [Holds up approved patent.]

        A: [Tapes three mousetraps together.]

  • One thing the article forgot to mention was that rental titles could not be rewound. You could pause, but not back up (much less watch it more than once during your rental period.)

    • by j2.718ff ( 2441884 ) on Monday September 21, 2015 @11:00AM (#50567043)

      One thing the article forgot to mention was that rental titles could not be rewound. You could pause, but not back up (much less watch it more than once during your rental period.)

      Allow me to quote the article:

      Cartrivision employed analog-rights management: rented tapes, offered in red casings, could be rewound only with equipment available at retailers. That ensured that a consumer could only watch a movie once.

    • No, that was actually mentioned. They describe it as a form of "DRM".
      • And, while not particularly correct, it at least has the benefit that the younger crowd who aren't into retro stuff will at least know what they're talking about.

        For examples, there's videos out there of kids being presented with older technology, like walkmans, and asked if they could figure it out.

        A lot of them can't figure out how to operate a VCR, for example. It might of been staged, but another had a fun time trying to get a cassette into a tape drive, then finding out that fast forward wasn't an ins

  • Ours was a Sanyo betamax machine in '82 or '83. The first movie we ever rented was Star Wars. For some reason we put it on at what must have been 11 or 12 at night, so I fell asleep right at Darth entrance. Never saw the whole movie until nearly a decade later.

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