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High Hopes for High Def:
    Progress and expectations from Media-Tech  (8/2006)

    by Douglas Dixon

Progress
Hope
References

It seems like we've been waiting forever for the new high-definition DVD formats. With the long build-up, followed by continued delays in shipping products, the whole saga has become almost anti-climatic. Yet the industry has made tremendous strides in getting these products to market, and the recent Media-Tech Expo conference for the optical media industry in Frankfurt provided some evidence of hope for the future (mediatech-expo.net).

       

The two competitors, Blu-ray Disc (BD, www.blu-raydisc.com) and HD DVD  (www.hddvdprg.com) have been clashing and positioning for years now, as we've followed the progress of defining specifications, prototype manufacturing, interface simulations, a last-minute hope for reconciliation, and then finally kicking off this year at CES conference with tantalizing promises of real products.

       

Yet by mid-June, and after attending a multitude of conferences and press events, even industry insiders (much less the public at large) still had not had the hands-on experience of picking up an HD disc from a collection of titles, inserting it in a HD player, and actually having the hands-on experience playing and navigating through it. Seeing (but never touching) prototype titles on PC players, or demo titles on pre-production set-top players, is just not the same.

Progress

Yet this period has seen tremendous progress, the result of hard and diligent work and engineering to get these products to market. It's not easy making discs with 5X more capacity, or laser pickup heads that read (much less write) at three different wavelengths, or microscopic cover layers, or inks that cure with even less shrinkage, or authoring tools that manage two very different advanced formats. New science in areas like hard coat protective surfaces have lead to spin-off benefits for the DVD and CD market, breaking away from commodities to create higher-margin differentiated products. And new focus on multi-layer discs also suggests interesting approaches for also boosting red-laser capacity.

Even better for users, the competition is already causing HD product pricing to drop significantly from typical early adaptor levels, as multiple manufacturers are already offering set-top players, PC drives, and media.

This rush to market also has tremendously compressed the typically multi-year evolution from professional to consumer usage. In the first year, Sonic is shipping its professional Scenarist HD authoring tools to the small group of production houses working on Hollywood titles, Apple is expanding DVD Studio Pro for HD, and companies including Sonic / Roxio, InterVideo/Ulead, and CyberLink have developed consumer-level tools for PC playback, disc burning, and even simple video recording and editing to HD discs.

Hope

At Media-Tech, both the HD DVD Promotion Group and the Blu-ray Disc Association held extensive seminars reporting on the business and technical progress of these formats. These including updates from a broad range of industry partners, including mastering and replication equipment, materials and media, testing processes, and authoring tools.

The depth of the effort that individual companies in this industry has invested in these two formats is really stunning, and the feedback from the show floor offered some promise it actually will be rewarded.

Disc manufacturing equipment companies reported having serious discussions with potential customers, who were investigating possible purchases later in the year or into next year. Similarly, printing and packaging equipment companies reported that customers were indeed interested in new products that supported the HD formats -- if nothing else, they were willing to pay a premium on new purchases as insurance for future support for HD discs. And as a sanity check across the industry, testing companies reported confidence that manufacturing processes were understood and under control.

The industry has come amazingly far along the learning curve in establishing reliable disc manufacturing and content authoring. So now it's down to business -- getting the products to market and making the case to consumers.

References

Blu-ray Disc Association (BD)
    www.blu-raydisc.com

HD DVD Promotion Group
    www.hddvdprg.com