I was talking to a friend on Twitter last week and I mentioned that the series “11/22/63” which had previously only been available for streaming via Hulu was now available for rental on Blu-ray disc via Netflix. I’d really wanted to see this mini-series based on one of Stephen King’s best books in years, but didn’t want to fork over for another subscription service to watch it.
My friend’s comment was, “That’s nice I guess. If you don’t mind waiting…and having to get up to change discs…and stuff like that…”
On the eve of CEDIA, where I’m sure we’ll see the continued evolution of the home viewing experience, that comment along with Kaleidescape’s recent temporary hiatus from business, made me think just how far we’ve come in enjoying movies at home.
I can recall growing up that my family would pretty much wait all year for that one showing of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. When it was announced that it would be coming on, we would plan a family evening around it. Early dinner, popcorn, Cokes, I’d get to stay up late that night. Then we’d all gathered around the 20-inch TV to watch as a family, with me racing into the bathroom at commercial breaks fearful of missing a single, beloved second—“The suspense is killing me! I hope it lasts…”—because getting to see it was dictated by the network’s schedule.
Having to live by network programming timelines changed with the age of the VCR. In fact, I purchased the first VCR our family owned—a Sony Betamax, thank you very much—primarily so I could record the two episodes of The Twilight Zone that came on each night at 12:00 and 12:30 am and then watch them the next day after school. Of course, VCR watching was plagued by its own issues, namely tracking errors, no ability to jump to a favorite part of a movie, and the blasted need to be kind and rewind.
No one really complained about VCR picture quality because, well, frankly, we didn’t know any better. Discussions like “picture quality” just didn’t exist in the VCR age, which is probably why S-VHS never gained momentum.
And I didn’t question it until high school when my friend’s dad had a LaserDisc player.
Here I was introduced to uncompressed PCM digital audio and nearly double the resolution of VCR. The picture was noticeably better, sharper, cleaner, and more detailed. You could also jump right to your favorite moments in the film, all conveniently chapter marked. And when you were done you just pulled the disc out and put it away, instantly ready for the next viewing. Plus most movies featured the original theatrical ratio and LD’s were a cinephile’s dream with loads of special features and director’s commentary. Sure, you had to flip the disc every 30-60 minutes and change discs every 60-120 minutes depending on the format (I own a copy of Jurassic Park in CAV that is spread over 5 sides on 3 discs!), but, dammit, it was worth it!
Also, home theater enthusiasts owe LaserDisc another bit of gratitude in the form of Dolby Digital AC-3 and DTS which both made their debuts on the big, shiny, 12-inch disc.
But even though it was called “Laser,” the video was analog.
That was until DVD came along and ushered in the digital video age in a disc that was much smaller, could (generally) hold an entire film on a single side, cost way less than LDs, and supported component video and progressive scan. For the first time people could enjoy a true progressive image with inverse telecine without dropping $15,000 on a Faroudja scaler! (And if you remember Faroudja, I salute you, you veteran of industry!)
DVD also ushered in the era of mass collecting, where large groups of people suddenly became movie collectors. As discs started piling up by the hundreds, companies like Escient and ReQuest introduced disc management systems that could catalog and display discs stored in a Sony mega-DVD changer. Sure, the mechanism was a bit slow and clunky, but it was faster and more elegant than sorting through shelves of jewel cases.
The next natural evolution of media management was a media server, which was introduced to the world by Kaleidescape. Here we had virtually instantaneous access to collections of literally any size, with movies presented in a beautiful, easy to navigate manner, and the ability to stream content around the home.
Of course, as great as DVD was—and if you can remember seeing a disc for the first time (mine was Mars Attacks!) you’ll remember marveling over the pristine image quality—at 480p it still left quite a few (million) pixels to be desired.
Or at least 720p/1080i worth. I clearly remember my first CEDIA when HD was introduced. A documentary titled “Texas Wild” played at nearly every booth. You would see crowds of people standing around giant rear pro sets trying to catch a glimpse of agonizingly close-up shots of a rattlesnake slithering along the gritty, sandy, desert floor.
HD video was a game changer, and it ushered in a wholesale change in TV ownership as people ditched old 4x3 analog sets in favor of larger 16x9 digital ones.
It didn’t take long for physical media to catch up, as Blu-ray (and HD-DVD) arrived shortly to supply gorgeous video to all these new TVs. And, finally, with uncompressed, multi-channel audio, a wider color gamut, and 1920x1080 resolution, people had the ability to enjoy movies at home in quality that rivaled and even surpassed the commercial cinema experience. Toss in an evolution to add 3D and the home theater experience was better than ever!
The next move was one of convenience rather than quality, as streaming became the norm for many people. Netflix bingeing and on-demand selection of virtually any content meant you could queue up Willy Wonka whenever you wanted. Sure, picture quality suffered because of heavier compression and varied even more based on download speeds, but the movie watching world was your oyster. And as technologies developed and streaming bandwidth increased, picture quality steadily improved as well to the point where streaming HD was good enough for many.
Now we enter our current age, the Golden Age of Ultra High Definition. With 8 million pixels, wider color gamuts delivers millions of additional colors, high dynamic range for more lifelike pictures, and increased bit-rates for pristinely clean images, UHD delivers images that would make Filo T Farnsworth break down and weep. For a minimal investment, someone can pop in an Ultra HD Blu-ray and enjoy a $200 MM film in the comfort of their home in quality that would rival virtually any cinema.
And as good as 4K is, we’re already seeing the shift to the next, next big thing: 8K. In fact, with broadcast 4K barely even a thing, parts of this year’s Olympics was filmed and broadcast in 8K!
Of course, if you pop a tape into a VCR, spin up a LaserDisc, or even watch a DVD on a modern HDTV, you’ll appreciate just how far we’ve come. And appreciate how what we thought was so great then is barely even watchable by today’s standards.
As we get ready to see the latest and greatest in the movies-at-home market at CEDIA 2016, I kinda makes you wonder if the attendees of CEDIA 2026 will look back on 4K with the same nostalgia we have for Beta…