This year, TVs leapt into the third dimension. Personal computers jettisoned keyboards and flattened out into tablets. Digital cameras did away with pentamirrors, but still take dSLR-quality shots.
Meanwhile, camcorders treaded water. Nothing new appeared on the commercial video-camera horizon. Formats died: No new Mini DV cameras came out, nor did any direct-to-DVD models. We’ve seen standardization, but not innovation. Camcorders still shoot the same videos using the same features as they did two or three years ago. They cost less, and they’re more likely to shoot in high-definition, but not much has changed.
The last time we saw anything really new in the camcorder world was when Pure Digital released the original Flip Video pocket camcorder in 2007. We’ve seen refinements to its tried-and-true formula: all pocket camcorders shoot 720p, if not full 1080p HD video. Many offer an HDMI output. Kodak has released what we consider to be a near-perfect specimen, the waterproof Playsport Zx3 model. But all of these tweaks are riffs on the same original theme.
Likewise, HD camcorders have remained largely unchanged for half a decade, though the price has fallen precipitously. Let’s not even get started with standard-def camcorders.
Innovation is bound to stall in any product category, but where can we logically go from here? It’s hard to see what’s coming next, or whether there’s even potential for growth in consumer camcorders anymore.
Just like HD camcorders represented a new genre 10 years ago, 3D camcorders could be the next big thing. But like HD camcorders, that could be several years down the line. Panasonic does currently sell a $20,000 3D video camera, so don’t go lighting ALL your cigars with $100 bills because you’ll also need a 3D TV and stereoscopic glasses to even see what you’ve filmed. Will 3D video catch on? Ask again in five years.
Then there’s the possibility of an ultimate all-in-one photo-video camera. Canon debuted their Wonder Camera concept, essentially a super-high-end camcorder with such sharp and detailed video that individual frames look like dSLR-quality photos. This prototype has a host of other amazing features and its sleek, all-white design also looks like it’s culled from an artist’s rendition of a Utopian future-world. Canon’s remains optimistic that it should be ready by 2030. But hey, by then we should have figured out whether this 3D thing is really a fad.
In a recent article, Engadget speculated that dSLRs would come under threat from crazy hybrids like the Wonder Canon. It’s possible, several years down the line, but current-generation dSLRs are already all-in-one devices. They shoot pro-level HD video and top-quality stills, and can cost significantly less than a pro-level camcorder. They’re even starting to displace video cameras. This season’s finale of Fox medical drama House was filmed with a Canon 5D Mark II. Olympus shot a recent TV commercial for their PEN E-PL1 camera, with the PEN E-PL1 camera. If a $600 camera is good enough for a television commercial, it’s probably good enough for your personal use too.
Camcorders sales are being cannibalized at the other end of the spectrum as well: The latest smartphones, like the iPhone 4 and HTV Evo 4G, shoot better still photos than several cheap standalone still cameras and take HD videos as well as any pocket camcorder. They also make phone calls and surf the web. These are the real all-in-one devices, and most users, most of the time, are happy despite the quality limitations.
All that said, camcorders aren’t going anywhere just yet. They’re still the video-capturing gadget of choice for amateur film makers and enthusiastic parents -- the same groups that snapped up the original camcorders back in the 1970s and 1980s. But the rest of us probably have some other video-recording gadget that’s “good enough.” At the risk of eating my words in six months, here’s my first prediction for the 2011 product season: fewer camcorders from fewer manufacturers.