|Optical discs (including CDs) store their information on a silver disc as pits in the reflective surface, so that a laser reflected off this surface is modulated by these pits. Since nothing actually touches the recorded surface, optical discs should be completely free of wear.|
|So, even though lasers were a brand new and untried
technology in the 1970's - with all the risks and delays that implies - it was an obvious technology to try, and in 1968,
the American MCA company formed a new division, DiscoVision, to research into optical videodisc technology.
In June 1973 they gave a press demonstration, using cardboard mock-ups, and claimed a 1974 release for the
A 1972 DiscoVision prototype
Note the hilarious Heath-Robinson remote!
|After the demo, representatives from the North American division of Philips contacted MCA, and showed them
their plans for a very similar system. The two companies agreed to combine their efforts, and the project was put on
hold while they formulated a new specification combining the best features of both. By 1975 this standard was agreed,
and a demonstration system was put together. Although the discs for this prototype system were single-sided and flexible
(unlike modern laserdiscs), and only played for 25 minutes, remarkably they will still play on a modern machine.
On the 12th of December 1978, a trial launch of the new system was made in Atlanta. 50 of the Magnavox MagnaVision VH-8000 players were made available, though about half of them seem to have been bought up by staff before the shops even opened!
The machines were on sale for $749 each, and people came from all over the USA - and overseas - to try to get one. Representatives of Japanese companies were offering the lucky few up to $5000 per machine, but there were no takers.
|The machines sold out in under an hour, in near-riot conditions, and many of the customers who couldn't get a
machine bought up the remaining discs so that they would have something to play when they eventually did get hold of
An early DiscoVision player. This is an "industrial" model, produced for General Motors for training and interactive diagnostic uses
|Philips (and later Pioneer) manufactured the production machines. Curiously, Philips used a different name for the system: VLP for Video Long Player, or occasionally Video Laser
Player. The term DiscoVision is itself somewhat confusing, as it refers to three different things: the company, the label
on which discs were released, and the format. It is also apparently a somewhat variable "standard"; different machines
may play different disks in different ways... The Philips standard specified various codes to control the players, which
are respected by all subsequent players but ignored by DiscoVision era machines.
Another successful trial was made in Seattle a few months later, and the system went on general release in early 1980. Unfortunately, it soon developed a reputation for unreliability. Problems with disc pressing meant that more than half of the early discs were unplayable; in order to improve quality control, the pressing plants ended up having people watching every disc through to check it, which is hardly cost effective! The machines themselves seemed to be variable, as well - some would play a disc, some wouldn't - and too many ended up going back for repairs.
Reviews at the time seem to agree that the system had the potential to be fantastic, but wasn't living up to this potential. Of course, the companies who had spent nearly a decade pushing money into it were desperate to start getting returns, particularly as video tape was starting to take over the world...
|In this room we feature the very first LaserVision player, as well as an early Pioneer machine.|
Curiously, as late as 1986 there was another attempt to develop a completely different optical system. The McDonnell-Douglas company (more famous for aerospace than entertainment) brought out the LaserFilm system.
|The idea of LaserFilm was to use ordinary film stock for the 30cm discs, and standard optical methods for printing
the signal on it. The system recorded a spiral track of black dots on a transparent disc, which would affect a laser beam
shining through the disc.
This was the only transmissive disc format - all other systems reflect the laser off a shiny surface. The obvious drawback with this is that the discs can only be single-sided. The system also suffered from using visible light, which limits how small the dots can be, and the result was that each disc could only hold 18 minutes of video.
|Not surprisingly, attempts to market the system to the public came to nothing, although it was used within the McDonnell Douglas organisation, to hold technical information - both video and still images.|
CDV, VSD and VCD
Audio CDs arrived in the mid-eighties, bringing digital sound to the consumer for the first time. CD was also the first use of solid-state lasers -- tiny lasers on a chip -- which allowed the players to be small and low-power. Adding digital sound to laser disks was an obvious step, and in 1988 the CD-Video format was launched.
|CD-V discs are smaller than LaserVision, 20cm rather than 30, and are gold rather than silver. They used the same analogue video system as LaserVision but with CD digital audio. They were marketed as "CD's with pictures", and most titles released were music. Later, 12cm CDV discs (the same size as CDs and DVDs) were used; these are sometimes known as "Gold CD". Another variation was "VSD", Video Single Disc, which were 12cm discs carrying just the video track -- the video disc equivalent of the 7 inch single record, and again used mainly for music.|
|CD-V seems to have been a complete failure commercially, in all its variations, perhaps because its target audience -- teenage music fans -- didn't have access to expensive LD players, and certainly couldn't afford to buy one. The goal was to market to MTV viewers, but these viewers were too busy taping music off MTV with their VCRs...
Another format, VCD, is a different beast entirely. VCD refers to MPEG-encoded digital video recorded on computer CD-ROMs. Although it was very popular in some parts of the world (mainly the far east) as a carrier for films and music right up until the advent of DVD, like DVD it is a pure-digital data format so falls outside the scope of Total Rewind.
|In 1991, the format was released once again, now called LaserDisc. The 30-cm silver discs looked just like those
of LaserVision, but actually were the same format as CD-V: analogue video and digital sound. NTSC discs apparently had
both digital and analogue soundtracks, which were sometimes used for alternate soundtracks or even commentaries and other
"extras" like today's DVDs. (And in fact some DVD "extra" soundtracks are actually copied from the original LD release!).
This wasn't possible on PAL discs, where the higher demands of the signal meant that there wasn't "room" for alternate
tracks, so only the digital soundtrack was provided.
This time, finally, the format succeeded, and LD became the format of choice for film fans. The real purists had 7-speaker surround-sound "home cinema" systems, and used pure NTSC players and TVs, to get the ultimate quality -- PAL discs were usually converted from original NTSC masters, with a consequent loss of quality during the conversion process.
LD has now been completely superceded by the all-digital DVD format. It's estimated that there were less than 3 million LD players in total in the US when DVD was launched - about two months' DVD player sales today. The LaserDiscs themselves are also no longer produced; the last LD movie was released (in Japan) in September 2001.