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"Everything is better on LaserDisc! Whatever happened to the LaserDisc?"

LaserDisc (originally a copyrighted term invented by Pioneer Electronics) is an optical recording medium primarily used for video recordings. In fact it is the first optical recording device to be made publicly available. The technology first began development in the late 50's, however it didn't debut until 1978. They looked very similar in appearance to a vinyl album sized Compact Disc. The similarity in appearance is because it was a precursor to CD.

The format originally didn't have a proper name. It was called many different things, but was first marketed as MCA DiscoVision (or simply "DiscoVision"), with MCA[1] and Dutch electronics company Philips having significantly contributed to the development of the format. Morevover, Jaws was the first movie to be released on it. In 1980, Pioneer Electronics bought out the rights and patents to the format, and subsequently renamed it "LaserVision", with the format introduced in Japan in 1981. Although they would later use "LaserDisc"[2] as a brand name, LaserVision was the official name of the format until the early 1990s, when Pioneer finally began to use "LaserDisc" as the format's official name.

Despite superior picture quality Laser Disc never caught on like VHS, but had a small market share until it was phased out completely by DVD in the year 2000. It was more popular in Japan with 10% of households owning a Laser Disc player. The Laser Disc's quality came with some flaws. Storage capacity was quite low, and depending on the format would range from 30 to 60 minutes per side. Any movie that was over two hours would require multiple discs. The size of the disc also required a fairly noisy mechanism. Perhaps more importantly in the days before Tivo and other DVR devices the Laser Disc couldn't tape your favorite shows. That plus a steeper retail price for both the player and discs gave the VHS a decisive advantage. In the heyday of the medium the difference in quality between LD and VHS was significant enough that when LD aficionados bought a new disc, they would sometimes invite their (non-LD-owning) friends over to watch it at a "Laser Disc party" (as seen in a third-season Friends episode).

Laser Disc was an uncompressed medium. If the disc was made from good master copies, this means that it had a better image than many DVDs. (DVDs by default use a lossy compression scheme.) Laser Disc data could be burned onto the disc in two different ways, Constant Angular Velocity (CAV) and Constant Linear Velocity (CLV). On CAV discs, once around the disc was one frame of image. The advantage of CAV was that freeze-framing, scanning forward and backward, etc., could be done by a simple mechanical variation of the motor speed. The disadvantage was that it wasted space; the data recorded towards the outside of the disc was spread out relative to the data close to the center. CLV discs, by contrast, wasted no space, but showing the picture while pausing, fast-forwarding, and such required mildly complicated math on the fly. Cheap Laser Disc players couldn't do it. Those that could were referred to as having "the chip". Note that one physical disc could have CLV data on one side and CAV data on the other. A 145-minute movie, for example, might have three disc sides coded CLV, with 45 minutes jammed in there, while the last side contained only 10 minutes, coded CAV. Thus, if you had a cheap LD player, you could freeze-frame the movie only once you got to the fourth side.

The Laser Disc format also "pioneered" the practice of supplementing films with special features, such as DVD Commentary, which first appeared on The Criterion Collection Laser Disc release of King Kong in 1984.

Laserdiscs are also perhaps best known among the video game community for being the format used to created well known arcade games such as Dragon's Lair and Space Ace, which pioneered the use of full motion video in video games. There was even a laserdisc-based console system called the "Halcyon", which was discontinued after only two games were released for it: Thayer's Quest and NFL Football. In the mid-1990s, Pioneer released the LaserActive, a game console that was more of a high-end all in one solution that, aside from Laserdisc-based titles, could also play Sega Genesis, Sega CD, Turbo Grafx 16, and Turbografx-CD titles, however, two different modules were required to play them. While lasting longer than the Halcyon, the LaserActive was also short lived with only several games released for it in Japan and North America.

Notes

  1. More commonly known as Universal Pictures
  2. This specific spelling
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