Why Laser Disc Was Way Ahead of its Time

James Logie

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The 1980s brought us a lot of new technology all at once. Some, like the VHS, became commonplace — others had trouble lasting.

LaserDisc was a technology that goes all the way back to the 50s and became commercially made in the late 70s.

It was pushed in the 80s as being superior to the VCR, and even though it had advanced technology, there were many problems that lead to it eventually fading away.

LaserDisc definitely had some massive problems with it, and I don’t think they considered the consumer's needs the same way VHS did.

This would eventually lead to its downfall. It would compete against VHS and then the DVD — which ultimately took over from all of them.

Still, the LaserDisc remains a significant part of the 80s, even if it’s just from a novelty standpoint. No one really owned one, but everyone knew it.

Let’s check out all things LaserDisc.

What Was LaserDisc?

LaserDisc was a record-sized disc that looked like a CD. It was 12 inches in diameter and made up of two-sided aluminum discs layered in plastic.

As much as it had a digital appearance, the LaserDisc was actually analog.

Like a CD or DVD, the surface comprised of little pits where the information was contained and accessed by laser.

They used analog FM stereo sound and also digital audio. This way, the discs could store more information on them.

The Early History Of LaserDisc

The invention of LaserDisc goes all the way back to 1958 and was called optical video recording technology. The patents were purchased by MCA in 1968.

In 1969, Phillips had developed one of the first versions of the LaserDisc using a disc that used a reflective mode compared to the MCA transparent mode.

There was a lot of technology and design to sort through, and in a rare move, Phillips and MCA joined forces to develop this format.

They both displayed one of the very first versions in 1972.

LaserDisc would hit the market years later, though. The first ones were available in 1978 in Atlanta, Georgia.

This is only a few years after the VHS VCR came out, so LaserDisc was technically the third format offered to the public, along with VHS and Beta.

It also set the stage for the compact disc that would come out about four years later.

Those first LaserDisc players were called the MCA DiscoVision, which is just hilarious.

Pioneer electronics would help to set everything straight by purchasing a majority stake in the new format in 1980 and giving it a new name.

They would call the format LaserVision, and the brand name would now become LaserDisc.

Phillips and MCA were still in the mix, though. Phillips focused on making the players and MCA would make the discs.

Early Use of the New LaserDisc

The advanced technology of LaserDisc was not taken advantage of at first.

When LaserDisc first came out, the Museum Of Science and Industry in Chicago would use them as data storage so that people could come in and look up newspapers on LaserDisc.

At the same time that the Chicago museum was using them to display newspapers, others were realizing they could be used for entertainment and could store a lot of information — such as an entire movie.

On December 15, 1978, they released the very first movie on LaserDisc: Jaws.

The First LaserDisc Players

Did you ever get to hold a LaserDisc? They were surprisingly heavy and required a pretty solid unit to play them in.

The earliest players used helium-neon laser tubes to read the discs, which sound kind of terrifying to have in your home.

In March 1984, Pioneer released the first player with a proper solid-state laser.

The early players also loaded from the top, similar to a record player. This new Phillips player from 1984 would load in the front the way you would with a DVD or CD player.

Interestingly, LaserDisc players made from the mid-80s could actually play CDs.

The problem is, these early players lead to poor picture quality. It turns out that helium and neon worked better for playback.

The Advantages of LaserDisc

This is probably a good time to look at the pros and cons of LaserDisc because it had many of each. Here are some pros that came from them:

  • You could get a great degree of control over the playback process. It actually had better controls in that way than DVD.
  • With LaserDisc, you could jump to any frame in a movie just by entering the frame number in the remote.
  • A damage spot on a LaserDisc can be played over or just skipped by. On a DVD or Blu-Ray, you can be pretty screwed and can’t play past the damage.
  • It’s thought, by audiophiles, that the sound on LaserDisc is superior to that on DVD. It’s also thought that LaserDisc has a “smoother” and more “film-Like” sound to it.
  • LaserDisc couldn’t block out navigation controls. And to me, this is big. This is how DVD blocks the ability to control being able to automatically jump to the movie and forces you to sit through crappy previews.

