The History of Laserdisc, DVDs, Streaming

In Part 1 of our series, we talked about how it took 60 years for movies to be seen in the comfort of your home on a tiny screen. Movies used to be reserved solely for grand venues, and the time and place you saw them were determined by studio heads and distribution chiefs. Later, timing and distribution were determined by TV honchos who relied on what the studios agreed to let them show. Point being, we have not historically had much control over our relationship with cinema. And this can be said of our relationships with any other media that engages technology. Lets look at the history of laserdisc, DVDs and streaming.

What the history of our technology has shown us is that control seeps downwards as technology gets better and more accessible. By the mid-70s, you could record movies and watch them when you wanted to. Soon after that, you could rent them; there was still a barrier though: location. Your options were limited to viewing your selection on a TV, attached to a VCR. That began to change though and led the way to our streaming and portable ways, on mobile tech: the final step of the anytime and anywhere revolution. We’ll look at what came after VHS.

The Weird and Important History of LaserDiscs

In popular memory, LaserDiscs stand weirdly out of time and hard to place. We all knew someone who had a LaserDisc player, but we have trouble remembering if they were competing with VHS or DVDs. The truth is they competed with both. Astonishingly, LaserDiscs were invented way back in 1958. They simply weren’t put on the market until the 1970s, when clunky tapes began to reign supreme. LaserDiscs had much better sound and picture quality and made for a far superior viewing experience.

So why didn’t they take off? Well, for one thing they were huge, fragile, and expensive. They could also only hold 60 minutes per disc, which meant most movies needed two or even three discs for viewing. It was one thing to flip a record; it was another altogether to have to switch discs three or four times in a sitting. In the end, though, they were an amazing invention, presaging the way for what we have today. They hung around until 2000, like the last Neanderthals, mingling uneasily with the species that replaced them, already a relic.

Laserdiscs were huge. Not in the sense of popular, but in terms of influence and, well, size. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

DVD and BluRay

It began with Twister. The cow-flinging special effects blockbuster was the first movie released on DVD. It wasn’t very long until DVDs began colonizing the shelves, pushing the tapes into a lonely corner. DVDs were unstoppable, with their high-quality picture, multi-channel sound, and special features. It was a new and exciting way to watch movies.

Then came BluRay, which quickly emerged as a viable alternative to DVDs, who responded by developing HD DVDs. As the war went back and forth, the market changed- as did the viewer experience. HD became not just an incentive, but a requisite. HD technology evolved to meet a growing demand for high-quality viewing experience. However, this was only the beginning of viewers taking ownership of their movie-watching experience.

Streaming and Mobile Tech: Your Choice, and Your Time

We’re now firmly in the era of streaming on your computer, phone, or tablet. Services like Netflix and Roku allow you to choose from hundreds or even thousands of movies that you can watch anywhere, anytime. You can switch from device to device uninterrupted. You can even watch on the bus.

It’s impossible to overstate how revolutionary this is. For decades, you had no control over what movies you were able to see. The only choice you had a was “yes” or “no”. In the last 40 years, choice began to trickle down toward us. Now, it is entirely ours. We aren’t producing the movies yet, but our technology has allowed us to take control. There’s nothing to replace going to a movie, but convenience, the heart of entertainment, is now the dominant force in movies.

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