Disposable DVD Discs: Technology Without An Audience

By · Wednesday, July 27th, 2011

Disposable DVD Discs: Technology Without An AudienceWhether you rent movies from a local store, RedBox kiosk, or through the mail with Netflix, it’s easier than ever to borrow a DVD movie for a day or two. The only problem with rentals is that you have to bring them back when you’re done. But what if instead of returning the movie, you could simply throw the disc away? That’s the basic idea behind disposable DVDs.

The idea of single-use DVD movie rentals is not a new one. Former big-box retailer Circuit City first introduced us to the idea of throwaway video discs in 1998. The company spent millions developing a product called Digital Video Express, or DIVX for short. The idea was that you could rent a DIVX movie for $4 and view it for up to 48 hours. Any additional plays required a pay-per-view fee.

The DIVX format was once seen as a competitor to replicated DVD movies, but this proved to be short lived. DIVX discs featured extra encryption that made them incompatible with regular DVD players, and DIVX players lacked the ability to play DVD movies. By the summer of 2001, Circuit City threw in the towel and ended all support for the DIVX format, citing millions of dollars in losses.

In a widely publicized event, Circuit City filed for bankruptcy in 2008 and liquidated all of its remaining stores and inventory by early 2009. The company’s name was purchased by another company who now uses it to sell consumer electronics and gadgets through CircuitCity.com.

Since that time, other disposable DVD formats have emerged such as FlexPlay in 2003. Like DIVX, it has not become the smash hit with consumers that its creators had envisioned. FlexPlay created a system of time-limited playback of DVD discs similar to DIVX, but their approach was much more sophisticated.

FlexPlay discs were sold in airtight foil bags with a shelf life of up to 18 months. Once the package was opened and the disc came in contact with oxygen, a chemical reaction began that would slowly make the reflective data layer of the disc unreadable after a specific period of time. An advantage was that FlexPlay discs worked in regular DVD players and did not require special hardware.

In November of 2011, intellectual property broker ICAP Ocean Tomo announced the sale of FlexPlay’s patent portfolio for an undisclosed sum. This portfolio includes 25 US patents, 34 foreign patents, and 14 patent applications. A short time later in July 2011, Circuit City has also put their patents on the DIVX format up for sale. The DIVX patent will hit the auction block on August 16th, 2011, with bidding starting at $750,000 dollars. Will anyone make an attempt to resurrect these obscure media formats for one last hurrah?

Personally, I’m not a fan of single-use DVD rentals that expire and can be discarded. While the technology to make time-limited or “perishable” DVDs has existed for over a decade, it has yet to find any commercial success.

Netflix subscribers can return their DVDs by dropping them in any mailbox, and the prevalence of online streaming video services seems to have displaced physical rentals for many movie lovers.

Still, there’s something to be said for watching movies on DVD and Blu-ray discs. They offer the highest picture quality, extra features and bonus materials, and the convenience of permanent ownership. For the majority of consumers, the freedom to watch your favorite title an unlimited number of times whenever you want is worth the price of simply buying the movie.

Finally, there are the environmental concerns that stem from users throwing away thousands or millions of polycarbonate plastic discs containing far more chemicals than an ordinary DVD. With these factors in mind, I think it is highly unlikely that disposable DVD discs will ever rise to stardom.

What do you think? Are disposable DVDs an idea that’s ahead of their time, or have they been displaced by technologies like streaming and rentals by mail? Use the comment form below to post your thoughts!

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