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DVD Meets the Web: Interactive Home Theater

   CyberLink PowerDVD  -  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 and choppy.


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.

CyberLink PowerDVD

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 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 excitement!"

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.

InterVideo WinDVD

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 NetFlix."

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 reseller."

"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 $19.99.

InterActual PCFriendly

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 the DVD.

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 sweepstakes offer.


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 Promise

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 messy."

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 wallpaper.

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 specific DVD.


CyberLink PowerDVD

InterVideo WinDVD


InterActual PCFriendly