Blu-ray Disc considered “The New Higher Definition Format”

At Twentieth Century Fox Studios on November 29, the Blu-ray Disc Association (BDA) gave an update on their blue laser technology. BDA felt that it was time to highlight its progress in bringing ?the new high definition format? to market. Andy Parson, Senior Vice President of Advanced Product Development for Pioneer Electronics, opened the meeting by giving an overview of the state of Blu-ray development.

Mr. Parsons noted, “There’s no format war looming because it’s not Blu-ray vs. HD DVD.”

Apparently, 90 percent of the CE industry and seven movie studios now back Blu-ray Disc. And most of the IT industry (except Microsoft) also supports Blu-ray Disc.

Mr. Parsons said, “It’s simply Blu-ray versus standard definition DVD? Currently, DVD has 50,000 titles presently available, and both formats will co-exist for several years to come with new BD players supporting both formats. BD players make the perfect complement to new HDTVs that are being purchased by consumers.”

Lastly, Mr. Parsons noted that the group has been working with retailers for the past two months to get them prepared for the Spring 2006 launch of Blu-ray Disc.

Blu-ray is now called “future-proof” by the consortium because it has the capability to play back both Blu-ray discs and standard definition DVDs within one player. It was even shown that a DVD-9 layer can be laid down onto a Blu-ray disc to make a true hybrid disc. On the upper layer, DVD-9 content (DVD-9 layer is the standard definition version of the movie or video) is stored, and on the lower level Blu-ray content is available. It was pointed out that this is all on one side of the Blu-ray disc, and was completely different than what HD DVD has proposed for a hybrid disc, which makes the end user flip the disc over to play a standard definition or high definition version of the same movie. Of course, this goes back to Blu-ray’s original point of superiority regarding storage capability, in that there is enough storage capability on one side of the disc to hold a Blu-ray version, a standard definition movie, a completely interactive menu and a navigation system.

Shifting gears somewhat, the discussion then focused on some digital rights management issues that have recently been singled out in the press by Microsoft and others. The first area touched upon was Mandatory Managed Copy (MMC). MMC is a function of AACS, which is the basic content protection system for Blu-ray Disc. Once compliance and robustness rules are received from the AACS founders group, the Blu-ray Disc Association can include MMC in the Blu-ray Disc format. These rules are expected shortly. A second DRM issue also was discussed:  BD+. BD+ is an additional layer of content protection for BD-ROM titles. Reportedly, BD+ is totally transparent to the end user, and does not interfere with “untampered with” titles or players. It was pointed out that an Internet connection is NOT required for BD+ to operate or playback of any BD title. It was further noted that BD+ will not interfere with mandatory managed copy.

The meeting then shifted to a discussion on authoring, interactivity and navigation. It should be noted that a prototype Panasonic Blu-ray Disc player was used in the demonstrations discussed below. However, it also was noted that within the next few weeks, Sony would be releasing the initial authoring system for use by all of its members who will produce software titles for Blu-ray Disc.

In the beginning of DVD, everyone thought that with the addition of chapters setup, along with additional material in navigation form, made DVD truly cutting-edge. But compared to the “space age” interactivity of the Blu-ray Disc menus, menu systems demonstrated by both 20th Century Fox and Disney, standard DVD menus are static and flat. Most of the studios are using Blu-ray Java for their navigation systems. Disney beats to its own drummer and prefers another scheme called IHD, which has not yet been sanctioned by the BDA.

Mr. Mike Dunn, President of Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment, took over the presentation for the studios. Fox has taken the Charlie’s Angels-Full Throttle title and turned it into a test disc for members of the BDA to troubleshoot. The “works in progress” new menu systems are extremely fluid and offer full HD resolution throughout, including all supplementary material. Instead of simply static thumbnail images of a scene from a chapter, for example, you now have a completely interactive experience. The Blu-ray disc can do several things simultaneously with moving images instead of frozen ones. It was very compelling in making the experience satisfying for the end user.

Disney then took the stage. Mr. Bob Chapek, President of Buena Vista Entertainment, demonstrated supplementary material from an interactive game from Aladdin in which the user flies on a carpet. In the standard definition DVD, the user would have to stop and click on an icon to go to the next level. In the Blu-ray disc version, the user simply flies through it in full HD resolution. It was eye-popping. Disney also used material from Pirates of the Caribbean for various uses of additional supplementary material. Disney made it clear that they were not using Blu-ray Java for their menu and navigation systems, but something that they were working on separately. They would not confirm or deny that it was IHD.

Apparently, some of the new Blu-ray Disc players will also include Internet capability for the downloading of movie trailers, and other supplementary material such as a new commentary from a director, star or someone else associated with a particular production – all in complete HD. There could even be a “live” webcast from Cinderella’s castle that could be accessed via the Blu-ray Disc and the Internet connection. However, it was pointed out that complete movies could not be downloaded, nor was it considered practical for the foreseeable future.

Mr. Parsons then returned to the podium and announced that the upcoming CES would be for the launch of Blu-ray Disc. He noted that all of the companies that are part of the BDA will be making announcements at CES regarding model numbers, prices, and title availability. Basically, he’s saying, “Stay tuned.”

At the conclusion of the demonstrations, the floor was opened for a Q & A session. It was learned that there is still no word as to whether or not Blu-ray Disc players will include component video outputs. Clearly, there was no word on any compromises with the HD DVD camp, as Blu-ray Disc feels that it’s basically “dead and buried.”  It should be noted, though, that several companies have shifted alliances somewhat by being in both camps. These companies include Warner Bros., Paramount and Thomson. One of the slides showed Thomson in the hardware camp for Blu-ray Disc, but not HD DVD. Thomson was queried, and it was found that it now supports both formats. Thomson plans an HD DVD player in the first half of 2006, and a Blu-ray Disc player in the second half of 2006. The bottom line is that it seems that momentum is simply for Blu-ray Disc.

While it was noted that engineers are putting in 80-hour weeks to get Blu-ray Disc launched, the question is whether they can really do it in time for a Spring 2006 launch. Maybe it’s wishful thinking on their part, but there are things to be considered. It was noted by industry analyst Richard Doherty of Envisioneering that there simply aren’t that many blue laser diodes available for the type of launch the BDA is proposing.

Another thing to consider for Sony is whether their gaming sister company takes all of those diodes for PS3, which is also supposed to launch in Spring 2006, and also plays back Blu-ray Discs. My guess is that the product won’t really launch until E3, which will be held next May. Would Sony really let its sister gaming company take the lead on this technological development? And how will Sony feel if it doesn’t have the first consumer Blu-ray Disc player out there because someone else beat them to it? Maybe they’ll be happy with the royalties and patent revenue. Clearly, companies like Panasonic want to have the first consumer players available in the spring. And let’s not forget Pioneer, LG or Samsung. I do know that Philips will be shipping the first PC Blu-ray Disc drives in early spring, according to a source at Philips.

So, these next few months will be critical, as everyone tries to get their ducks in a row. Can history repeat itself? Can Blu-ray Disc harness lightning in a bottle again like DVD has? Only time will tell. But the bottom-line is that this is an exciting time to be developing next-generation high definition digital TV products that will take us well into the third millennium.

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