Wednesday 12 December 2018

LaserDisc (1978)

Either a LaserDisc or a CD being held by a very tiny person
Introduced December 1978

You might think that movies on disc started with DVDs in the late 1990s, but in fact the idea was first explored commercially in 1978 with the LaserDisc, sold at the time as the MCA DiscoVision. Although it was only ever a niche product appealing to people who like their movies very much, the LaserDisc paved the way for CDs, DVDs and Blu-rays.

Unlike modern digital discs, the LaserDisc stored video tracks in an analogue format, in the same way that VHS tapes did. Compared to modern methods, this is relatively inefficient and in order to fit a meaningful amount of video on video onto them, they were made in a 12” format (much like an LP record). Depending on which format the disc was, it could store up to 60 minutes of video on each side, although with many players you would physically need to flip the disc over after the hour was up.

The main competition at the time was VHS. Although VHS tapes were smaller and easier to handle, LaserDisc had nearly twice the horizontal resolution and (if handled carefully) a much greater lifespan. As with a modern DVD, it was possible to skip through parts of the film without having to wait for (seemingly) ever as the tape rewound or fast forwarded. Theoretically, LaserDiscs should have been cheaper than VHS tapes too, but in the end VHS could leverage the economy of scale to bring the price down.

Market penetration was not huge – by the late 1990s 2% of US households had one, but the format stayed around until 2001 when DVDs finally got good enough to replace LaserDiscs in quality terms, but even then the differences were marginal and it wasn’t until the introduction of Blu-ray that the quality of LaserDisc was definitely beaten.

Because of its analogue nature, the quality of playback varied depending on the quality of the device. Today, a good quality player can cost hundreds of pounds, or even £1000 plus if it comes with movies. And although these technological relics are somewhat impractical,  for collectors of esoteric entertainment equipment they may well make a worthwhile addition.

Image credit: Windell Oskay via Flickr

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