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DVD Meets the Web: Interactive Home Theater
- InterVideo WinDVD
MGI SoftDVD MAX - InterActual PCFriendly
DVD or Web? Why not both? Video and audio playing from a DVD
is all you could ask for: full 720 x 480 resolution pictures, with stereo or
even 5.1-channel surround sound. But the experience is all pre-stored, and has
limited interactivity through your remote control. Video on the Web is current
and timely, with interactive access to material from all over the world. But,
for most of us, Web video playback is confined to a small window and is noisy
However, by combining local DVD video with an Internet
connection, "you can have a broadband kind of experience," says Chris
Brown, co-founder and Evangelist for InterActual Technologies, "and you
don't have to worry about download speeds." This is the promise of the best
of both worlds: high-quality movies playing from your local DVD drive combined
with interactive Web access through your home PC.
DVD players and DVD applications are becoming Web-enabled, so
they can link from movies on DVD to additional content and even live events on
the Internet. I've found that while current products do not yet live up to the
full potential of this vision, and their implementation is sometimes a bit
clunky, the promise is beginning to be realized with today's DVD software and
movies. And, improved next generation products are on the horizon.
DVD Players and Applications
When you play a DVD on your Windows PC, there are two ways to
link from the DVD to the Web. One approach is to Web-enable the DVD player
application, so that it can start up a Web browser to link to an Internet site.
DVD player applications like CyberLink PowerDVD, InterVideo WinDVD, and MGI
SoftDVD Max have started to provide a Web link button for this purpose. This can
provide you with access to application upgrades and customization, general
information about DVDs, and even information about the specific DVD that you are
watching. The software vendors like this approach because it connects them
better to their end customers, and the movie studios like it because it offers
the opportunity to sell more DVD titles, especially if you watch rented movies.
A second approach to linking the DVD to the Web is provided by
InterActual's product, PCFriendly. This is a separate application that is
distributed on the DVD itself, as DVD-ROM data stored in addition to the
compressed DVD-Video (and audio) movie data. PCFriendly is an interactive engine
that the movie studios can use to provide additional content about the movie,
interactive games, and Web access to the Web sites for both that specific movie
and the studio.
One popular DVD player, PowerDVD from CyberLink, is beginning
to provide Web link capabilities via an "i-Power!" button on the
control panel. This brings up a Web browser within the main PowerDVD window,
which links to the CyberLink site to provide DVD information (including the DVD
FAQ and MPEG.ORG), and a direct link to Amazon.com in order to search for DVD
titles. Other hot links and DVD-specific information are suggested by the
interface, but not yet implemented.
CyberLink explains the purpose of this link in the PowerDVD
Help file - "Buying, researching, and searching for DVDs on-line has never
been more fun or accessible, especially after watching a powerful and provoking
DVD title that leaves you breathless and wanting for more. Simply click on i-Power
to access the embedded browser and visit any of the links to express your
thoughts and ideas on individual titles, various web sites to find out more
about related titles, or buy new DVD titles in order to contain your incredible
The current release of PowerDVD, version 2.55, is available
over the Web for $49.50, and runs under Windows 98, 95, and NT. A 30-day trial
version is also available for downloading.
CyberLink describes this as "the first major step towards
an all-encompassing relationship with on-line users." The other DVD players
are moving in the same direction.
WinDVD from InterVideo Inc. also has been a very popular
software DVD player; both for Web download and bundled by major PC
manufacturers. Version 2.0 (WinDVD 2000) was released this year, and version 2.1
was in beta form in March. "In WinDVD 2000, we support CD-audio playback,
skins, bookmarking, zoom, pan and Internet access," says Joe Monastiero,
co-founder and vice president of sales and marketing at InterVideo.
WinDVD has an "iAccess" button that launches a Web
browser to access the InterVideo site. For the moment, this provides only
upgrade information and links to partner sites like Amazon and CDNow. But more
is coming: "We have big plans for this feature," says Monastiero.
"We have enabled all of our products with an iAccess button, an Internet
launch pad that will allow users to get Skins, Upgrades, New IVI Offerings,
Support, and Specials offered by our online partners like DVD Express and
WinDVD version 2.0 (WinDVD 2000) is available for $29.95 and
runs under Windows 98, 95, and NT. A trial version is also available for Web
download, and provides the complete functionality of the full purchase version,
except that it limits playback of DVD movies to a maximum of five minutes and
expires after 45 days. InterVideo has also announced LinDVD, a Linux DVD player.
MGI Software, a large force in multimedia applications, also
has a major upgrade of its DVD player, SoftDVD MAX, due in May. It is expected
to support skins for customizable user interfaces and include Dolby Headphone
virtual surround sound, which allows users to hear multi-channel surround sound
in conventional headphones.
The new Weblink capability will have several purposes.
"The DVD link lets you click and buy," says Jeremy Oldland, Product
Manager for the SoftDVD MAX player from MGI Software. "It's cool
technology: It senses your region and directs you to the appropriate
"We're developing a DVD Database, like the CD Database
used by the MP3 players," adds Oldland. This will provide you with
additional information about the specific DVD movie that you are watching.
Another use for the Web link is that "the DVD Max club connects us directly
to the end user, so we can offer fun promotions."
The current version of MGI SoftDVD Max is available online for
PCFriendly from InterActual Technologies is a different kind
of application. It's not a stand-alone DVD player, and it's not sold separately.
