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The Promise of Next-Gen HD Discs  (9/2006)

    by Douglas Dixon

Burning Lots of Data
Playing a HD Movie
Sharing the Excitement
References

The promise of the next-gen DVD formats was not only to reinvigorate our industry, but also to bring some real excitement to consumers -- High-def movies in the home -- Time-shifting HDTV -- Burning 50 GB of data to a single disc -- Now that's compelling!

Instead, we're mired in a format war that is forcing first-generation early-adopter products into mass-market release, before we've had the chance to shake out the bugs and author great experiences. And there's been so much focus on building layers of copy protection that we've lost the excitement of the new promise.

Burning Lots of Data

For example, I had the chance to try out the Pioneer BDR-101A Blu-ray computer drive, the first-generation Blu-ray internal drive, offering reading and burning of Blu-ray and DVD formats (around $999, www.pioneerelectronics.com). -- Here's a compelling message for the new formats, and a strong advantage for the Blu-ray Disc (BD) format (www.blu-raydisc.com) -- upgrade your DVD burner to get a big step up in disc capacity.

       

    Pioneer BDR-101A Blu-ray Disc / DVD writer

The BDR-101A records to single-layer (25 GB) Blu-ray Disc media, both BD-R (recordable / write-once) and BD-RE (rewritable). That's enough capacity to record over two hours of a high-definition (HD) video on a single disc (at 24Mbps ).It also reads prerecorded (manufactured) BD-ROM discs, single-layer and double-layer (50 GB), with 2X data transfer rate (72Mbps) for both reading and writing BD. 

            TDK BD-R and BD-RE media

And it supports the usual DVD formats: writing and reading DVD-R/RW and +R/RW formats, with 8X speed writing to DVD-R/+R, 4X writing to DVD-RW/+RW and 2X/2.4X writing respectively for DVD-R/+R DL (Dual / Double Layer) media types.

The drive comes with straightforward Sonic / Roxio data burning tools (www.roxio.com) -- Just drag and drop to build a list of the files you want to back up, and then click the big red button to start the burn. In less than half an hour, you've got 25 GB on a disc. Now that's a nice experience, satisfying the promise -- And it works as expected, just like before.

        Roxio BD data burning

Playing a HD Movie

But then I inserted a Blu-ray movie title. I know that it's still early with these new formats. And it's understandable that the studios have required copy protection technology including HDCP-protected displays to protect their high-def content in its full digital resolution. But it still might be a good idea to think about the end-user experience.

In this age of multi-format, multi-platform discs, you might expect to be able to look at the contents of a BD movie disc in Windows Explorer. Instead Windows generated a "Disk is not formatted" error, reporting "The disk might be corrupted." Not exactly a positive message to send to end users.

   

So then I launched the InterVideo  WinDVD BD player to try to play the movie disc (www.intervideo.com). The initial start-up video played tantalizingly for a few seconds, and then WinDVD BD stopped with the error message "Your display environment does not support protected content playback."

        InterVideo WinDVD BD player

Hey -- I'm just trying to preview the disc in a small window, at low resolution, on an analog computer display. Yes, I've seen the discussions about being required to upgrade both my video card and display to have full HDMI support in order to play the digital content in all its full-screen high-res glory -- But locking out even windowed PC playback is less than you can do with a DVD.

Even talking to several key companies in the middle of this high-def DVD roll-out, there wasn't a clear answer as to why these problems were happening. And there's certainly no clear communication to users. Yes, viewing under Windows Explorer may eventually work with support for the new version of the UDF file format, but movie playback still looks problematical -- Sony has stated that its first Blu-ray burner, the BWU-100A, will not play commercial BD movies at all.

Sharing the Excitement

The result is especially discouraging for early users and reviewers -- the early adopters who could be generating excitement and interest in the new formats. Playback on a computer would be a great way to preview discs and explore the new interactivity and navigation possibilities. It also would allow sharing the experience with friends, at local user group meetings, and in larger venues.

Would it have been so hard to release a few titles with less restrictive content protection, or to make a demo disc to help promote the format? For example, I've seen in-store displays for the new formats with players and posters, but where are the sample discs to actually allow users to experience and interact with the new formats?

To compare, I've been demoing the Microsoft Windows Media Video HD (WMV HD, www.wmvhd.com) format at conferences for years now. To develop the format, Microsoft arranged to include WMV HD versions of movies with commercial DVD releases like Standing in the Shadows of Motown and Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and further promoted the release of a line of HD titles including Step Into Liquid (surfing monster waves) and Coral Reef Adventure. These were fully protected with Windows Media DRM, but still easily playable for demos from a laptop. Microsoft also released a WMV HD Sampler disc, and posted demo clips for downloading.

            Coral Reef: Chapter Menu

The bottom line: DVD has been a great success, and has set expectations for the user experience, especially the CE set-top to PC desktop mobility of DVD that is a big part of its attraction. With the confusion of the format war, we don't need further disappointments -- The industry needs to focus on satisfying the promise.

References

Pioneer BDR-101A Blu-ray computer drive
    www.pioneerelectronics.com

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

Sonic / Roxio data burning tools
    www.roxio.com

InterVideo  WinDVD BD player
     www.intervideo.com

Microsoft Windows Media Video HD (WMV HD)
    www.wmvhd.com