High Definition and the future of viewing

Disk and broadcast systems battle it out

Backward compatibility

Both of the main format groups claim to offer backwards compatibility with current DVD technology in the sense that Blu-ray Disc and HD DVD hardware will play back legacy DVD discs. However, there is another dimension to the backwards compatibility issue that it appears neither group can address. And that is the provision of high definition discs that include a version of the same content that is readable in legacy DVD players. This would involve the inclusion of a red laser DVD layer on the new disc along with the high definition blue laser layer. However, this appears to be technically too difficult to achieve for both groups, although it is not clear that either group had focused on addressing the issue.

The real world scenario where this issue would come into play is where a consumer buys one copy of a new title - and chooses to buy the high definition version. That is fine when playback of this new purchase is confined to the primary HD display and HD player, but if the user then wants to view the disc on a legacy DVD player in the bedroom or kid’s den, they will not be able to.

The only solution for the consumer in this circumstance is to buy two copies of the disc in question - a solution that might appeal to studios interested in selling double the volumes of their title, but a scenario that could be perceived rather negatively by the average consumer.

The broadband home

By end 2003, there were close to 25m broadband enabled homes in Europe and Screen Digest expects this to more than treble into 2008, passing 85m households. In some territories, customers are currently connected at speeds of over 10 Mbps, comfortably enough to download a feature film in less than an hour.

This has triggered telcos and ISPs, such as Deutsche Telekom, BT and Wanadoo in Europe, to explore content delivery business models bringing together the hard disk functionality of a PVR with an online distribution platform. These are not isolated instances. In the US, PVR pioneer TiVo, which now has over 2m customers, is working on such services in conjunction with online DVD rental firm Netflix.

Microsoft has allied with Internet video-on-demand (VoD) firm CinemaNow on a similar platform. This is all without even mentioning the studiobacked Internet VoD service Movielink, and the US studio game plan. With the first generation of hard disk portable digital entertainment devices now on the market, such as Thomson’s Lyra and the Archos pocket video recorder, issues of access to content andmobility will become as important in some quarters as picture quality and interactivity.

Therefore, as entertainment business models continue to follow a course of convergence between content provision and broadband as a delivery medium, the question to ponder then is not, as the experience of DVD recorders vs. PVRs has potentially highlighted, what DVD format will win out in a format war, but does packaged media have any future in a converged multimedia environment?

Our research suggests that the resounding message from the US studios in the mid term seems to be yes - packaged media do have a future. First, packaged media can raise the bar of expectation by offering a far superior audio-visual experience. HD movies are extremely large files, and as such cannot be effectively delivered via broadband at today’s speeds (or perhaps even speeds as they will be by 2010). Second, a next generation disc, as explained already, can bolster the better resolution it offers with a combined interactive experience that takes advantage of a broadband connection in the player hardware.

It should be kept in mind, however, that compression technology is catching up fast - and as such, so will the pirates. For example, a variant of MPEG-4 AVC called ‘3ivX’ is already available, able to compress efficiently an HD file. Moreover, the first DivX Certified High Definition DVD Player was announced in October 2004 by tech company I-O Data. The AVeL Linkplayer2 was launched worldwide in November 2004. It can play back content encoded in the new DivX HD compression technology - a format that in the standard definition market has been used by hackers to spawn popular illegal spin-offs for compressing illegally obtained movie files.

The studios are very much aware of the negative experience of the music industry. In particular, they are conscious of the all the efforts that went into developing a successor to the CD as a ‘high resolution’ music carrier and the consequent format battle that erupted between backers of the DVD Audio format on the one side, and Philips and Sony on the other with their Super Audio CD (SACD) format on the other. They are especially mindful of the fact that this format war was very much a side issue, while the key developments were the take-up of MP3 and peer-to-peer distribution networks on the one hand and efforts to create and deploy legitimate digital music services on the other.

The issue then is not necessarily packaged media versus digital distribution, but more how the next generation video media formats are going to interrelate and combined with the connected broadband world.