Monday, March 18, 2013

LaserDiscs

Years ago, long before the dawn of the DVD or Blu-ray formats, consumer video was strictly all-analog, from the very first broadcasts right up to the introduction of the LaserDisc. The 12-inch, double-sided LaserDisc looked like a giant CD, but the video was analog encoded on two single-sided aluminum discs layered in plastic. The discs that debuted in 1978 had analog audio soundtracks, but later discs featured stereo digital sound.

Millions of players were sold in the U.S., but LaserDisc was, even during the height of its popularity, a niche format that appealed mostly to videophiles. It had much greater success in Japan, and was used in 10 percent of all households. LaserDisc video quality was a big step up from VHS and Beta tapes. Pioneer's LaserDisc players, starting with the VP-1000 in 1980, dominated the market, but in 1981 RCA started a minor format war with its analog CED video discs (an LP-like grooved video disc), but the inferior system faded quickly.

Rental stores sprung up providing Hollywood movies in a disc format. I remember the first movie I ever saw on LaserDisc. It was "Escape from New York" with Kurt Russel—a John Carpenter film with Earnest Borgnine. That was before he married Goldie Hawn—Kurt, not Earnest.

When DVDs first appeared, I was skeptical of DVD's quality, and unhappy with the first DVDs' compression artifacts. The LaserDisc supporters gleefully pointed to poor DVD transfers, ridden with aliasing, blotching, and pixilation woes. LaserDiscs were 100 percent compression-free.

In addition, there were significant DVD compatibility issues, some discs wouldn't play in some players. Similar to many opinions on records versus CDs for music, there was a natural smoothness to the image, because it was analog, and over most televisions of that era there wasn't a radical change between a good LaserDisc and the first DVDs. Even the Criterion Collection, known for releasing exquisitely restored editions of classic films, didn't immediately abandon the Laserdisc format

However, it didn't take all that long for the DVD engineers to sort out the mastering problems, but in the early days it looked like we were going to have an analog vs. digital war on our hands. It didn't happen, but the LaserDisc true believers kept the faith long after DVD reigned supreme. Pioneer continued selling players well into the DVD age and ceased production in 2009.

During this early time of analog LaserDiscs, we were experimenting in the use of the video recordings as educational media. We produced video training sessions on LaserDisc and used them internally at IBM to train employees. A friend of mine at the Boulder IBM site, Phil Smith, developed an excellent plastic case that would hold the 12-inch LaserDisc (or two), along with a small instruction booklet and several floppy discs. This was a complete training package using the IBM PC and a LaserDisc player. I created courses on Software Testing and spent a lot of time in the television studio recording the material that was then copied to the LaserDisc.

And you all thought I had a face meant for radio. Well, maybe I do, but video killed the radio star. I don't have any of those old discs any more, nor a player to play them on, but I do have some video tapes of my early lessons. I sure had a lot more hair back then.

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