The Evolution of Home Cinema

The Evolution of Home Cinema

Watching films at home today may seem like a simple convenience. Nowadays home entertainment has become an essential part of our everyday lives, and having the ability to watch movies in high definition in the comfort of our living rooms is a luxury that most of us take for granted. Home cinema has become so popular that feature films are now being released on streaming services at the same time as their debut in theatres. This rise in popularity is certainly due to changes caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as technological advancements. The feats achievable by modern technology continue to amaze us, as many high-tech home theatres now have become indistinguishable from the real thing in terms of audio and visual quality.


Of course, home theatre wasn't always this easy to come by, and wasn't always so great. Let's take a look at where it all started, and how home cinema has changed throughout the years.


The First Home Theatres


While many would probably guess that home theatres didn't exist until the middle of the 20th century, the history of home cinema actually begins in the 1920s. While they were considered rare luxuries, theatre rooms in private homes were first seen in the United States in 1923. They relied on silent 16 mm film projectors made by companies like Filmo and Kodascope. In the 1930s, these companies introduced 8 mm and 16 mm sound projectors.


Home cinema remained limited to the very wealthy for over 20 years, until its popularity began to spread in the United States in the 1950s when Kodak 8 mm film, cameras, and projectors became more affordable. Film popularity in France also began to rise around this time with the Pathé 9.5 mm. The first practical home theatre systems were composed of small movie projectors and portable screens, often without sound capabilities. They were typically used to share family videos or home movies. Rooms dedicated to showing commercial films were known as "screening rooms" and often features 16 mm or 35 mm projectors. Throughout the 60's and 70's, screening rooms were only seen in the homes of the wealthy or those working in the film industry.


Over time, these portable home theatres improved in quality with the development of colour film, monaural sound, and Kodak Super 8 mm film cartridges. However, the rise of home video technology in the late 1970s practically killed the 8 mm film market entirely, as VCRs that could connect directly to ordinary televisions offered a much more convenient alternative to actual film.


Moving Away From Film


In the 1970s and 80s, a few important people and events marked a turning point for the home theatre market. Steve J. LaFontaine designed the first home theatre system that showed the world what home theatre could be. In 1974, he built a unique sound room using early quadraphonic audio systems and installed a modified Sony Trinitron television in a Kirshmans furniture store in Louisiana. Meant to be a furniture sales tool, many systems were sold around New Orleans in the following years.


On the audio end, the introduction of Dolby Stereo in 1975 allowed for multiple soundtracks rather than just one, to differentiate left and right channel information in addition to a centre channel and a surround sound channel. The release of Star Wars in 1977 popularized stereo sound in the theatre, but this technology wouldn't really become accessible in home cinema for another 10 years.


In 1982, Peter Tribeman brought a number of companies and organizations together to present the first public demonstration of an integrative home cinema system at the Summer Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago. NAD, Proton, Lucasfilm, Dolby Labs, and ADS combined their technologies to create a showcase of the possibilities of a modern home theatre system. This demonstration of high-quality video sourcing combined with multi-channel surround sound is often credited as being the birth of the now multibillion-dollar home theatre industry.


Bringing Home Theatre to the Home


As the home theatre market expanded, home cinema systems became popularized among the general public, and by the 1990s they were a common consumer product. The typical home theatre system in the first half of the 90s consisted of a VCR or a LaserDisc player connected to a large screen. More affordable systems had rear projection screens, and higher end setups featured LCD screens or CRT front-projection.


In the latter half of the decade, DVD-Video, DTS 5.1 channel audio, and Dolby Digital created a new wave of interest in home theatre. While the first commercial movie to use Dolby Digital was Batman Returns in 1992, the technology wasn't available for home use for another 5 years or so. DVD was an affordable VHS and LaserDisc alternative that had double the resolution capabilities, and a full 120-minute movie could fit on one disc with no need for rewinding. Additionally, the introduction of front video projectors offered a cinema-like visual experience at price points rivaling large HDTVs. These advancements led to the home entertainment system design that we recognize today.


Into the Modern Era of Home Cinema


Throughout the 2000s and 2010s, home theatre technology continued to improve and remained largely accessible to the typical consumer. Developments like high-definition video, Blu-ray discs, and 3D display technologies brought home theatre quality closer to a real cinema experience at more affordable prices. By the mid 2010s, Blu-ray was an exceedingly popular video format, and the first 4K Blu-ray discs were developed in 2016. This year also brought the development of High Dynamic Range advanced picture quality. HDR could produce contrast and color quality that exceeded image quality in a movie theatre. Additionally, online streaming services began offering high definition content, including some movies in 4K. At this point, hi-def video quality was available to the public, and the growing affordability of large high quality TVs made them a strong competitor to the projector, and they took over as a home theatre system staple. Local dimming and improved black levels made LCD TVs more suitable for dark room use, and OLED TVs emerged for consumers in the later half of the decade with even better black levels.


Hifi audio developments in the 2000s included lossless audio from Dolby TrueHD and Dolby Digital Plus, as well as DTS-HD High Resolution Audio and DTS-HD Master Audio. These audio systems produced more precise surround sound placement for a more immersive audio experience. Speaker systems began to have more channels, with typical speaker systems having 5.1 channels, going all the way up to 22.2 channel systems. DTS-HD Master Audio continued to be the standard for Blu-ray lossless surround sound encoding throughout the 2010s, although DSP systems were developed.


Home Theatre Today, and Tomorrow


As of 2020, approximately 40% of all homes now have a home entertainment system in some form or another. This number increases to about 80% for luxury homes and dedicated home theatres. Most advanced home cinema systems offer better audio and visual quality than what is available in the average cinema. A high-end home theatre system can cost upwards of $100,000, and typically consists of the following components:

  • A flat-screen high-resolution HDTV that can project images, or a video projector
  • A Blu-ray player or other media player
  • A multi-channel power amplifier
  • At least 5 surround sound speakers and one subwoofer


Combined with advanced lighting and seating, a system like this can create a fully immersive cinema experience right in the comfort of one's home.


Looking to the future, we can expect to see a number of advancements that may fundamentally change the home theatre industry. In the near future we will likely see the development of the "silent" speaker, integrated into furniture to produce vibrations that intensify sound effects and further immerse the viewer, similar to the experience available in a "4D" movie theater.


Beyond further developments in the technology we have now, no one is certain of what we can expect from home theatre technology in the coming years. Virtual Reality technology is likely to play a large role in the creation of more immersive cinema experiences. Additionally, we could see advancements in holographic or 3D projection technology that allow us to view distant events and performances from the comfort of our homes, such as sporting events or musical and theatrical celebrity performances. With such dramatic changes and developments occurring in the last 50 years, one could say that anything is truly possible. In the next 50 years, the unimaginable may become reality when it comes to home cinema.