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In the age of streaming services and Blu-ray offering vast libraries of new and classic films at the click or press of a button, one often forgets the long road it took to get here. The history of home video is built on a legacy of technological advancement in addition to consumers getting easier and more intuitive access to the content they want to see. With the latest in video presentation, 4K, offering image clarity on par
and just as immersive as the full cinema experience.
The Arrival of VHS, or the Video Home System
If you wind your clocks back to the 1970s and the time when the very first Star Wars film hit the silver screens, if you wanted to stay home and relax with a movie that simply wasn’t possible. Unless of course you tuned in at a special time to one of the handful of TV stations to catch a special Sunday Movie Presentation.
In the early parts of the decade Japanese company JVC began work on a new consumer grade video recording and analog tape system. The technology, called VHS, was created in part to allow people to record extended live broadcasts and play them back later. It wasn’t the first video cassette, but VHS was able to take the world by storm in the next decade because it focused on several key areas. In addition to being affordable VHS was also compatible with an ordinary television set, the picture looked about the same as when you were watching TV, and the tapes themselves would have at least two hours of recording capacity.
It wasn’t long before the first video-cassette recorders (or VCRs) began to appear on shelves. A few years later and the arrival of the 1980s saw a new type of store begin to emerge. One that would rent VHS tapes of existing movies to consumers, showcasing both studio back-catalogues and more recent cinematic releases. The ability to rent a movie, take it home, and then watch it at your leisure was not only a new concept; but a revolutionary one that would forever change the face of film watching.
The popularity of VHS even led to an increase in movie production, from bigger budget releases to straight-to-video productions. The VHS era, and period of 1980 through to 1995 was one of unprecedented growth. A Video Store could be found in just about every neighbourhood, often housing libraries that measured in the thousands.
The DVD Age - Let’s Get Digital
By the 1990s VHS technology was more than beginning to show its age. At the same time though home video had become an everyday part of life. Outside of renting titles for a limited time, being able to purchase specific titles was mostly unheard of outside of a few big releases marketed as such. When the first VHS tapes arrived on the scene in the 1970s they did so at a huge per-tape cost, which in part led to the boom in video rentals. Even by 1990 it simply wasn’t possible, or too expensive, to purchase more than a handful of VHS titles.
Throughout the decade though, thanks to the rise of the multimedia computer and personal recording, advances in digital video meant that the successor to VHS was on the horizon. A horizon that was reached in the latter part of the 1990s with the arrival of DVDs and DVD players. Like with any new bit of technology it took a few years for DVD to take hold but once it did – it ushered in a new era of home video.
That being, the era of the collector. Thanks to the relatively cheap manufacturing costs of DVDs (or Digital Video Discs), the new home video format of choice not only offered vastly improved picture quality over VHS, but it also helped foster the idea of ownership. Of being able to purchase a movie you like and watch it over and over without worrying about the degradation and quality loss that came with analog VHS tapes. Not having to rewind was also a nice touch.
The increased storage potential of DVDs also led to releases sporting behind-the-scenes features, commentary tracks, full documentaries, and other goodies. As the 1980s saw the rise of video rental stores, by the year 2000 the arrival of affordable DVDs saw the growth of DVD home video sales. Consumer electronic stores, music stores, department stores, supermarkets. All providing access to a growing library of DVDs. Where in a few short years the typical home would begin devoting entire bookshelves to dozens of new and classic films. All on DVD.
The Home Video Museum
Up to this point it might seem like the home video journey was a decades long process where advances in technology led to the rise of VHS and then the arrival of DVD. A clean and simple trajectory. That wasn’t the case. Along the way there were far more technological casualties than clear victors. Here are some of the bigger casualties of the home video boom.
Betamax (1978-1988) – Sony’s alternative to VHS arrived in markets either at the same time or just prior to JVC’s creation. Sporting noticeably improved picture quality over the VHS standard, in the end Betamax lost out to VHS due to it being more expensive and the tapes, initially at least, being limited to 1-hour of recording time. The competition between VHS and Betamax is often referred to as the Great Video Format War because it lasted for several years before it was deemed officially over once Sony began manufacturing VCRs in 1988.
LaserDisc (1983-2001) – Before DVD, before even CD, there was LaserDisc. A large, 30cm vinyl shaped optical disc, LaserDisc first broke onto the scene around 1983 where its superior picture and sound made it a desirable alternative for movie buffs. It was this simple reason, and support from major studios, that resulted in LaserDisc versions of movies being produced until the year 2000. In fact, some of the features that led to DVDs becoming a household name – from surround sound to special features – were first found on LaserDisc.
Video-CD (1993-2000s) – From a technology standpoint a Video-CD is exactly what it sounds like. Video recorded on the same CD format that music was released on throughout the 1990s. But thanks to the video compression that needed to take place just to fit a single hour on a single disc, the difference in picture quality over a VHS tape was negligible. It was only due to the extremely cheap manufacturing costs and rise of CD-burners in developing countries that saw Video CD endure for as long as it did.
HD-DVD (2006-2008) – Perhaps the shortest lived of the video formats mentioned, HD-DVD was the alternative to Sony’s new Blu-ray high-definition digital format. In less than a decade after the arrival of DVD, a new visually superior way to watch movies had arrived. And just like with the arrival of VHS and Betamax, there were two formats before there became one. History this time was a little different, as Sony’s superior Blu-ray technology won over both critics and consumers as it became the next home video format of choice.
From High-Definition to Ultra-High Definition
Which brings us to today, and the arrival of Ultra-High Definition Blu-ray, UHD, or 4K media. Where 4K refers to the increase in picture resolution. Unlike previous formats, 4K or UHD offers an evolutionary leap that doesn’t sacrifice the past. A first and a welcome change in the history of home video that results in a 4K Blu-ray player being able to read and play standard Blu-ray discs and DVDs. By that same token a 4K-capable display will also be able to reproduce an image in either resolution or quality.
This puts the last two decades of advances in home video at your finger-tips. Taking a recent release like Spider-Man: Homecoming
as an example, by alternating between the DVD, Blu-ray, and 4K UHD release, one can see a dramatic improvement in picture quality from one version to the next. Paired with a 4K home theatre projector or an OLED display from LG, the results are comparable to that of a proper cinema.
So then, does that mean we’ve reached an end-point? Can it get any better than this? History tells us yes, and thankfully as movie fans one day we’ll get to see what that might be. In the mean-time we can all enjoy the benefits of 4K, whilst acknowledging the long road it took to get here.