While we're still a year away from seeing any products on the shelves, the DVD Forum has laid another cornerstone for its next-generation blue-laser HD-DVD format by selecting the H.264 Advanced Video Codec (AVC) for encoding video that will be delivered on the new discs. Developed two years ago by the Moving Picture Experts Group--also responsible for DVD's MPEG-2 codec--and the International Telecommunication Union, H.264 "delivers at the same data rate as MPEG-2 high-definition instead of standard," says Frank Casanova, senior director of product marketing for Apple's interactive media group.
When H.264 first entered the scene, many MPEG-4 proponents worried that it would compete with the nascent open standard. Instead, it has gone on to become an integral part of MPEG-4. "It's a codec that's not afraid of anything," says Casanova. "Slow or high-motion, fire or smoke, all of the things that scare other codecs, H.264 says, `Bring it.' "
H.264 is one of three codecs approved by the DVD Forum that must be included in any products that want to meet the HD-DVD video specification; the other two are the ubiquitous MPEG-2 and VC-9, which is the AVC used in Microsoft's Windows Media 9 Series. The three codecs were approved in conjunction with the DVD Forum's mid-June finalization of the HD-DVD-ROM physical specification version 1.0.
The adoption of H.264 for HD-DVD (the HD stands for "high-density," referring to storage capacity, though it's so closely associated with high-definition video that it's increasingly interpreted as standing for "high-definition") brings to light again the growing conflict between the supporters of the HD-DVD format and those that subscribe to the Blu-ray vision of the future. Both formats are based on the fundamental shift from red to blue lasers, which will allow for single-sided 15GB read-only and 20GB re4cordable HD-DVD discs and single-sided 27GB Blu-ray discs.
Andy Parsons, senior VP of advanced product development at Pioneer, points to this difference in capacities "as the real reason these advanced video codecs have been looked at. They needed to have a codec that can fit a reasonable amount of time for the 15GB of HD-DDV." Pioneer is just one of a number of companies that are affiliated with the DVD Forum but support the Blu-ray format. Currently the only video codec adopted for the Blu-ray specification is the standard MPEG-2 TS. "There is a possibility that we will add one AVC," says Parsons, although that most likely won't happen in the near future. "There seems to be a race going on to see who can announce things first," he says, "but we're trying to be careful about this since the first ROM drives won't be out until the end of 2005."
"It's our opinion that H.264 is poised to replace MPEG-2," says Casanova. While the codec does have ten years of technological evolution over its predecessor (which hasn't been updated in years), Parsons doesn't see H.264 completely replacing MPEG-2 in the DVD space, just as he doesn't see blue laser ousting red laser anytime soon. "Certainly it would be nice if everyone made a simultaneous switch, but history has shown that this isn't going to happen," he says. "Plus, DVD's doing so well right now, a format of that magnitude is not displaced by a new format easily. They'll coexist for a long time."
In the battle for blue laser dominance in the entertainment space, it "comes down to the studios," says Parsons. "Content providers play a very important role in this. You need to have movies and content to create a mass market for the technology." He points to the fact that consumers could purchase DVD movies before recordable media was made available, and that the success of DVD-R (and DVD+R) is directly tied to the growth of DVD movies.
Whether or not the blue laser market will end up in the same state as that of recordable DVD has yet to be seen. "Nobody wins if you've got competing formats," Parsons says. "We're hoping that we can resolve any format issues before content arrives." This is especially important since studios will already be forced to offer both red and blue laser versions of their content for the foreseeable future. Consumer electronics manufacturers can circumvent some of these issues by offering blue laser DVD players that are compatible with both Blu-ray and HD-DVD, but those compromises usually don't come until the second or third generation of a technology. In the meantime, consumers may be hesitant to invest in new DVD players, fearful that they'll be stuck with a 21st century Betamax.
Regardless of the outcome of the Blu-ray/HD-DVD battle, H.264 will be around for a long time to come. Due to its scalability, this video codec can be used for everything from streaming low-bandwidth video to handhelds to reducing the bandwidth requirements of digital cable television. It is a major piece of the HD-DVD puzzle, but by no means does the DVD Forum's selection of H.264 indicate that the blue laser DVD standards race is over.