In the late 1970's a new video format came on the scene, the laser disc. This provided high end home systems a level of audio and video quality video tape could never dream about. For those that could afford the player and sound equipment this was the way to go for the home theater enthusiast. Although now mostly replaced by the DVD there are still many people that hold on to their collections of laser discs.
The laser disc has a video resolution of 400 lines, far superior to the 240 lines of the typical video tape player. This resulted in a much sharper picture. Like the video tape there are two speeds available, Constant Linear Velocity (CLV) and Constant Angular Velocity (CAV). The amount of data and therefore the length of the program was very limited, CLV could hold about 60 minutes while CAV is restricted to about 30 minutes. Because of this the average movie required several discs. The number of discs was somewhat reduced by using both sides but the viewer still had to get up and flip the disc on most players. CLS discs also did not support many of the special features common to video tape such as freeze frame.
For those used to the modern DVD the size of the laser disc is huge. It is about 12 inches in diameter, about the same size as the old vinyl records (for those of us old enough to remember the black discs music to come out of). This did pose a storage problem for some. While thinner than a VHS tape it was much higher. Also, since multiple discs where required for a single film even the thickness often was about the same. Still, the tradeoff for better picture and sound was worth it.
The acceptance of the laser disc was a lot slower than the DVD. At first there were not that many titles available, the studios were very cautious about releasing new titles on this format. Eventually, a sizable number of films were released. For those interested in the original version of the first three Star Wars flicks this is the only digital format that may ever show Hans Solo shooting first.
The improvement in the audio was a real breakthrough. Most laser discs supported AC-3, the original name for the format now known as Dolby 5.1. This format featured true surround sound with discreet audio tracks for two front channels, a center channel, two rear channels and a sub woofer. Much like DVDs the high end, special effects blockbusters tended to sell the laser disc for serious film buffs.
The laser disc also pioneered the concept of long lasting media. Unlike the video tape where the playback (and recording) head was in physical contact with the tape, the laser disc was touched only by a gentle beam of light. This avoided the wear and tear typical of the magnetic tape.
While the format is fading away and never really achieved the popularity currently enjoyed by the DVD this was where digital home theater began and we should all be grateful to those that made this technology available to the public.