The Gadget We Miss: The Video Toaster
The gadget that revolutionized TV in the 1990s.
Television is a complicated, expensive business. Or at least it used to be : in the 1980s, it cost a small fortune to get the equipment to shoot and broadcast your own TV show that looked as good as the big networks. However, one gadget changed all that, making it possible to produce good-looking TV shows with multiple cameras, titles and special effects without a big network budget. By doing this, our gadget set the stage for the cable TV and Internet broadcasting revolution: the Video Toaster.
Launched in 1990, the Toaster was the brainchild of three people: Tim Jenison, Paul Montgomery and Brad Carvey. Jenison had produced the first video capture device for the Amiga computer, called DigiView, and an accompanying paint program called DigiPaint. Paul Montgomery was a California entrepreneur who was impressed by the Amiga, and who knew an electronic engineer called Brad Carvey (brother of the comedian Dana Carvey, who claimed that his brother Brad was the inspiration for the Garth character from Wayne’s World). Jenison founded NewTek, and Montogomery came onboard as a Vice President to produce the Toaster. A good early history of NewTek was produced by Wired Magazine.
One of the things that made the Toaster possible was the Amiga computer. NewTek understood the potential of this home computer: when combined with some custom circuits, it could become a live video switcher, allowing the user to switch between several different cameras and overlay graphics on top of the live video. It could also tweak the video, adding color effects or zoom transitions that were beloved of 1980's news broadcasts. It could play back video files, so you could mix live video with pre-recorded video, all smoothly outputted to a video signal that could be fed straight into most TV stations. This was due to a unique aspect of the Amiga computer: it ran at a frequency compatible with the US NTSC TV signal, which meant it could work with these signals easier than other computers. When you tie this in with some custom circuits, you get a device that can produce a standard NTSC TV signal, ready for broadcast.
That might sound simple to a modern computer user, but at the time it was revolutionary. It replaced many thousands of dollars of equipment: Newtek claimed at the time that the Toaster and Amiga combination (which cost about $4000) could replace hundreds of thousands of dollars of professional video equipment.
Not surprisingly, the Video Toaster proved to be a huge hit. Its combination of low price and powerful features created new opportunities for people who had previously had no access to video tools like this, and it quickly became a popular device to use, both on the fringes of the TV industry and in the mainstream. In particular, the growing number of cable TV networks loved it: although it lacked some of the polish of the professional tools that the networks used, it was cheap and could be operated by one person, keeping the staff costs down. Big networks liked the speed as well: NBC used it to produce promos for their 1991 season.
The Toaster continued to be a popular product through the 1990s, and an updated version released in 1994 added more features, using the dedicated video slot of the recently released Amiga 4000 computer. This version received enthusiastic endorsements from users like Penn Jilette and Tony Hawke, not because they were paid to endorse it, but because they were Toaster users themselves. Actor Wil Wheaton (then just off Star Trek: The Next Generation, but before his current geek god incarnation) ended up working for the company in Topeka, Kansas, working as a quality tester and product evangelist for a time, before he decided to return to acting.
One feature of the Video Toaster proved to be popular on its own. Included with the software was a package called LightWave 3D, which could create animated, realistic looking 3D graphics. This package proved to be a hit with professional users, and was used to create graphics for sci-fi shows like Babylon 5 and SeaQuest DSV. It lowered the cost of rendering the 3D spaceship battles and underwater scenes that they relied on, and the different approach of the program to 3D modelling made it quicker and cheaper to render the finished graphics.
In fact, many people bought a Video Toaster purely so they could use LightWave 3D, which wasn’t available as a separate product. So, for some, this sophisticated video hardware became an expensive copy-protection dongle for the software that was the real draw. In 1994, the company gave in and sold LightWave 3D as a separate product to 3D animators who didn’t need the video capabilities of the Toaster.
And this brings my own (small) part in this story. In the early 1990s, I was working for Amiga Format magazine in the UK as technical editor. The Video Toaster was a US-only gadget then, because it could only work with the NTSC video signal used in the US, not the PAL one used in the UK and Europe. But that didn’t stop us: with a couple of video converters, we were able to review this incredible gadget and put it on the cover of the magazine for issue 52 (nov 1993), with the breathless headline “It’s Here! At last! The greatest Amiga peripheral ever created comes to the UK!”. Inside, we dedicated 10 pages of the magazine to breathlessly introducing the features of this device to the readers.
A couple of years later, I had moved on to being the Editor of Amiga Shopper, another UK magazine that was about the technical aspects of using the Amiga computer. The Toaster still featured prominently here, and in issue 45 (Jan 1995), we were able to persuade one of the 3D artists from Foundation Imaging (who produced the graphics for the first 4 seasons of Babylon 5, Star Trek: Voyager and others) to show us the secrets of 3D modeling in LightWave, which had recently become available as a standalone program. Adam “Mojo” Leibowitz, the author of these articles, has since gone on to work on movies such as Men in Black 3 and Oz the Great and Powerful.
The Toaster had had an achilles heel, though. Despite being one of the main reasons that people bought Amiga computers, NewTek had a difficult relationship with Commodore, the company that produced the Amiga. As Commodore floundered in the late 1990s, NewTek struggled as well, with conflicts between the two leaders Tim Jenison and Paul Montgomery stalling the growth of the company. Jenison favored slow growth and sticking with the Amiga, while Montgomery wanted to branch out and make it available on other platforms. In 1994, Montgomery left NewTek and founded his own company, called Play, inc, taking a large chunk of the engineering and marketing staff of NewTek with him. This company produced several products including the Snappy video digitizer and the Trinity video editing system, but struggled to match the success of NewTek. After Montgomery died in 1999, Play, Inc folded and many of those who had left returned to NewTek.
The Last Toaster
The last device to bear the name Video Toaster was released by NewTek in 2009. But the Toaster hasn’t really gone away. Newtek now produces a product based on the Toaster called the Tricaster, which can do things that the Toaster could never dream of, and which is used in many small TV stations and Internet broadcasting networks. Leo Laporte, for instance, has been vocal about his love for the Tricaster system used to for his TWiT audio and video shows. Laporte also interviewed Jenison in 2013, talking about the history of the Toaster and NewTek.
The LightWave 3D software that many people bought the Toaster for is still going strong: version 11.6 was released in 2013, and is being used on many Hollywood features and TV shows. NewTek claims that LightWave has been the weapon of choice for more Emmy-winning 3D artists than any other program.
So, for being one of the main tools than enabled the TV revolution of the 1990s, and for setting the stage for the Internet broadcasting revolution that followed, the Video Toaster is a Gadget We Miss.
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