THE clock of the electronic age is running at an ever increasing speed. Major shifts in technology that affect our daily lives are becoming commonplace. Today experts in the entertainment industry are proclaiming that the 1990s will bring the triumph of an already familiar technology: laser video. About a decade ago laser technology brought studio-quality audio on CD into tens of millions of homes around the world, becoming one of the biggest success story in the history of the electronic home entertainment industry.
But only 20 years earlier, the laser was considered a high-tech curiosity, a solution in search of a problem. The breakthrough came in the audio industry, despite the fact that the first application of laser was not related to sound but to image. Laser video-disc players were the first laser devices for the home. Two decades before the CD came into its own, lasers were used to create super-quality video discs. But because the hardware was expensive and the software limited, no one was much interested in laser video discs.
Now a new device lets you play both the audio compact disc, with its great clarity, and the laser video disc. It's a combination player with maximum compatibility, accommodating the familiar silver audio CD, and also the new 3-inch compact discs used to release pop singles in audio. What's more, the new players automatically shift from one format to another, from audio to video, and are able to play 12-inch and 8-inch silver video discs as well as the all-new gold-tinted audio/video discs called CDV-Singles.
You don't have to be an electronic genius to work the new combination compact disc player, and you don't have to be a whiz to connect it to your television and stereo systems. The results of this installation are fantastic - almost like being in a high-tech movie house or in a legitimate theater. As for price - according to industry experts, such as Margaret J. Wade, director of the Laser Disc Association in New York - by the end of 1990, combination audio/video CD players with a list price of about $600 will be sold by discount stores for under $350. Of course, video recorders (VCRs) cost less, but the competition with VCRs is virtually nonexistent.
The new audio/video laser-disc players provide unmatched sound with picture quality that is at least 60 percent sharper than standard videotape output. And the new laser video disc software costs only marginally more than audio CDs and videotape. Within a matter of months, the price of video discs will doubtlessly come down dramatically.
Pioneer Video Manufacturing, the first champion of laser video disc technology, recently announced that it will increase its monthly disc production at its facility in Carson, Calif., from 600,000 to 3 million units by 1993. In addition, Sony's Digital Audio Disc Corporation has already started to press laser discs at its gigantic Terre Haute, Ind., facility, with production starting at 100,000 discs per month.
To meet the public's cataloging needs for this new market, there is already a publication on the market called Laser Video File, which provides a complete list of over 4,000 laser video disc titles.
The idea behind the market for laser video discs and players is rather straightforward. As Akio Morita, the chairman of the Sony Corporation, has pointed out: ``This generation - thanks in large part to MTV - is getting more of its musical enjoyment out of `watching' songs - not just listening to them.'' Some critics, however, are not convinced that there is much advantage in watching, rather than just listening to, Toscanini conduct an orchestra, Rubinstein play a piano, or Chick Corea perform with a jazz group. It's one thing to experience the multimedia magic invented by MTV for its visually innovative music videos, and it's quite another to watch a straightforward documentation of a performance. But there is no question whatsoever that well-staged and filmed dance and opera productions are immensely improved when watched on laser disc rather than via any other available format short of the big movie screen or in the opera house.
Though films noted for their visual beauty and audio impact are well served by video disc technology (especially when the disc preserves the so-called ``letter box'' picture shape used in widescreen presentations in theaters), most people are inclined to collect only very special films on disc (rather than on videotape). But it seems that laser disc is the only way to get the most out of a collection of dance and opera recordings.
Three companies are in the forefront of the software laser video disc market: Sony Classics, which is for now concentrating on recitals and concert performances; Polygram Records - which includes Deutsche Grammophon, London, and Philips and has released some of the best dance and opera performances on video disc - and Pioneer Laser Disc, which controls most of the ``Live from the Met'' telecasts as well as filmed productions of the Glyndebourne Festival.