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Dead medium: The Fisher-Price Pixelvision
From: From: LangiG@parl.gc.ca(Greg Langille)
Source(s): "Film and Video Umbrella" (http://www.beyond2000.co.uk/umbrella/); personal experience

(((bruces remarks: the Pixelvision is a perennial collectors' darling, and if it somehow reappears in the mass market, it might make quite the investment opportunity the second time around.)))

Hi Bruce.

A few years ago I purchased a Fisher-Price PXL 2000, a relatively cheap video camera that recorded on standard audio cassettes. I've found it very difficult to find information about it. Fisher-Price just says that "We can tell you that this product was introduced in 1988 and discontinued in 1989. There is no repair service or parts and we do not have any informational pamphlets available to send."

So, it definitely is dead.

However, on the web site of "Film and Video Umbrella" (http://www.beyond2000.co.uk/umbrella/), a curatorial agency funded by the Arts Council of London, there is a good description of the technology, which is still in use by (primarily experimental) artists today:

"In 1987, U.S toy manufacturer Fisher-Price introduced the latest addition to their range of childrens' products: a lightweight plastic video camera, called the PXL 2000, which retailed at a cost of just under $100 and recorded its endearingly rudimentary black-and-white images, at ultra-high speeds, on to a standard audio cassette. Loudly trumpeted as a kind of My First Movie Camera for the younger members of the video generation, it was confidently assumed that the PXL 2000 would go down a storm with legions of junior Spielberg wannabes, but instead, like many an apparently surefire success, it sank like the proverbial stone. Raised on the production values of MTV and Hollywood, America's vid-kids were less-than- captivated by what they could muster from the unmistakably low-tech (and none-too-durable) PXL. After only one year in production, Fisher-Price withdrew the camera from the shops and consigned it to the company bin.

"Since then, though, the PXL 2000 has enjoyed a remarkable, and quite unexpected, afterlife on the fringes of the U.S independent scene; adopted by an increasing number of film-makers and video-artists for its unique visual properties. As the last few years have shown, in the right hands and with surprisingly minimal fuss, this crude and clunky children's toy is capable of yielding some truly astonishing results.

"No matter how poor the light, the camera lends a distinctively hazy, dream-like quality to almost everything it shoots, accentuated by a ghostly optical shimmer when anything passes too quickly across the screen. Contrastingly, the simple fixed-focus lens lets one get uncannily close to people or objects, miraculously registering both detail and depth. Even more strikingly, the images produced reveal an extraordinary sense of intimacy and spontaneity, as well as with a desire to experiment that is no doubt encouraged by the ridiculously small-scale costs.

"This Film and Video Umbrella touring package highlights a number of recent works by most of the leading figures in the still-expanding Pixelvision field (among them Michael Almereyda, Michael O'Reilly, Sadie Benning and Eric Saks) and gives British viewers their first real glimpse of the unabashedly low-definition but increasingly high-profile Pixelvision craze.

"Until now, PXL-generated work has been an almost exclusively American phenomenon, as none of the PXL 2000 cameras ever made it over to the U.K. British enthusiasts may be interested to hear, though, that while the Fisher- Price model has been long discontinued, its original inventor is set to retrieve the patent, opening the release for a new, improved version later this year."

So now it appears that Pixelvision may not be completely dead. I should mention that the camera I bought came with a small black and white monitor (about 3.5" screen) which the camera could be plugged into. This could be battery powered (a modification done by the previous owner) and carried around == a precursor to the video screen on modern digital videocameras.

Unfortunately it died soon after I bought it. The camera itself is very light and uses six AA batteries and records both sound and audio. The tape is run at a very high speed (I think about six times normal cassette speed), so most of the audio includes a loud "whirr" from the camera itself. Also, mine needs a LOT of light ... basically direct sunlight only. But it works.

I should mention that I paid $200 Canadian in 1994 to buy it from a guy who said he used it for skate board videos. It came with instructions from a hacker magazine for modifying the lens to use infrared light! For about $20 you could actually get it to work as a night vision camera! There must be a whole subtopic of dead media concerning unintended uses.

Greg Langille (LangiG@parl.gc.ca)