The Laser Disk and VHS
One of the earliest memories of watching movies at home was with my grandparents and their laser disk player. The laser disks were similar to music records, approximately a foot in diameter, but instead of handling the disk directly it came in a thin plastic cartridge that you would insert into the player, flip a switch, and then pull out again. These disks were nothing like the DVD’s and Blu-Ray disks of today though, there was no protective coating on the disks, and they were easily scratched. Once the disk was scratched, the movie would skip, or not play at all.
The disks never caught on with the general public largely due to the high cost of the disks and the disk players. Laser Disks were introduced in 1978, but their more popular rival, Video Home System, or VHS tapes, were introduced in 1976. VHS tapes were the foundation for an entire industry of home movie rentals, including the popular Blockbuster chain. VHS tapes were not as high of quality as Video Disks, but they were good enough for the time, and they were the right price. Video Disks and VHS continued to be distributed throughout the 80’s and 90’s until both were supplanted by the successor to Video Disks, the DVD.
The DVD and Blu-Ray
DVD, or “digital video disk,” were smaller, cheaper, and could hold more data than the older video disk standard. Holding more data meant that the quality of the video held on the disk could be higher, and since the players and the disks were relatively inexpensive, the format quickly became the preferred standard.
DVD reined the home entertainment market for several years but has only recently been supplanted by Blu-ray Disc. Blu-Ray, like DVD before it, can hold higher quality video, along with interactive or network components that take advantage of modern capabilities of Blu-ray players.
Despite the advances over the years in longevity of physical media, disks are still likely to be scratched, warped, or otherwise damaged in a way that makes them unplayable. The answer to this is streaming video and digital downloads. Apple, Netflix, Microsoft, Hulu, Amazon, and others have been working on this for years, and in the past few years have made significant headway into the homes and hearts of consumers. Devices like the Roku and Apple TV make downloading movies quick and easy, and far less of a chore than driving to the video store to browse through available rentals.
The Hurdles With Digital Downloads
However, before direct digital downloads fully take over from optical disks, two hurdles must be overcome. The first is Digital Rights Management, or DRM. If you purchase a movie from iTunes, that movie is associated with your iTunes account. If, at some point, you decide you no longer want to use that account, or for whatever reason you lose access to it, you also lose your purchased movie. We once had the same problem with digital music, but a few years ago the industry made the decision to remove DRM from individual music files. For mass acceptance, the same must be done with movies.
The second hurdle is bandwidth. A high definition movie downloaded from iTunes can weigh in at over four gigabytes. If you have a fast-enough connection, that might not be a problem to start playing the movie shortly after starting the download, but you are betting that the download speed will be faster than the pace of the movie. In many cases across the United States, there’s simply not fast enough Internet connections to support this. In the future, the hunger for bandwidth for movies will only get worse as the new, even higher definition than Blu-Ray standard known as 4k becomes widely available.
It’s been an amazing ride from watching skipping movies on laser disk in my grandparent’s basement to being able to choose what I want to watch, whenever I want to watch it in high definition. If anything, the desire for even better quality home entertainment systems will drive the Internet towards faster and more reliable connections. For home entertainment, the future looks very bright indeed.