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Solid State Lighting Could Learn From Betamax

Jason_Pic130by Jason Lomberg, Technical Editor

Conventional wisdom says that “early adopters” eventually bring new technologies into the mainstream. Thus, the effort to promote solid state lighting (SSL) has ample historical precedence. An analysis could shed light on SSL’s future.

Back in the late 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s an epic battle was waged between Video Home System (VHS) and Betamax (Beta). Neither held a significant technological edge over the other (at least insofar as SSL is superior to fluorescents). But one can draw lessons from the eponymous “videotape format war”—specifically, why technologies catch on (while others fade away).

BetavVHSBetamax got a nearly 1 ½ year head-start on VHS (May 1975 vs. September 1976). To discerning consumers, Beta was technologically superior. According to Video Interchange, “The head drum on Beta machines was 21% larger than that of Vhs. Since they both spin at 29.97 revs/second, Beta's larger diameter head drum results in a 21% higher video head writing speed. (5.832meters/sec compared to 4.86m/s for vhs).” Beta also had higher horizontal resolution (250 vs. 240 lumens). The next-gen Beta and VHS systems had a larger gap. “ED Beta's have a peak of 9.3MHz and deviation of 2.5MHz compared to Super-VHS's measly 7.0MHz and 1.6MHz respectively. This results in 520-line horizontal resolution for ED Beta compared to only 400-lines for S-VHS.”

But our intellectual elite don’t drive the markets. The general public does. And to most consumers, Beta’s inferior recording time was a serious handicap. Initially, Beta had one hour vs. VHS’s two. One hour was adequate for TV programs, but not for Hollywood movies. Beta was ill-prepared for the “home video revolution” which exploded in the late 70’s. Soon thereafter, RCA introduced a four-hour VHS machine. Four hours was significant, because it was the standard length of Monday Night Football broadcasts. Beta would eventually reach five hours, but VHS doubled that at 10. Another significant factor: price. VHS tapes were, on average, cheaper than their Beta counterparts. Arguably, the adult entertainment industry also played a role in VHS’s success. Legend has it that Sony wouldn’t permit adult movies on its Betamax machine.

VHS was cheaper and offered longer recording times. Sony couldn’t convince the public that Beta’s technological superiority offset its higher cost (and perceived lower value), so the videotape format war was thus decided. Sony would learn its lesson from Beta, and they stood on the winning end of the Blu-Ray/HD-DVD war. Blu-Ray received an enormous boost from the Playstation 3, which included a built-in Blu-Ray player. This significantly increased the number of Blu-Ray players in consumers’ homes, particularly compared to its HD-DVD cousin. XBox and third-parties released a USB-based HD-DVD add-on, but add-ons have a sketchy history.

What lessons can we draw from this? Consumers are concerned with very tangible factors—most importantly, price. Environmental benefits won’t sway Joe consumer. Thus, SSL won’t catch on if advocates focus on green factors. Nor will Joe consumer appreciate SSL’s technological superiority. Blu-Ray used back-door methods to achieve victory. By giving the PS3 blu-ray capability, they made the format ubiquitous for millions of gamers.

There’re countless stories of local municipalities adopting LED lighting for traffic signals and police sirens. SSL advocates should put renewed emphasis on the consumer market. Lighting, in general, is often seen as utilitarian. A guy buying a lamp for his office will go with the cheapest item available. That’s because it’s work-related. But the same guy might be persuaded to drop thousands of dollars on an expensive TV because it’s entertainment-related. As to the VHS/Beta example, I can only say: listen to consumers. While advocates value the tech, consumers often look towards the bottom line: price and value. If advocates listen to consumers, then the consumers can become advocates.

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