The Cambridge Experimental Videodisc Project

Alan Macfarlane
1990 Anthropology Today  
Largely inspired by the films and photographs of Professor von Furer-Haimendorf, we decided in April 1985 to make an experimental videodisc about the Naga peoples of the Assam Burma border. (1) The Nagas seemed a good choice for such an experiment. The precipitous terrain and forest, as well as the warlike head-hunting reputation of the peoples, deterred outsiders from entering the area until very late. The period of contact, starting effectively in the 1840s, was unusually gradual, lasting
more » ... a century until Indian Independence in 1947. The relative lateness of the contact meant that the second fifty years of documentation were within the era of easily portable cameras ;and the last fifty years within that of moving film. But how well was this process documented, and what remained'? Good fortune brought to the Naga Hills a series of very gifted observers. These men and women became so involved with the Nagas that they assembled large collections of material in very difficult circumstances. The chief collections we were given access were those of R.G. Woodthorpe, J.H. Hutton. J.P. Mills, C.von Furer-Haimendorf. Ursula Graham Bower ;and W.G. Archer. Between them. They collected over 5,000 artifacts, took over 7,000 black and white photographs, made a number of sound recordings and made over six hours of moving film. They also kept extensive diaries and collected many pages of fieldnotes as well as publishing eight books and many articles on the Nagas. There was clearly no shortage of material. But how was this to be formed into a usable and distributable archive? Making a videodisc A videodisc or optical disc is a silver object which looks like a gramophone record. Information is engraved on its surface which is then coated with plastic. The information is read off each separate track by a laser beam, using a standard videodisc player. This produces a virtually indestructible storage format which is not damaged by dust, normal changes of temperature, electric current, damp, insects, etc. A videodisc can hold a very large quantity of information. A standard disc can play moving film for 36 minutes per side in interactive mode or hold 54,000 separate pictures per side, or a combination of these. It can store at least 300 megabytes of information per side (the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica with pictures takes about 200 megabytes of store). A videodisc can hold copies of almost all kinds of recordable information: photographs, slides, moving films, x-rays, sound recordings, graphics. The discs are double-sided and once a master has been created, copies can be made relatively cheaply. This sounded an ideal medium for our pictorial materials. But how does one make a master? Here there was almost no guidance. These were early days and no videodisc of the kind we were at tempting had been made in Europe. With the cooperation of the Audio Visual Aids Unit at
doi:10.2307/3033182 fatcat:jhgs7tdeundv5b5yozlvzvvgfi