POLAVISION GOES TO CHARM SCHOOL!

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Polavision, the late, great brainchild of Dr. Edwin Land, and his swan song at the remarkable company he created. A failed instant movie system that nevertheless represented a high-level of technical genius and engineering wizardry (like most Polaroid Products of the era).  The film factory in Norwood, Massachusetts, on the old Forbes estate, was a humdinger, also. I think it’s been turned into condominiums now.

So sit back, drink a little psychoactive pod juice, and set the Wayback Machine to the late 1970s.  Your humble narrator, a sort of benign Young Turk, is ensconced at 549 Technology Square, Cambridge, Massachusetts, cranking out copy for The Polaroid Newsletter, a few floors below “The Suits.”  Dr. Land is working assiduously down the street at his Osborn Street Laboratory (as usual), or arguing with William J. McCune Jr. on the steps of the building (I wisely walk around them; that city wasn’t big enough for the three of us).

Even we peons toiling in Land’s vineyards knew that Polavision was going to bomb.  It was a running joke in the office, whenever somebody was off to attend a meeting at which Land might show up, to be sure to remember to tell him to “Drop Polavision”.  But Land, stubborn man that he was, went ahead with it anyhow, even though no less a personage than the chairman and founder of Sony Corporation, Akia Morita, told him personally that his amazing invention was, sadly, “too late.”

But was it?  Or did it just need a little tweaking?  I wonder.  You know you’re dealing with a Polaroid Lifer (me) if he still thinks about Polavision in the shower in the year 2016, with Dr. Land himself dead for nearly 30 years, the factories shuttered and razed, and the company he founded now a Zombie marketing outfit located in the Midwest with about 15 employees.  But stay with me here, because I’m going to digress. 

There was a time in the 1990s when, to put it quite simply, I wasn’t having much luck with girls, and I was getting a little frustrated and perplexed, since I knew I was the cat’s meow (as we said back then).  So I asked for help and advice from a friend of mine, a woman to whom I was not romantically attracted.  She rolled her eyes as if to say, “where to begin?”  She asked me to look at my fingernails.  They were ragged and dirty.  She asked me, “If you were a woman, would you want to be touched by those?”  (That wasn’t exactly what she said, but it’s close enough).  

She was obviously right. 

So, in an act of focused will worthy of the great man himself, I sent myself to charm school.  I actually had a manicure and a pedicure.  I got my hair cut by a professional.  I went to the dentist, bought some stylish new clothes, read books on the arts of love.  And gee whiz, just like in the movies, the results came in.  I got lucky THREE TIMES IN ONE WEEK, with three different, extremely attractive women (one was married, but that’s another subject — chalk it up to youth).

The bottom line was obvious — I was basically okay, more than okay. I just needed to clean up my act. So I did. And it’s been one long romantic comedy ever since.

Was Polavision Basically Okay?

In a post-mortem eulogy to Land in 1991, the late Ken Olsen, founder of the mighty Digital Equipment Corporation, spent some significant time praising Polavision.  He thought it was a great product and a very slick system.  Ken knew a thing or two about building and selling successful high-technology products.  Was Olsen just “being nice” to Land’s memory, or was he onto something?  Could Polavision have “made it” in the marketplace, even with Consumer Videotape charging hard over the next mesa, making very loud war-whoops?

With that question in mind, let’s have some retro-high-tech fun and send Polavision to Charm School.

polavisionviewer

LOSE THE PLAYER!

The Polavision system consisted of the amazing Polavision film cassettes, and a camera and a tabletop processor/player manufactured by EUMIG in Austria (America’s Bell & Howell was going to produce it, but negotiations broke down and lawsuits followed). You can see the player above. Eumig went bankrupt and folded soon after the Polavision fiasco.

Land may have dreamed about millions of Americans sitting around these bulky players (clear off the kitchen table, Mom!) watching cassette after cassette of his 2 Minute, 37 Second Instant Movie Miracles, but it wasn’t going to happen.  Think about it — Duhhh!  Who wants a Microfiche Reader-lookalike cluttering up the house?  Again, think: what do Americans love to sit in front of, for hours and hours (this was before the answer to that question became: “Unemployment Offices”)?

The Answer?  TELEVISION SETS!

Polavision didn’t need (or “want”) a standalone dedicated tabletop player/processor/viewer, and this item alone (along with the lack of sound, stay tuned) may well have doomed the whole system, the huge iceberg floating right smack dab in the middle of Polavision’s journey to market acceptance.

Read my Lips:  POLAVISION SHOULD HAVE USED A COMPACT DESKTOP PROCESSOR/PLAYER THAT ATTACHED PERMANENTLY TO THE FAMILY TELEVISION SET.  The viewers would pop in a Polavision Cassette, and they could make some popcorn, sit back, and watch Polavision Movies on their TV Screens. It would and could have worked beautifully.  No significant technology innovations were required.

This player/processor would have been about the size of a high-fidelity cassette deck of the time, and would have resembled it:

cd

FOUR MINUTE MOVIES WITH SOUND

I won’t argue about this with any Polavision engineers who may still be alive, talking (like me, ha-ha) about the good old days from their rooms at Senior Centers in Cambridge, Waltham, Norwood, New Bedford…

…Polavision was (at the time) competing with 4 Minute Super 8mm films, which were still selling well.  Polavision tapes also needed to be at least 4 minutes long.  A bigger cassette?  Thinner film?  WHATEVER, just make the running time at least 4 minutes, guys, or forget about it.

Now, sound was a bigger issue, and it’s been written about extensively by obscure historians like me.  Polaroid was certainly thinking about it, hard, and in the end developed a fine system that never made it to market because the product was finished by then.

The use of separate, standard cassette tapes for the soundtrack was proposed, but rejected because it was too inelegant (with all due respect, dead isn’t exactly elegant either, Dr. Land).  Had audio cassettes in fact been chosen, cameras and players would have had to be significantly redesigned.  

The “final solution” turned out to be an audio tape intertwined on the spools with the film itself, and in that case, if things had gone that way, the desktop player I proposed above would “simply” have had to be reengineered.

All this brings up the natural question:  WHAT WAS THE HURRY, DR. LAND?  Was he racing to beat videotape, or his own mortality, or maybe both? Yes, it’s been written that Land was “an old man in a hurry,” but Land lived for 13 years after Polavision’s introduction, and was productive (as one might expect) to the bitter end, so why (oh why) could Polaroid have not waited a year before introducing the product, and gotten it right?

 Polavision was clearly a product that wasn’t ready for Prime Time.

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One, Two, Three…Success!

Just like me and the ladies in the 1990s, success may not have been out of Polavision’s grasp, but instead, just around the corner, a relatively short distance away, considering the lofty technological peaks that Land had to climb to develop the product in the first place.

Easy as One-Two-Three:  One: Lose the Player — Use the Family TV. Two: Four-Minute Tapes. Three: Sound. That’s it, that’s all!  Think of how Polaroid’s history might have played out differently (no pun intended). 

Polavision may have been a modest success.  Land may have stayed at the Company.  A sustainable line of succession may have been established.  The transition to electronic imaging technologies may have been achieved, and if they made it through that decade-long storm, all the instant films could have enjoyed a modest resurgence, as they are enjoying now, with the spoils going to Fuji, Impossible, and others…everyone but “Polaroid”itself…

…oh, but I’m feeling bad now.  Coming down.  Hard. The Pod Juice is wearing off…

Steven Salemi
Santa Fe, New Mexico
September 2016

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