Instead, PCFriendly is bundled in with movies on DVD discs, by the studio that
produced the disc, in order to provide interactive features and Web access. If
you see the PCFriendly logo on the back of a DVD cover, then it's included on
When you load the DVD on your Windows PC and explore it like
any other data disc, you will see the PCFriendly files and Setup program. When
you run the Setup program for the first time from a DVD, it installs the
PCFriendly application, and also installs information about that specific DVD.
Thereafter, when you run the Setup program from another DVD it will install only
the information about that new movie.
The PCFriendly application displays a main window with a
"remote control" panel down the left side. The panel includes the
interactive features available for the current DVD, Web access to sites for the
current movie and the studio, and an option to check for updates to PCFriendly.
Of course, you also can simply play the DVD in the PCFriendly window. However,
PCFriendly depends on having a DVD decoder already installed on your system
(from another player), and it does not have the range of navigation and display
controls provided by the stand-alone DVD players.
As examples of interactive DVD content, the
"Ghostbusters" DVD includes several "channels" of
interactive content on the DVD, including a browseable screenplay and
filmography. The Web link then takes you to the Ghostbusters Web site, with
material like promos of Ghostbusters 2, information on the director, and a
Disney's "Tarzan" DVD includes a demo of the Tarzan
Action Game, an interactive trivia game, and a read along activity. The Web
links then take you to the Tarzan Online Adventure site, with features on making
the movie, the cast & characters, and music & video.
"Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me" has
"even more mojo" on the DVD, including a sample trivia game, Dr. Evil
and Austin Powers screensavers, three interactive episodes, and Web links to
updated cast, crew, and trivia information. It also includes the entire original
theatrical Web site on DVD.
"We want to make the experience more interactive,"
says Chris Brown, co-founder and Evangelist for InterActual. "You can have
an interactive screenplay, with scrolling HTML plus video. It can be an extended
experience that changes every time. The Web is transparent to user, with a
biography and discography that includes the latest stuff. You can even watch a
movie with others, over the Web."
The flagship example of this level of interactivity is
"The Matrix." The DVD has a wide range of interactive features,
including "The One" trivia challenge, screenplay and storyboards,
essays, a Kung Fu sampler with direct links to scenes in the movie, and the
original theatrical Web site. The Web site for "The Matrix" includes
additional updated information, but also encourages interactive discussion
through bulletin boards and chat.
But the real promise of DVD plus the Web was demonstrated by
the "Matrix Event," featuring on-line chat with the special effects
supervisors of the movie. "You put the DVD in your computer," says
Brown, "and it linked to the Web site invisibly. The video is in one corner
of the screen, along with the chat discussion. You all watch the movie at the
same time, integrated with the producers of the film. It's synched at the
server: everybody is watching same thing at the same time. The audience is all
connected, with each other, and the studios." At PCs all over the world,
fans were watching the movie simultaneously and discussing the special effects!
"We make tools so you can integrate video with the rest
of the multimedia world," says Chris Brown, co-founder and Evangelist for
InterActual Technologies. "You don't have to worry about download speeds to
get a broadband kind of experience."
InterActual does not develop the content, or the final
application. Instead, "we provide a solution for the studios, especially
technical support and phone support to the end user," says Brown. "Our
goal is to be the defacto standard for creating Web-enabled DVDs."
The trick for InterActual, and the DVD player application
developers, is to implement this combination of relatively new technologies -
DVD and the Web - on the shifting sand of the Windows PC platform. This may
involve installing new versions of Web browsers, DVD players, DVD video and
audio decoders, and underlying Windows components such as DirectX.
"We are encapsulating technology as tools for
developers," says Brown. "We provide graceful degradation, where to
find the DVD driver. If the developers use the guidelines it's not too
But this technology is still relatively new, and things can
get clumsy and even confusing. DVD players can refuse to run at all if the
underlying software is not installed, or if the current display format is not
supported. The players are getting better at checking for and reporting these
kinds of problems. DVD playback also can crash impressively when the PC gets out
of synch and tries to decode bad data. It's always a good idea to stop DVD
playback before exiting the application.
In addition, current technology requires that these DVD
players link to the Web by running a separate Web browser (Netscape Navigator or
Microsoft Internet Explorer). When they show the Web in the player's window,
what is actually happening is that a separate browser is running, but
"hidden" behind the DVD player, with only the window area showing
through. This works great most of the time, but can get messed up if there is a
browser error or if you're switching between tasks, and suddenly the browser
window pops to the front and you've lost the player. PowerDVD even seems to
provide the illusion of a Web background by modifying the Windows desktop, so
once when I closed the browser window out of synch with the application I ended
up with the Web page background permanently installed as my Windows desktop
It can also get confusing when you're navigating
"seamlessly" between the DVD contents and the Web. When you press the
Back button, are you going back to a previous Web site, or maybe back to the
original DVD screen that you started from? Some of these applications try to
totally disguise the fact that you are on the Web at all, while others show you
the Web address so you know what's going on and can bookmark links for later.
Otherwise, you'll have to use right-click on the mouse to bring up the browser
pop-up menu to understand and control what's going on.
The connections between "home theatre" video and
audio on DVD and interactive video and content on the Web are growing stronger.
Current DVD players provide general links to DVD resources for information and
shopping on the Web. The PCFriendly engine provides studios with the ability to
include interactive PC applications and customized Web links for each movie. New
versions of these applications will provide even more content customized to each
MGI SoftDVD Max