WITH the rapid progress in audio-visual technology, consumers continue to be bombarded with newer formats at every turn. Just as compact disc fans might be confused by terms such as CD-I (compact disc interactive), CD-ROM (CD-read only memory), photo-CDs and read-write CD, so, too, might video fans be puzzled by new forms of video cassette recorder (VCR) formats. But not for long, if the Japanese have their way. Japanese firms have begun discussions on setting up a single standard for the digital VCR formats of the future. The increasing use of multimedia in the computer industry has seen audio making the transition from storing information as analogue waves to storing signals in the one's and zero's of computer code. The development of a digital VCR would be a big step toward moving video technology into the computer age. Just as digital audio tapes (DATs) offer CD-quality sound, digital video tapes could offer clearer, cleaner pictures than existing analogue VCRs. Computers are increasingly being used to edit sound and images, and digital video tapes could store images, sound and data that can be accessed and manipulated more easily by computers. The quality of the data stored would be the same as that available on CD-ROMs. And digital VCRs could also transmit images over telephone lines as computers now transmit information. Japanese firms, such as Hitachi, Matsushita Electrical Industrial, Sony, Toshiba and Victor, are growing desperate for a new product that will be widely accepted by a considerably confused market and thus bolster slumping sales. By coming up with a standard, they hope to avoid a format war that could confuse consumers more. For evidence of the negative effects of such a conflict, one has only to look at the results of the battle between Betamax and VHS in analogue VCRs in the 1980s, or the continuing battle between two digital music systems, the mini-disc and the digital compact cassette. Consumers want a single universal standard as much as anyone, and the big names in the audio-visual business are finally paying heed to their desires. According to recent reports in the Japanese media, Sony and Matsushita, normally bitter rivals, are close to a basic agreement on a system that would use tape six to eight millimetres wide that could store up to four hours of conventional television and two hours of high-definition television (HDTV). Products could begin appearing late in 1994 or early 1995. Both Sony and Matsushita have denied that any agreement has been reached and have said that it is too early to discuss product features or timing. But they have admitted they had been talking to each other and to other companies. Similar comments came from Hitachi, Toshiba and Victor Co, better-known as JVC. Sony said because a new format would be expected to last 10 to 20 years, it would have to be able to record HDTV, which provided pictures twice as sharp as conventional television. In addition, Sony said, an agreement needed to be reached with video software companies on copyright issues. Because the technology allowed successive generations of copies to be made without a loss of quality, digital VCRs could make video piracy easier. The popularity of laser discs in Hongkong has already proved this to a great extent, with consumers borrowing laser discs and copying them on to tapes. Video pirates use the same methods but in mass quantities. The only problem with this has been that laser disc material is recorded under the NTSC standard (that used the United States and Japan) while Hongkong follows the PAL system. A movie can only becopied from a laser disc to a video tape (or watched, for that matter) if the VCR being used is a multi-system machine. The experience with digital recording of music is a guide, movie companies and other video suppliers will insist that digital VCRs incorporate a mechanism to limit copying. Sales of VCRs have slowed as the market has become saturated in developed countries. But the VCR business is now on the cusp of two changes in technology - the advent of digital technology and HDTV. Many companies have shown VCR prototypes that are either digital or high-definition or both. It is unclear how the setting of a standard would affect the prospects for these systems. Toshiba has demonstrated a digital system that records high-definition signals compatible with the HDTV system developed by General Instrument, which is one candidate to become the HDTV standard in the United States. Hitachi recently demonstrated a digital high-definition VCR for another HDTV standard proposed by a consortium that includes NBC, Philips North America and Thomson Consumer Electronics. NEC has developed a digital VCR for Japan's HDTV system. In addition, recordable disks are expected to provide competition to tapes, especially for interactive computer systems. A tape is ill-suited for interactive use because it takes too long to wind the tape to a particular spot, whereas any spot on a disccan be reached quickly.