The Best of Creative Computing Volume 2 (published 1977)

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Round and Round They Go (RCA and MCA/Philips competing videodisc systems, laser-read audio records, narrowcasting, reprinted from Technology Review Oct/Nov 1975)

graphic of page

Round and Round They Go

One pitched battle in the consumer electronics industry over the next few years
will be between RCA Corporation and a partnership of MCA, Inc., an entertainment
conglomerate, and N. V. Philips, a Dutch electronics corporation.

These two competitors plan to market systems late next year for playing
phonograph-record-like video-discs on a $500 player attached to the home
television set. The possibilities for such a system are enormous. Not only could
viewers select any program they wished, no matter how esoteric (or erotic), but
home study would boom. Do-it-your-selfers could actually see how the whatzit
attaches to the whozit; medical students could play and
replay their favorite operations; massive amounts of information could be
cheaply stored on the high-capacity discs for use in the home, government,
industry, or academe.  

The catch is that RCA and MCA Philips have come up with two different and
incompatible methods for home TV records. RCA relies on a sensitive needle
tracking a tiny spiral groove as the record spins on a 450 r.p.m. turntable. The
video picture and sound signals arise from the changes in electrical properties
as the stylus speeds through the grooves.  Philips and MCA combined their
formerly rival technologies to develop a system based on a laser beam in the
home player. As the disc spins at 1800 r.p.m., the finely-focused blue beam
bounces off a succession of tiny pits arranged in a spiral on the record's
surface; the resulting reflections constitute the signal for the television. In
producing a disc that could store about 30 minutes of television per side, both
RCA and MCA-Philips have developed systems capable of storing tens of billions
of information bits, and both can give stereo sound along with a high quality
color picture.  

The systems represent remarkable achievements, and certainly promise to out
perform the once highly touted videotape players, which have settled at prices
too high for the average consumer - $1000 for a player and $30 per 30 minutes of
taped program. 

Even a child could operate the video-disc players to be marketed next year, say
the manufacturers. The players, which feed television signals from 60-minute
phonograph record like discs into television sets, could allow unprecedented
freedom in home television viewing.  Photo courtesy of Philips-MCA.

The two companies are making subtle and not-so-subtle jabs at one another even
before entering the marketing ring. For instance, RCA claims that its system
will be reliable and cheap because it is fabricated from conventional components
that have been on the market for many years. The sturdy stylus can be replaced
as easily as a phonograph needle. No complex beam aiming mechanism is needed for
the needle-in-groove system. And the lower rotational speeds significantly
reduces the possibility of vibration in the system say company spokesman.

Philips-MCA counters with the assertion that all its components have been
mass-marketed for years:  advanced optics systems in cameras' integrated
circuits in computers, lasers in office, military, and space equipment; and
high-speed discs in computer storage units.  Optical equipment allows higher
storage capacity, say company engineers.  Philips-MCA has achieved a storage
density that could permit up to 60 minutes playing time per side.  Because
nothing touches the disc and the "pits" are protected by a layer of plastic, the
record will last indefinitely.  On the other hand, RCA video-discs lasted
through about 500 plays, as does the RCA stylus;  RCA says that's as many times
as anybody would want to play anything anyway.

Philips-MCA has another ace up its sleeve: although both systems can scan the
record to replay a desired segment, only the Philips-MCA laser system can freeze
the picture - by scanning the same groove again and again. This means that, with
the high information capacity of discs, huge amounts of printed information
could be put on a single video-disc, with one page per picture frame. The user
could search out a page merely by punching in its address on advanced machines
to be developed later.

According to the company, the entire Encyclopedia Britannica and all its
supplements could easily be stored on a single disc. Philips-MCA systems with
computers attached could also be used as teaching machines. The student would
proceed through a teaching program, and as his progress warranted, the computer
would call up one or another video instruction sequence on the player.  

As an interesting aside, Philips-MCA plans to produce laser-read audio records
to be played on its system. The scratch proof disc would allow up to 15 hours of
noise-free stereo per side. Remarkably, the disc capacity is so great that each
instrument in a 100-instrument orchestra could be recorded on its own separate

MCA also has access to the enormous film library of its subsidiary Universal
Pictures, and plans to produce new programming for video-discs once the system
is on the market. Whether or not the film library, containing over 11,000
titles, will be an advantage is questionable. Will people pay up to $l0 to see
movies and television repeats readily available on commercial television?
Certainly "Francis the Talking Mule," one MCA offering, will not find a large

Whichever system is triumphant, "narrowcasting" - as Philips-MCA calls it will
enable an unprecedented freedom of choice in television viewing. - D.M.

Reprinted with permission from Technology Review, Oct/Nov 1975. Copyright 1975
by M.I.T.

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