This Hacker Brought Low-Res Video Playback to Audio Cassette Tapes

This hacker can record video on audio cassette tapes and playback in ultra low-res. It's really great.
Brad Bergan

Cassette tapes, some believe, are a played-out relic, useless even to people who still believe in hipsters, as TikTok accounts and tricky E-girl brands claim reign of the internet of real life in 2020.

But one contrarian YouTube hacker decided cassette tapes can have a new trick, as a treat: the ability to record and playback video.


Video on cassette tapes

Some might say it happened because of isolation and quarantine amid COVID-19, probably because of the assumption that time at home can't also be time at work. But it was while he was home that a hacker who goes by Kris Slyka found a new way to put cassette tapes from the 1980s to new use in the age of COVID-19.

This is when he applied his expertise on Python and Java to give new life to 10.8 by 6.99 centimeters (4.25 by 2.75 inch) plastic cases with 91.44 centimeters (300 feet) of magnetic tape.

Of course, recording video data on audio cassette tapes wasn't easy. The video quality isn't up to par for Marvel movies (but that's kind of missing the point?) — in fact, the video quality is very low-res — which is also why it shows exceptional taste.

Today's high-res video formats consist of 8.3 million pixels and show 240 frames per second. Working with something like magnetic audio cassette tapes limits this to a display of merely 100 by 75 pixels, for a total of 7,500 pixels, and a speed of 5 frames per second.

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Instead of "The Avengers," think "Twin Peaks." Especially the black lodge.

One headline didn't get it, either: "Hacker Figures Out How to Capture Horrible-Quality Video on Audio Cassettes."

It takes serious skill and patience for a developer to track new visual media into old technology — especially one deemed a dead-end for so long. Needless to say, from the demo alone, this could go to some really interesting places.

Bringing back the best of the Eighties

At least one earlier commercial effort tried to use audio tapes for video back in the Eighties with the Fisher-Price PXL 2000 PIxelVision camcorder, good enough for adults, but made for kids. Anyway, the toy was a big loser in the market because everyone wanted higher definition (or "fidelity"), especially the five-year-olds, at least according to Tech Xplore.

Slyka did better, achieving higher-quality video. He managed to double the frame rate by interlacing images. He also made the two tracks usually assigned to audio on cassette tapes work for video by encoding color instructions on one of them. The Fisher-Price camcorder could only manage black-and-white recordings.

Audio cassettes were essential in the Eighties, pushed into mainstream mainly by the introduction of the Sony Walkman. Paul Allen. For the first time, anyone with the extra cash could play listen to their favorite music outside of their homes; breaking from transistor radios, the Walkman meant anyone could choose what they wanted to hear. Cassette tape players were also eminent in the aerobic craze amid the physical fitness mania that came from working out with earphones on. By 1989, total sold cassette tapes reached 83 million.

Last summer marked the 40th anniversary of the Sony Walkman's initial release, which is why it's fitting that Slyka used a Sony tape recorder for his project. Of course, there's room to build on his new design — that's how innovation starts. While it's difficult to see a future for cassette tapes in engineering per se, culture, too, is downstream from ingenuity. Let's hope this fad grows into an interesting niche subgenre, and stuff.

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