Digital Camcorders May Bring Out the Spielberg in All of Us

The consumer canon dictates that innovations at the high-end eventually find their way into the mainstream. If it flies off the shelves at Neiman Marcus, sooner or later you're going to find it at Wal-Mart.

That process is about to take place with home videos. Smaller, digital camcorders are coming onto the market that will be able to capture home video so sharp it could pass muster in professional studios. And that laborious process of editing the video? It will be nearly as simple as word-processing on a computer.

Traditional camcorders have not exactly been slouches in the innovation race. They've gotten smaller, steadier, and cheaper in the past decade. Their next step, however, represents a huge leap from the old world of analog signals to the new one of digital bits and bytes.

Already popular in Japan, the digital camcorder is making headway in the United States. Last year, for example, sales of digital camcorders represented no more than 1.5 percent of the overall US market. This year, according to one estimate by Sony, sales will easily double.

"It's just been a phenomenal success," says Gregg Nole, senior product trainer for personal video with Sony Electronics Inc. The company's high-end digital camcorder - the DCR-VX1000 - has become so popular it's on back order, even at a suggested retail price of $4,199.

Amateur video buffs are willing to shell out that kind of money because the digital machines have much better quality than traditional consumer-level camcorders. For example, a standard VHS model has some 240 lines of horizontal resolution. All Sony's digital camcorders have at least twice that number. The more lines of resolution, the finer the picture.

Digital camcorders display even finer resolution than laser discs, which serious film connoisseurs use to watch Hollywood movies. Mr. Nole claims the digital camcorder rivals (in picture though not in features) Sony's professional Beta SP video cameras. And those start at $30,000.

The new cameras, especially the minimodels, are also tremendously compact because they use smaller tapes. "MiniDV cassettes are one-tenth the size, one-fifth the weight, half the cost, and twice the capacity of Betacam camcorder tapes," says Bob Doyle, digital video editor of NewMedia magazine.

In a review of the digital GR-DV1 from rival JVC, he described the camcorder as the "Swiss Army knife of video, audio, and photojournalism." Some retailers are selling it for less than $2,000.

Besides their compactness - some newer models weigh 1.3 pounds - the camcorders make video editing much simpler. Using an emerging standard for transmitting digital video, the new cameras can download their material directly to a personal computer.

And because the format compresses each frame individually (instead of over several frames), each frame is as clear as the next. This makes it much easier to grab still photos off the video and make clean cuts from one scene to another. Last Thursday, Sony announced that it will be shipping in April its first video recorder that can play and edit the new digital cassettes. The cost: $4,999.

Some drawbacks remain, however. Under bright lights, a red sports car tends to bleed over the picture, especially in the less expensive cameras that use one chip to record video, instead of the three chips used on higher-end models.

But the models will improve as chip technology improves. And prices will come down dramatically. Already in Japan, some estimates suggest that digital camcorders will grab nearly 70 percent of the overall camcorder market this year. It will take a few more years before the United States posts similar figures.

But the era of digital video recording is quickly approaching - and with it, a whole new era for home videos.

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