Closed captioning on television and subtitles on DVD, Blu-ray, and streaming media are taken for granted today. But it wasn’t always so. In fact, it was quite a struggle for captioning to become commonplace. Back in the early 2000s, I unexpectedly found myself involved in a variety of closed captioning projects, both designing hardware and consulting with engineering teams at various consumer electronics manufacturers. I may have been the last engineer working with analog captioning as everyone else moved on to digital.
But before digging in, there is a lot of confusing and imprecise language floating around on this topic. Let’s establish some definitions. I often use the word captioning which encompasses both closed captions and subtitles:
Closed Captions: Transmitted in a non-visible manner as textual data. Usually they can be enabled or disabled by the user. In the NTSC system, it’s often referred to as Line 21, since it was transmitted on video line number 21 in the Vertical Blanking Interval (VBI).
Subtitles: Rendered in a graphical format and overlaid onto the video / film. Usually they cannot be turned off. Also called open or hard captions.
The text contained in captions generally falls into one of three categories. Pure dialogue (nothing more) is often the style of captioning you see in subtitles on a DVD or Blu-ray. Ordinary captioning includes the dialogue, but with the addition of occasional cues for music or a non-visible event (a doorbell ringing, for example). Finally, “Subtitles for the Deaf or Hard-of-hearing” (SDH) is a more verbose style that adds even more descriptive information about the program, including the speaker’s name, off-camera events, etc.
Roughly speaking, closed captions are targeting the deaf and hard of hearing audience. Subtitles are targeting an audience who can hear the program but want to view the dialogue for some reason, like understanding a foreign movie or learning a new language.
Why doesn’t this kind of stuff ever happen to us? One lucky day back in high school, [Dave Sieg] stumbled upon a room full of new equipment and a guy standing there scratching his head. [Dave]’s curiosity about this fledgling television studio was rewarded when that guy asked [Dave] if he wanted to help set it up. From that point on, [Dave] had the video bug. The rest is analog television history.
Today, [Dave] is the proud owner and maintainer of two Scanimate machines — the first R&D prototype, and the last one of only eight ever produced. The Scanimate is essentially an analog synthesizer for video signals, and they made it possible to move words and pictures around on a screen much more easily than ever before. Any animated logo or graphics seen on TV from the mid-1970s to the mid-80s was likely done with one of these huge machines, and we would jump quite high at the chance to fiddle with one of them.
Analog television signals were continuously variable, and much like an analog music synthesizer, the changes imposed on the signal are immediately discernible. In the first video below, [Dave] introduces the Scanimate and plays around with the Viceland logo a bit.
Stick around for the second and third videos where he superimposes the Scanimate’s output on to the video he’s making, all the while twiddling knobs to add oscillators and thoroughly explaining what’s going on. If you’ve ever played around with Lissajous patterns on an oscilloscope, you’ll really have a feel for what’s happening here. In the fourth video, [Dave] dives deeper and dissects the analog circuits that make up this fantastic piece of equipment.
A lot of projects we feature use video in some form or other, but that video is invariably digital, it exists as a stream of numbers in a computer memory or storage, and is often compressed. For some of us who grew up working with composite video there is a slight regret that we rarely get up-close and personal with an analogue stream, so [Kris Slyka]’s project putting video on a conventional audio cassette is a rare opportunity. (Video, embedded below.)
Readers with long memories may recall the Fisher-Price PixelVision toy from the late 1980s which recorded black-and-white video on a conventional cassette running at many times normal speed. This system does not take that tack, instead it decreases resolution and frame rate to a point at which it can be recorded at conventional cassette speeds. The result is not particularly high quality, but with luminance on one side of a stereo recording and chrominance on the other it does work.
The video below the break is a run through the system, with an explanation of how video signals work. Meanwhile the code for both encoder and decoder are available through the magic of GitHub. If you’re interested further, take a look at our examination of a video waveform.
Known as the 3TrinsRGB+1c, it’s available both assembled and in kit form. It’s probably best to start with the manual. Synthesis is achieved through the use of a HEF40106 hex inverting buffer – a cheap and readily available part that nonetheless provides for excellent results. Video can be switched between RGB oscillators and a series of inputs, and there are various controls to create those classic scrolling effects and other visual oddities.
Additionally, a series of connections to the underlying circuitry are broken out on a header connector. This allows for extra modules to be plugged in, and several designs are available to expand the unit’s capabilities.
Analog video isn’t used so much on a day-to-day basis anymore, but it’s a great technology to tinker and experiment with. We’ve seen some of [gieskes] experiments in this arena before, too – like this Arduino video sampler. Video after the break.