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The Revolutions of the Hard Disk Video Recorder (HDVR/PVR)

The Revolutions of the Hard Disk Video Recorder (HDVR/PVR)

For a long time, I had hoped for the day that you would be able to record digital video to a hard disk instead of having to use VHS tape. The appeal was clear, and I knew it would be more than just a super-VCR.

However, it turned out I was wrong. It was much more than a super-VCR. I underestimated just how much it would change the use of TV, and I'm not alone. Lots of people who got Tivos or similar boxes report how they were much more than they expected. People routinely swear they don't see why it's so exciting until they try it. The companies that make them have had a very hard time positioning them to the public. Word of mouth (raving word of mouth), including the FCC chairman calling them "God's Machine" have been the driver of sales.

Tivo started the term PVR (Personal Video Recorder) which is bland but common today.

Because I underestimated the value, I thought I would write down my observations of the surprises, and examine what the PVR revolution is and what it isn't. In particular, you'll read about how pausing live TV -- the one feature that appears most often in advertisements -- turns out to be largely irrelevant.

Very Poor Man's Video-on-demand

For decades people have dreamed of Video on Demand. You would come to your TV and see a menu of every show ever recorded. You would click on one and start watching it right away, and be able to pause, FF and Rewind, stop and come back later. You would pay a pay-per-view price or a subscription price. Many people have tried to deliver this but always failed. It turns out to be way more than is needed.

Many people use the PVR (or to some degree Netflix) to do an unanticipated form of VoD. In this case we split the "browse and pick" from the "have and watch." So you browse your PVR's menus to identify shows you want to watch. The menu, with 2 weeks of listings in any large cable or satellite feed, is quite large, with hundreds of movies and thousands of shows.

Then sometime later, you go to your menu of shows and what you picked has magically appeared. So you watch it. And remarkably, you aren't so bothered at the long and uncertain gap between when you picked it and when you watched it. TV, it turns out, is not that urgent.

(While the PVR is "very poor man's" VoD, Internet based TV (IPTV) will be poor man's video on demand and bring an even bigger revolution.)

Not caring when it's on

This has generated another phenomenon that people have talked about. PVR users don't care, and often don't even know, what time the shows they like are on. This upends all the complex scheduling systems the TV networks have. With network TV, we have "prime time" and hot nights like Thursday, along with knell-of-death timeslots on Friday and Saturday night.

You don't stop caring entirely. With news and events, particularly sports, you continue to care. You also care about shows that are so engaging you must see them ASAP, or talk about them with friends the next day. However, these shows are in the minority.

Always having an array of shows to watch

The result of this process is you can always go to your TV and see a list full of shows you would like to watch (they were mostly picked by you.) And these shows can be watched immediately. You can do this any time of day. It's not the dream-list of video-on-demand nor even the catalog of Netflix, but it's your list, and it's more than good enough.

One surprising effect for me is that I never go to the video rental store. Even though DVDs provide better quality (at least they did before I got HDTV) and are more current, there are always movies in my box that are good enough. The choice of trekking out to a store for an uncertain pick vs. something I know I want always results in the latter fork.

TV watching more social

When people watched live TV, who they watched it with depended on the circumstances of time. If somebody was busy that night, they missed the show and perhaps somebody else watched it alone. The PVR makes all shows recorded shows, and they can then be watched when it's a good time for everybody. This often delays the watching of shows quite a bit, which is not too bad a thing. Sometimes the PVR can do the reverse, and let each person watch the shown on their own pace. But most of the time you just wait for some joint viewing.

Not watching live TV, not surfing

As noted above, pausing live TV is what is advertised but it's not important. That's because once you truly buy the PVR Vision, you stop watching live TV, almost completely. This has the positive effect that you stop surfing channels. Most people have never found surfing very productive, but they do it. Now you surf your list of recorded shows, or the list of shows you could watch in the future.

It doesn't hurt that digital recorders make surfing harder, because they introduce a delay in the video in order to do the record-then-play magic. The 1-2 second gap on channel change frustrates people away from surfing the live shows.

There are some exceptions, particularly sports. However, in these cases it still makes more sense to plan to watch them, and then watch the recording while it is being recorded, with a delay of 15 to 20 minutes. This is not just for skipping commercials, though that plays a large role. With sports, being able to fast-forward over the many boring gaps between plays is tremendously useful, as can be the ability to rewind or pause.

Not watching commercials

As we know, many PVR users use their box to skip the commercials, or at least most of them. This has the TV networks scared. It's hard to argue with the savings -- you can watch an hour long program in well under 45 minutes. (You also skip starting music, credits and sometimes even boring sections of the program.)

That's a lot of your life back. Some people use it to get back time, some to be able to watch more TV. But all do it because TV advertising is a terrible, terrible bargain for the viewer. A TV Network charges about 1 cent to present you with a 30 second ad. So after you've encountered an hour of ads (about 4 hours of TV) they've been paid about $1.20, and you've received programming with a value less than that. $1.20/hour -- that's an illegal wage in most places.

If they want to bring commercials back they need to find a way to make it a better deal for the viewer. We won't give our time that cheaply if we are given the choice. We'll watch entertaining ads (movie trailers are a favourite) and sometimes, we'll even deliberately watch them, such as during the SuperBowl.

Aside from getting lots of time back, avoiding commercials is probably healthy for the soul, too.

Skip the boring parts

I've touched on this briefly, but it turns out that the skipping functions (like the various speeds of FF and the instant-jump buttons) are useful for much more than commercials. They can make football and baseball games vastly better. For the Academy Awards, if the speech gets boring we zoom past it. I found the 30 second skip happened to get you from announcing an award to the meat of the speech. Many drama shows do "filler" scenes where people are just driving cars or walking down halls, and smooth 3x fast forward is great for this. On my favourite show, "The Daily Show," they always do the same 20 seconds of intro every time Lewis Black appears, so when I see him it's a quick skip.

