Throwback Thursday: The LaserDisc

When you want to watch a movie at home, what method do you use? Do you pop your favorite DVD into your new Microsoft Xbox One? Or do you rent a movie on Blu-ray and watch it through an updated Sony disc player such as the PlayStation 4 (PS4)? Or, maybe you choose to stream movies through a more modern medium such as Netflix or Hulu. Either way, watching one’s favorite movies and television shows at home has become more and more convenient through the continuous developments and revisions of both gaming and home entertainment systems. And, thanks to the development of the CD player, these methods have become quite mainstream throughout the years. But, what method truly started it all? The convenience of owning a home viewing device can be traced back to the year 1978 when the LaserDisc initially hit the home video market in North America during the era of VHS and Betamax.

At the time of its release, the LaserDisc was considered to be a new “home video” format, or pre-recorded media, specifically designed for home theater entertainment. This device was  initially licensed, sold, and marketed as MCA DiscoVision, or simply “DiscoVision,” for the first time in North America on December 15 1978. LaserDisc, or DiscoVision, had the physicality similar to that of the later compact disc (CD) and digital versatile disc (DVD) – which are both based on LaserDisc technology.

To compare, The LaserDisc had been a much larger version of today’s CD or DVD – having been about 12” in diameter or similar to the size of a record. These discs were also double-sided which enabled consumers to watch content longer than 60 minutes. LaserDiscs also didn’t need to be rewinded like VHS tapes since they had chapter markers, similar to that of a DVD, as early as the late 1980s thus introducing the idea of “scene selection.” After a few years passed the LaserDisc players also came to incorporate infrared laser diodes. This new laser-head component would position itself on an inserted disc in order to read the invisible content – with reason for this being that the laser could access different parts of a movie or play content continuously without the viewer having to eject the disc as users often had to do with previous time-limited versions of the disc which initially functioned using gas helium-neon laser tubes. The LaserDisc shares many similar characteristics to the modern CD and DVD however there are a few major differences.

For example, The LaserDisc was completely analog, similar to the concept of the barcode scanner, and used FM modulation. It also had a much longer lifespan since it was optical and not magnetic unlike the later renditions of both the CD and DVD which utilized a thin layer of metal that was read by a laser in order to access the encrypted data whereas the early versions of the LaserDisc used a method that required a laser to read coded bumps found on the surface of the disc which followed a continuous spiral path that covered the entire disc surface.

Many technology buffs will agree that the initial idea of the LaserDisc was inspired by the inventor of the original optical disc, Dr. David Paul Gregg. The inspiration came as early as 1958 by the simple idea that video could be reproduced through electron beam optical technology. It wasn’t until much later that home video formats began to use laser technology.

Historically, Dr. Gregg held a patent for a video disc as early as March in 1962 while the LaserDisc didn’t come out until 1978. CDs didn’t come out for another four years after the initial release of the LaserDisc and DVDs didn’t come out until the late 1990s. It’s safe to say that Dr. Gregg was many years ahead of his time.

The patents held by Dr. Gregg were through his own company, Gauss ElectroPhysics, and were eventually purchased six years later in 1968 by the Music Corporation of America (MCA) – a massive company that had various rights to countless movies and music. This led to the optical discs initial release as MCA DiscoVision.

However, after the release of DiscoVision MCA realized that they didn’t have the necessary resources nor adequate experience to build the players nor the hardware needed to accompany these futuristic discs. VHS tapes were cheaper to manufacture and sold at a fair price ($10.00 per tape) while LaserDiscs and LaserDisc technologies were more expensive to manufacture and often sold at a much higher price ($30.00 per disc). Americans thought the discs and their accompanied players were too pricey even though the LaserDisc had a much better quality and more advanced features than a VHS tape.

A few years later, the small Japanese Company Pioneer took their turn at improving the technology through the invention of the industrial player in the 1980s. These players were mainly designed for the education market and places where children spent much of their time learning about academics etc. Pioneer was able to successfully launch this LaserDisc device simply because they had the necessary tools, expertise, and manufacturing resources to do so – unlike the previous attempt made by MCA. The first DVD player (model DVL-9) was launched in Japan in 1996 and combined LaserDisc and DVD player technologies. This player became extremely popular Japan and can be the release that led to the development of the CD player four years later.

We now have countless CDs and DVDs available for purchase in stores world-wide. The content on these discs vary and often give historical record-players a run for their money. Many popular movies that had been released via VHS tapes have since been converted into lightweight discs that offer more convenience when it comes to modern home video players. VCRs can still be bought however the difficulty comes with finding content to play through the use of these now antique machines.

About the Author
Steven Glover is a proud member of the LIA staff. When he is not at work he is actively involved in several charitable efforts.
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