Useful Notes: LaserDisc

A LaserDisc compared to a DVD.

"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 MCAnote  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"note  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 LaserDisc 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 LaserDisc player (which weren't discontinued until 2009). The LaserDisc'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. In addition, the type of glue used to attach the two sides together was known to rot, slowly turning the discs black and affecting playback and picture quality (this was called "laser rot"). Perhaps more importantly, in the days before Tivo and other DVR devices, the LaserDisc 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 "LaserDisc party" (as seen in a third-season Friends episode).

LaserDisc 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.) LaserDisc 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 LaserDisc 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 LaserDisc format also "pioneered" the practice of supplementing films with special features, such as DVD Commentary, which first appeared on The Criterion Collection LaserDisc release of King Kong (1933) in 1984. Some of these releases had extra features that can't be found anywhere else, and some are highly sought-after by collectors. The 1993 LaserDisc boxset of the original Star Wars trilogy is still sometimes said to be the best release the series has gotten, since future DVD and Blu-ray releases don't have the unaltered versions of the films or the extensive extras and giant hardcover booklet that came with the set (the masters used for the original trilogy in the 2004 DVDs as extras were sourced from these discs).

Laserdiscs are also perhaps best known among the video game community for being the format used to created well known arcade games such as Dragons 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, Turbografx16, 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.

One thing that contributed to the longevity of the LaserDisc player in Japan was that it was the preferred media for Karaoke in the country. While the west frowns upon Karaoke and many other countries in Asia switched to the more compact (albeit inferior image-wise) VideoCD format, Japan stuck to LaserDiscs until it was finally discontinued in 2009 for no other reason than being an analog format. LaserDiscs are capable of carrying two distinct audio tracks- an analog stereo track and a digital stream which can pretty much be used for any type of audio- in the west, this was usually used for 5.1 Dolby Surround on premium releases and sometimes Spanish SAP in stereo PCM, but in Japan, Karaoke discs used them as PCM stereo tracks that carried a minus-one version of the song to be sung along to.

Aside from that there were also High Definition LaserDisc players in Japan starting in the early 90s. These "Hi-Vision" discs carried 1035i video compressed in the MUSE format (a Japanese analog HD compression scheme) along with the usual 5.1 Digital Dolby Surround track and Stereo Analog track. However they required a Hi-Vision capable player, and the monitor, projector or TV must also be Hi-Vision compatible and capable of decoding the MUSE signal. A MUSE capable display paired with a 5.1 kit was considered to be the ultimate in home cinema experience of the time, and would be perfect if it wasn't for the fact that one had to get up and change the disc every hour or so.

Alternative Title(s):

Laser Disc