Published: Sept. 1, 2014 By

woman on couch eating popcorn holding remote

Television Transformed

Click a remote or swipe a smartphone — recording television shows on a digital video recorder couldn’t be much simpler these days.

We can thank Jim Barton (ElEngrCompSci’80, MCompSci’82) for taking one of the first big steps.

In 1997 Barton and business partner Mike Ramsay founded what would become TiVo, the Bay Area company best known for creating an early digital video recording system. The duo had met while working for computer graphics company Silicon Graphics (SGI) in computer design and super-computing. Later, after devising ways to manipulate and store digital content — such as television programs — they founded a company called Teleworld.

Their product was a device that allowed users to record television programs onto a hard drive for later viewing, and to pause and rewind live TV. The first systems, which stored up to 14 hours of television, were shipped in March 1999 under a new, catchier company name: TiVo.

“Getting people to understand the concept was one of our primary marketing problems in the early days,” says Barton, who left TiVo in 2011 but still lives in the Bay Area. “People had a model of watching television in their head. But the most you could do with it was change the channel. Conceptually, it didn’t connect with them that you could do more than that.”

With the help of some national publicity, including a segment on “60 Minutes,” and the enthusiasm of early adopters, more and more people began to appreciate the possibilities of digitally recorded television. As TiVo refined its technology, Barton and Ramsay sought to keep it simple so everyone could record and watch television programs.

“The fact that we kept it easily accessible worked greatly in our favor,” says Barton. “It was always a compliment when someone said their three-year-old could use it.”

In addition to being user-friendly, TiVo could measure when viewers rewound or fast-forwarded their programs, providing key information for advertisers and, occasionally, some pop-culture trivia: The “wardrobe malfunction” of pop star Janet Jackson during the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show was, and remains, the most replayed moment in TiVo history.

Nearly two decades later, having built TiVo still gives Barton joy.

“To this day,” he says, “people come up to me and say, ‘I bought one of the first TiVos, I loved it.’”

Photography © Anderson Ross Photography / Stocksy United