Problems With LaserDisc

Ultimately, the problems that existed with LaserDisc lead to its demise. But when it hit the market, here were some initial complaints about the format:

  • The discs were heavy (about a ½ pound) and could be easily damaged.
  • Since they were so heavy, it took a toll on the components of the players leading to more noise than other format players.
  • You couldn’t record on them. We’ll get back to this later, it’s significant…
  • Playback was limited to 30–36 minutes per side. When one side was finished, you had to get up and flip over the disc like you would with an archaic record. Future units would be able to “flip” the disc by changing the direction of the laser inside, but this might have been too little too late. And expensive…
  • Even though the discs could play past scratches, they still needed to be immaculate to not skip over parts. Even slight scratches and dust could cause read-errors which would cause playback problems.
  • The discs had to be PERFECTLY flat. We’re talking straight as a frozen rope in winter. Any bending on the disc would cause “crosstalk” by the laser and distort the picture.
  • An enormous problem is there was actually a difference between discs and players. Whereas all DVDs are the same, the quality of LaserDiscs could vary depending on the manufacturer. Same thing with the players. A low-quality disc could still look bad on a high-end player, and if you had a large TV, the low quality would be even more evident. This lead to so many bad possible combinations between disc manufacturers and models of players. There was no consistency.
  • There were a lot of poorly put-together discs. A LaserDisc wasn’t a single unit, but two sides basically glued together. Some companies used a cheap adhesive in the mold of George Costanza, and the adhesive would leak through and damage the disk leading to huge playback problems.

Comparing LaserDisc With VHS

A lot of the comparison here centers on the winning disc format of DVD — but DVD wasn’t on the scene yet in the 1980s, so let’s look at the comparison with the king of home video.

Going into the mid-80s, VHS was clearly winning the format war between them and Beta — but how did it stack up to the new shiny counterpart?

Right off the bat, there is the obvious picture quality — and it was a substantial quality. When you look at horizontal resolution LaserDisc provided around 425 lines while VHS only had 240.

An enormous advantage was that LaserDisc had more room to store audio and could contain multiple audio tracks.

This allowed for something called a “director's commentary” which we take for granted today but was a big deal when it came out.

They could now put out “special editions” with these extra tracks, and the first to do it was the 1984 Criterion Collection of “Citizen Kane.”

This first-of-its-kind disc contained interviews, commentary tracks, documentaries, and still photographs.

This set the standard for all future special edition releases, which are pretty much all standard on any release.

LaserDisc was also initially cheaper to produce than VHS cassette because they didn’t have all the moving parts that a VHS did.

A VHS has 14 parts, including the tape, and a LaserDisc has one part with 5–6 layers.

LaserDisc also had a longer lifespan than VHS because the discs were read optically and not mechanically how a VHS had to be.

This mechanical reading leads to more wear and tear and the dreaded moment when you would eject a cassette and the tape was still deep in the VCR.

For kids in the 80s, this was your worst nightmare coming true.

By the end of the 1980s, things were getting more expensive, and pressing discs were costing $5 per two-sided disc.

This was because of the rising cost of plastic mechanisms that would do the stamping.

At the same time, producing a VHS tape was getting cheaper to copy and produce — and was getting down to only $1 per cassette.

Looking at this you might wonder why in the hell LaserDisc didn’t take over the format wars beating out VHS.

So what happened?

The Downfall of LaserDisc

Like anything, you can’t pinpoint the downfall of LaserDisc to one thing but a lot of factors. I think at the most basic level it probably came down to price.

LaserDisc machines were not cheap, and neither were the discs. The first players cost upwards of $1000 and actually ended up being in nearly one million homes by the end of the decade.

LaserDisc was embraced by movie-lovers who tend to prefer more advanced formats such as Blu-Ray and 4K.

But for the average person who didn’t care that much about picture or sound, it made little sense to spend the cost of a used car on a player when you could get a VHS for next to nothing.

Another huge thing is you couldn’t record on them. LaserDisc was for occasional use, whereas the VHS had a place in everyday life.

You could fit 6 hours or so on a videotape for only a few bucks. It just wasn’t an option with LaserDisc.

Another factor was that LaserDisc wasn’t for lazy people. I’m not joking.

Think of when you’re comfortable on the couch and have to think about getting up. It’s one of the worst things in the world.

Or if you’re on the couch and drop something that’s out of reach? It may as well be on the moon.

Every LaserDisc had to be flipped over, and for longer movies, it might need 2–3 discs. That was a hard pass for many people.

If you’re spending $1000, it better be able to switch the discs themselves...

Final Thoughts on LaserDisc

LaserDisc is cool, but it clearly wasn’t meant to be.

It’s kind of like the Concorde; it was maybe ahead of its time and could have benefited from being released later.

But eventually, DVD would have come through and replaced it, anyway.

It’s fun to look back on LaserDisc and see it for being part novelty, but part ingenuity.

I don’t know anyone that owned one, but I think everyone really wanted to have it.

It was the definition of the latest and greatest, but it ended up being kicked to the curb alongside its old friend Betamax.

May they rest in pieces.

photo via Pinterest

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Personal trainer, podcaster, Amazon best-selling author. Writing about some health, a little marketing, and a whole lot of 1980s.

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