Relic: Laserdisc

It may be hard to grasp that competition over the very medium of storage formats would erupt in full-scale “wars” over which format would win out. Some examples of this are the VHS/Betamax wars of the late 1970s and 1980s, and the Blu-ray/HD DVD wars of the 2000s. However, some formats stayed in the background and catered to niche markets. One of those formats was the Laserdisc format. Some of our older readers may remember these discs—essentially giant CDs and DVDs that needed some of the most advanced technology on the market to operate at the time of its release.

Optical video recording technology was invented by David Paul Gregg and James Russell as early as 1958. Their patents were purchased by the Music Corporation of America (MCA) in 1968, and by 1969, the reflective videodisc that was to become the Laserdisc was developed by Philips. MC and Philips had a working model of the video disc by 1972. LaserDisc was introduced in 1978, two years after the VHS, and predated the CD by four years. The brand, known as MCA DiscoVision, was later purchased by Pioneer and marketed as LaserVision and LaserDisc.

While originally developed in North America, it was pushed into the background by the VHS/Betamax wars that were occurring in the market at the time, and catered to a niche market. Philips produced players, while MCA produced the discs themselves. However, the partnership was dissolved in a few years, and some of the scientists working on the LaserDisc project formed the Optical Disc Corporation.

One of the early adopters was the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, which used the LaserDisc to allow visitors to search for any of the front pages of the Chicago Tribune newspaper.
This was also an early example of public access or open access to electronically stored information, which is a commonplace today in libraries. Sony introduced a LaserDisc format in 1984 that
allowed it to store as much information as
DVD-ROMs do today, almost two decades before. One of the first movies to come out on LaserDisc was Jaws in 1978.

In the consumer market, LaserDisc was far more expensive than the VHS and Betamax formats,
and only was popular among niche markets such as videophiles. However, markets such as Japan and Southeast Asia (including the Philippines) had a greater adoption rate of the LaserDisc. While the prices were still high (about USD 100 in Hong Kong during the 1990s), the LaserDisc was a popular format for rentals in the region. The introduction of CDs and DVDs quickly made the LaserDisc obsolete. However, many LaserDisc titles are now considered collector’s items, such as Song of the South, which can fetch hundreds of dollars online.

LaserDiscs had applications in computers, music, gaming and video editing, as the high-definition format for the time allowed it to have use for music videos. Some corporations that made extensive
use of the LaserDisc include the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), which used it for the Domesday Project in 1986. Apple also developed a scripting language for LaserDiscs, but it was generally for educational and commercial use.

Some games that were primarily on LaserDisc were 1983’s Dragon’s Lair, arguably one of the most famous arcade games released on LaserDisc. The Pioneer LaserActive was one of the only game consoles that used the LaserDisc format. It was released in 1993 at a retail price of USD 970, making it one of the most expensive game consoles in history.

As late as 1999, the LaserDisc format was still popular as almost 10 percent of Japanese households had them, and about two percent of American households owned one as well. By 2001, LaserDisc players were discontinued in favor of the DVD format, although it still remains popular in Japan to this day. With the exception of the BBC, the format did not penetrate European markets as much.

The LaserDisc format helped pioneer DVD and Blu-ray formats that are in wide use today, and
brought high-definition into households for the very first time. Like most technologies that appealed to niche markets, it was ahead of its time. Those who got their hands on LaserDisc and LaserDisc players early on, got a glimpse of the future.

Also published in GADGETS MAGAZINE July 2017 Issue
Words by Jose Alvarez