APEX Insight: Sony recently resumed production of professional-grade Hi8 tape cassettes, giving support to a format that’s still in use by airlines worldwide in early-generation in-flight entertainment systems.
It’s tough being an analog tape in a digital world. Introduced in 1989, Sony’s Hi8 tape format was one of the final iterations in the evolution of analog videotape formats that began 60 years ago with massive, two-inch wide, reel-to-reel broadcast videotapes. Hi8 uses 8 mm tape – less than a third of an inch wide – housed in a compact cassette. Initially developed for consumer video cameras, the small and lightweight format was perfect for in-flight use, and professional-grade Hi8 tape became a popular format for IFE systems.
In March 2011, a devastating earthquake and tsunami flooded Sony’s Sendai, Japan-based factory, shutting down the manufacture of Hi8 and other tape formats. The industry scrambled for tape stock, and with a shift to digital formats looming, Sony made the decision not to resume Hi8 production. “Our decision was based on the overall rapid decline worldwide in 8 mm tape formats as users increasingly migrated to alternatives,” said Joe Balsam, Sony’s senior marketing manager, Professional Media. “It was also based on an expectation that the projected timeline of fleet conversions to newer in-flight content presentation technologies would be in line with our exit.”
But the IFE demand was still strong, and production houses like CMI Cine Magnetics had to keep duplication services going. “We are happy to say that CMI has efficiently managed its inventories ever since the tsunami in 2011 and has been able to deliver on all tape orders,” said CMI’s CEO, Haitham Wahab.
Carriers like American Airlines used to use tens of thousands of Hi8 tape cassettes every year, but the shift to newer formats was underway, perhaps accelerated by the tape stock issues. “We are down to three or four aircraft remaining in our fleet with Hi8 tape players,” said Mark A. Smith, manager of IFE and Interiors for American. “We originally thought we would be completely out of the Hi8 business by the end of 2016, but we had some recent changes to our fleet plan and the last aircraft with Hi8 players will now be retired in 2017.”
However, there’s still life in the 25-year-old Hi8 tape format. Although Sony recognizes that airlines will eventually upgrade to a digital format, “subsequent discussions with industry leaders convinced [it] to reinvest in the manufacture of professional Hi8 tapes to ease pressure on airlines still invested in tape technology,” said Balsam.
Balsam expects more than 100,000 Hi8 tapes will be used by the in-flight sector annually, with Sony bulk packaging the cassettes to “provide duplicators with a more efficient handling of workflow and reduce waste.” According to Balsam, “There is a sense of relief that a new bulk-packaged Hi8 tape for in-flight content duplication is available.”