The website of Dan Erdman
I present to you the Panasonic AG-W1 VHS deck.
This is a multi-region VHS player. The region codes that you find on commercial DVD and Blu-Ray discs today have more to do with the vagaries of intellectual property law (and law enforcement) across the corners of the world than anything else. But the original video fiefdoms arose because of differences in the development of television systems in each place, which were contingent on factors such as the frequency of the power supply (with such things as frame rates depending on whether the grid runs on 50 Hz or 60 Hz, for example).
The broadcast television signals based on these systems were mutually incomprehensible to TVs foreign to the region, so, when home video spread throughout the world in the 1980s and 1990s, consumer VHS decks were manufactured to be consistant with their home standards. Those videophiles curious about what was available on the other side of the ocean (or, in some cases, on the other side of a river, mountain range or wholly artificial political border), had to buy multi-region machines, which were able to translate these signals into something viewable anywhere in the world.
Multi-region machines aren’t all that rare, and nowhere near as expensive as they used to be. I picked one up last year in a Brooklyn junk shop for a few bucks, though I admit that I’ve gotten more use out of it as a fetish object than anything else. What caught my eye about the AG-W1 (I haven’t tried to use it, and I have no idea about its reputation as a machine) is the interface on the front panel of the device. Surrounding a miniature map of the continents are the names of the major countries in tiny font; below them, a menu of the prevailing video standards. These are not merely signs but buttons; press one in either group, and its partner(s) in the other light up.
So if you want to see which nations had adopted NTSC, touch that button at the bottom, and the corresponding places glow.
Conversely, if you were curious about which standard was native to (say) Argentina, perform the reverse operation.
M PAL against the world.
Also notable is the fact that this machine differentiates between SECAM (you know, Sequentiel couleur avec memoire), which prevailed only in France…
…and the mysterious MESECAM, favored in the USSR and its satellites.
I had always thought that the French and eastern European systems were identical, but it appears that I have some more reading to do.
At any rate, this is all kind of a silly gimmick – another, more traditional interface (just a bunch of buttons) is behind the panel and, while I guess this is a good quick reference (especially in the pre-internet days), I think it’s probably likely that anyone in the market for a multi-region player would know which standard matched which region off the top of their heads. But I find it charming anyway. I’m as bewildered by the strange nostalgia for VHS that seems to have emerged in recent months as anybody, but I can appreciate the means by which manufacturers tried to engage their users and make the operation of their machines simpler and more intuitive (the alleged difficulty of setting the proper time on your VCR’s clock trailed just behind the inadequacy of airplane food as fodder for neon-sports-jacketed stand-up comedians in the 1980s). It’s hardly an artifact from a lost world of craft production or anything, but then again I’m a pretty easy mark for this kind of thing.