This really works when you have the TUI (see below.)

Random thinking vs. Linear thinking

Another part of the PVR vision is realizing you don't have a tape any more, you have a random access hard disk. You see this in the ability to jump instantly, even over long gaps. You don't see this in Rewind and Fast Forward -- those are tape thinking -- though they are done in styles not so possible on tape.

(I have advocated that Rewind/FF should be supplemented with a browse mode that shows you snippets at various different times in the video which you can quickly click on. This is Random Access thinking.)

Switch back and forth

One useful aspect of Random thinking is the ability to quickly switch among recorded shows. When we are watching a show, sometimes my companion has to do something -- a phone call, bathroom break, etc. I quickly switch to a different show that only I care about, and watch a few minutes of that until she is done. As she's walking back, I'm quick enough on the remote that we're back at the show we were watching together before she sits down.

This ability actually eliminates the need for the hot feature of last decade's TV sets -- Picture in Picture. You don't watch live, so you have no need to watch two shows at once this way. Instead, switch among them and fast-forward over the boring parts to get to the thing you would have been glancing at the PiP box to find.

Telepathic User Interface

PVRs are one of the few products we use enough to develop what I call a Telepathic User Interface (TUI.) A TUI is an interface that you train into your brain to the point that you are not conscious of how you physically control the device. You just think it, and it happens.

Examples of TUIs include things like car stickshifts (and driving in general.) After a while you don't focus on the clutch any more, you just do it. The car becomes an extension of yourself. Touch typing is perhaps the classic example of a Telepathic UI. You just think the letter -- sometimes even the word -- and it appears on the screen.

Many good video games develop a TUI. Older keyboard based programs often developed TUIs -- users took time to learn all the keystrokes, but after a while things like the convoluted VI text editor become 2nd nature.

We abandoned TUIs to some degree with the mouse. You must look at a mouse and so must be aware of it. Mouse gestures allow some TUI on a mouse. If you've ever wondered why people would prefer a keystroke based text editor like Emacs or VI to a WIMP based GUI editor, TUI plays a part in it. TUIs take a lot of time to build, but are worth it for the really common tasks.

All this is to point you can develop a bit of a TUI with your remote control on the PVR, with the seek buttons and even the Rewind/FF buttons. As a result you feel much more in control of the show you're watching.

Much more reliable recording

One more minor contribution of the PVR is that it is much more reliable in recording. It gets a show every week, even if the show moves its timeslot. Truth is, with VCRs, things went wrong a little more often. Shows moved, tapes filled up, people forgot to leave the VCR in record mode etc. Not that PVRs, especially less mature ones, don't have their problems, but this increased reliability contributes to an important part of the PVR vision -- you never watch a show that isn't recorded. Once you get to that point, all those features fall into place.

Watching TV more completely

Many people watch more TV with a PVR, in part because they can do it more effectively, but also because it makes it the norm to watch all of a series. In the old days, people taped their most desired shows and watched all of them, but they also had shows they watched live and sometimes saw and sometimes missed. With the PVR it tends to be more all or nothing. (The PVR also allows deliberately abridging a series, watching only the best episodes, but this is not yet a common activity.

Most people end up watching more TV when they first get their PVR. Some stay that way, others cut back once they also stop surfing.

Finding new things to watch

PVRs have an effect on what you watch to. Indeed, I'm building a new system called TVWish which might have a profound effect on what programs people end up watching. Particularly the concept of live critics and Abridging a TV Series I am introducing, which could change the economics of series TV.

As noted, you don't surf, so you see less random TV. Tivo has the "suggestions" feature which is actually a nice replacement -- there you can surf a set of programs the box hopes are similar to your other tastes.

However, more programs become open to you. Movies that were on at 3 AM on obscure cable channels are often on my recording list. In the past I would not have gone to the trouble of setting a VCR for them unless it was very important. You browse the listings in a more complete way, and with wishlists, category searches and TVWish, you encounter shows you might not have done.

I also predict new collaborative features for the future, not yet present in PVRs. Viewers might share their remote clicks (anonymously) to identify boring parts of shows (I don't just mean commercials) with high accuracy, or opinions on shows that are good and bad might change recording patterns and suggestions. This will change what we watch as well as how we watch.

Cool, but not in the revolution

PVRs also have many features that people love or want to have that are cool, but are more evolutionary than revolutionary.

I already talked about pausing and playing with Live TV. It is cool, and sometimes useful (because few accept the vision so completely yet as to totally avoid live TV.)

Some of the more recent features in PVRs have been in the evolutionary category -- playlists, better conflict resolution, multiple tuners, web interfaces, show sharing, DVD burning and even copying to your laptop.

Convergence box

Another main thrust in PVRs is to build a "convergence box" That means the TV box does music, videos, weather, news, DVDs and even web browsing. These are nice and useful features but in many cases they are not new and putting them all in one place often results in a system that's mediocre at most things and best at only its specialty. Though I do like, on my HDTV, the ability to do email and web surfing as a break when my companion has to switch away. Automatic commercial skip is great, but the truth is that attaining a TUI with the seek buttons to do commercial skip is almost as good.

Burning DVDs

Probably the most demanded feature for some PVRs is an ability to burn DVDs of shows, either just to clear up disk space or to play in a regulation DVD player on another TV set. That is a useful thing but really just an evolution beyond what the VCR gave us.

Web Interface

The web interfaces on these tools, particularly the live ones in MythTV and TivoWeb, are very cool, and have resulted in many 21st century moments, like being in a stadium with a wireless Treo and telling the video recorder to record the game you're at, but this doesn't change much about the way we watch TV, it just makes access easier.