VIDEO / Coming soon to a store near you: Laser-discs, which are to videos what CDs are to vinyl, have so far failed to tempt British consumers. But they're back, reports Sheila Johnston

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The Independent Culture
Last week saw the launch of the UK Laser Disc Association, a group of 11 electronics and video companies. They hope to persuade British consumers to buy their wares: laser disc-players (from pounds 350) and discs (from pounds 19.99). Two previous attempts to do this, in 1972 and 1988, failed. And on Wednesday, even as I was listening to a long paean to the glories of laser- disc technology, news broke of sterling's plummet. So what makes the lasernauts think that, with an ever-shrinking pound in their pockets, consumers will buy the sales pitch this time round?

Hamish McAlpine, one of the first to bring out films on laser disc, under his Tartan label, is bullish - to the point of selling his interest in the Sir Robert McAlpine construction empire in order to invest in distribution. 'I think there's a far safer future in video software than in bricks and mortar,' he says with a sense of priorities that will endear him to cinephiles everywhere. He points to the way laser discs have invaded Japan (where 10 per cent of households own a player), the US and France. There, 125,000 machines are spinning away; virtually none were to be found two years ago.

The earlier UK launches were beset by technical gremlins in both the players and the discs. Now the manufacturers believe that their products are, as it were, up to scratch. (That the discs are scratch- resistant is, in fact, one of their major selling points.) The machines can also play audio CDs. 'You'd be pushed to find a CD player under pounds 200 that you would want to buy. For another pounds 150 you can have a machine that plays laser discs too,' McAlpine says. The image and sound quality are immeasurably superior to video. You can zip to the middle of the movie quickly and easily. The discs are easier to store than tapes - in the jargon (of which there is plenty) they are 'far more domestic-friendly'. And more feature film titles are becoming available.

That is the upside. There is bad news too, though. The machines cannot record: they are (more jargon) a 'read-only medium', although the theory is that people will own a player as well as a regular video recorder. A disc runs for about 60- 70 minutes per side, which means a feature film will be interrupted for about 10 seconds while it changes sides. It is pretty pricey, too - even the cheapest titles cost pounds 19.99. Luddites might prefer to sit tight until costs of discs and players come down, as they did dramatically with word- processors, telephone answering machines and the micro-chip innovations of the Eighties. Jason Doran of Pioneer, one of the three companies manufacturing the hardware, cautions against this (as one would expect): 'The technology is not cheap anyway.' But McAlpine, whose discs retail from pounds 29.95, thinks prices might drop as the market expands: 'I hope to retail at pounds 25 within a year.'

More crucially, there is a chronic shortage of software. By Christmas, only 60 feature films will be available on laser disc (plus 2,000-3,000 titles from America, although you would need one of the more expensive machines to play them on). The only major distributor to commit itself to laser discs so far has been Columbia Tri-Star, and there is a pragmatic reason: the studio is owned by Sony, which manufactures laser disc- players and wants people to buy them. But, says McAlpine, 'I have little doubt that the other majors will come in as the market develops.' He predicts that there will be more than 200 films on sale by the end of next year.

And the discs aren't around much in the High Street. Machine ownership is between 8,000 and 10,000 units, 2,000 of them in Greater London. Most stockists are there too - the list looks sparse north of the Watford Gap, and you can more or less forget about popping into a local store if you live west of Bristol. But there's always mail order. And Doran hopes that about 14,000 households will be the proud possessors of laser disc- players by next year, starting with the early adopters - people who rush out and buy the latest gadget. But it won't happen overnight.

He, like McAlpine, believes that the ailing 'leisure pound' will not affect this sales target. On the contrary, he says, people are spending more on home entertainment: 'They're going out less. So they need more things to do at home, like staying in with a laser disc, a cheap bottle of wine and a home-made meal. Laser discs are one of the few consumer electronics to show signs of growth.' McAlpine adds: 'Obviously we'd be fools to delude ourselves that we're not in a recession. On the other hand people are spending money on assets rather than on restaurants. There's a growth in the sales of sell-through videos and of camcorders.'

Will laser disc-players go the way of the Betamax? I polled a group of independent observers on the prospects. Dixons, one of the leading retailers of consumer electronics, has no immediate plans to sell them - the software is still too limited. But two disc stockists were guardedly hopeful. 'It hasn't taken off for us in any big way yet,' said Gary Roberts of the Virgin Megastore. 'But there are better titles coming out, and more and more back-catalogue films. In the States it's an accepted format, especially for the collector.' And HMV reports a 'healthy interest'. Its Oxford Street branch - which claims to have the largest range of European discs in London - sells about 80 a month. That may be a puny number, but 'it's 400 per cent up from last year'. Tim Murray, a journalist for Video Home Entertainment, agrees that there is a potential demand: 'Our letters pages are full of complaints about the quality of video releases.'

The future is far from crystalline for Benjamin Woolly, a keen observer of new technologies who has just published a book on virtual reality, Virtual Worlds. 'It's a case of angels on a pinhead,' he says. 'You need the delicacy of a medieval theologian to divine what will happen. For me interactive media - CD-Is - are the real issue. The laser disc is only an intermediate stage: it's old-fashioned software on new hardware. At the moment it's just another format to get confused about.' The verdict: definitely a technology to watch; but if someone were to ask me tomorrow if they should buy a laser disc-player, I would still advise them to wait and see.