Copying Analog Video to the PC, the Hard Way (Part One)

Thanks largely to research I've been doing for future Connected Home EXPRESS columns, I've spent a lot of time during the past several weeks working on a variety of digital media-related tasks. For example, I've been connecting a component cassette player to the PC through the sound card's line-in port and through various USB devices, attempting to figure out which method results in the best-sounding MP3 files. I hope to have the results ready soon, but an even more time-consuming task has me almost completely flummoxed this week.

Like many people, I have a small library of home movies. I used a low-end 8mm (analog) camcorder to create mine, and although I'd copied several of them to the PC some time ago, I wanted to make sure that the whole collection was digitally archived. But I had one problem: The camcorder I'd used to make the movies has gone belly-up, refusing even to load tape cartridges. So, although I had the necessary hardware to copy the video onto my PC, the lack of a working camera stymied my plans. Most other people, however, probably don't have high-quality analog video-to-PC hardware. So the problem remained the same for me as it does for most people: How does one get analog video into the PC without purchasing any new hardware?

I decided to pay a local camera company to copy the contents of the tapes to DVD. I had only four video tapes, so I figured the cost would be minimal, though I had no way of checking each tape to see how much material was on it. In the end, copying the more than 3 hours of video to two DVDs cost about $100, which seemed a bit steep, but these videos document cherished memories, such as my son's first unassisted steps.

When I got the DVDs home, I immediately popped them into the DVD player attached to my TV to see how they came out. The video quality was predictably middling, given the source, but acceptable. The audio seemed a bit lower than usual, but I figured I could correct that during the conversion process. My next task was to get the DVD video onto my PC digitally.

I could take one of three basic approaches. The best approach, of course, would be to find some PC or Macintosh application that would convert the DVD video directly into AVI or QuickTime format (or maybe MPEG-2 format, if necessary), and I resolved to find such an application. Or, I could use my digital camcorder's analog video pass-through capabilities, which capture the video through FireWire and Windows Movie Maker—I'd never tried that approach before, but it seemed like a decent solution. But should those approaches fail, I would simply attach the component DVD player to my PC through the analog connectors on my Dazzle Digital Video Creator II device (see first URL below). This option would definitely work, but it would add the undesirable analog-conversion step, which could degrade the video quality further. I would use this option only as a failsafe plan.

First, I needed to do some research. I discovered that video DVDs use a standard directory structure, which includes a VIDEO_TS directory in its root. (You can see this directory structure by inserting a DVD into your Windows PC, opening My Computer, right-clicking the DVD, and choosing Open.) This folder contains several files, including the Video Object (VOB) files that contain the actual movies. For example, one of the DVDs I got back from the camera store included the following files:

video_ts.vob (36KB) - the menu system video
vts_01_1.vob (706MB) - first video, chapter 1
vts_02_1.vob (1GB) - second video, chapter 1
vts_02_2.vob (1GB) - second video, chapter 2
vts_02_3.vob (900MB) - second video, chapter 3

Because DVD movies are in MPEG-2 format, I figured that the VOB files were, in essence, MPEG-2 files. (Interestingly, you can play them directly in a Windows-based DVD player application such as CyberLink PowerDVD XP—see the second URL below.) However, I also thought that VOB files must be able to encrypt their contents in some fashion: Encryption could prevent pirates from easily copying copyrighted DVD movies. I discovered, however, that DVDs protect against piracy through a variety of other means, including Content Scrambling System (CSS) technology for digital copy protection, and region coding, which prevents movies aimed at one market (e.g., Japan) from being played in another (e.g., North America).

Obviously, copy protection wasn't a concern with my home movies. The task at hand was figuring out how to convert VOB files into a format I could work with. First, I attempted to find a decent VOB-to-AVI conversion application. The most promising of these, an application called DVD2AVI (see the third URL below), seemed to work well; however, after the lengthy conversion process, I discovered that the resulting AVI contained no sound. The application offered a separate audio conversion, with Wave (.wav) file output capabilities. That conversion would work, but using it is probably beyond the average user's skill set, so that's an approach I'll look into later.

After failing miserably with AVI, I tried looking for a VOB-to-MPEG-2 conversion application; after all, MPEG-2 is VOB's native format. The excellent TSUNAMI MPeG Encoder (TMPGEnc—see fourth URL below) offered not only MPEG-2 conversion capabilities but also the ability to raise the sound output in the resulting file. However, because the original audio track was monophonic, it played through only the left speaker, leading me to wonder whether a properly wired analog import wasn't my best bet. Also, the previously free TMPGEnc is now shareware ($50), and the resulting video is rather choppy and pixilated in places—probably because of MPEG-2's rather poor encoding capabilities.

So how did I eventually get this to work? Unfortunately, I'm out of space, so I'll conclude this exploration of importing DVD video next week.

Dazzle's Digital Video Creator II

CyberLink PowerDVD XP



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