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Copyright © 2004 -
Information Today, Inc.

Blue Highways
Posted Dec 1, 2004 - May 1998 [Volume 7, Issue 6] Issue Print Version     Page 1of 5 next »

We've come a long way since the days of videotapes and laserdiscs played through low-resolution, big-box CRT TVs. Will DVD be the next casualty as video delivery technology marches on? High-definition video is slowly, but surely, becoming an industry standard for both television and movies. Each year, more and more people buy HDTVs, and most television stations will be broadcasting in Digital Television (DTV) by the end of 2006.

But DTV and HDTV are nothing without high-definition digital content. And where is that content coming from? On the content-creation end of the process, high-definition video production tools are rapidly approaching the broadcast mainstream. Many Hollywood and independent films are already shot and delivered, where possible, in HD. While most HD-capable camcorders sell for more than $50,000 and target electronic news gathering and other broadcast markets, HDV camcorders from JVC and Sony are bringing hi-def video into play as a viable videography medium. Soon, an increasing number of videographers and other digital studio pros will be working with high-definition media and developing content that's tailor-made for their clients' HDTV home theaters.

All these signs point clearly to a hi-def future. But we're not there yet, and there's reason to believe the road to HD will be a rocky one—at least for those of us who plan to get there using optical discs. As long as we're still delivering content on shiny discs, we'll need a DVD—or worthy successor—that can handle hi-def content. Current DVD technology is ill-suited to HD video delivery for several reasons. Capacity is part of the problem; at 8.5GB per side (using two data layers), DVDs simply don't have the storage space to present high-def content in the quantities we're accustomed to—that is, two-hour movies plus menus and extras. The biggest limitation is the DVD spec, which confines DVD-Video—the highest-def format most DVD players can play—to "standard-definition" MPEG-2, which means 480 lines of horizontal resolution, far less than HD's 720 or 1080. You can fill a DVD with large quantities of, say, hi-def MPEG-4 AVC or Windows Media 9, but you can't play it back on a set-top player, and PC movie playback will do little or nothing to establish DVD in the HD domain.

But don't count out DVD just yet. New blue-laser technology is making it possible to store significantly more data on a single 120mm disc, and companies are scrambling to establish an industry standard for blue laser media. Blue laser-based consumer players are also on the way, with higher-acuity optics than the red lasers in current players, their wavelengths matched to blue-laser media's narrower grooves.

As with VHS vs. Betamax and DVD-R vs. DVD+R, two technologies are competing: HD-DVD (backed by the NEC, Sanyo, and Toshiba) and Blu-ray (backed by Sony, Pioneer, Panasonic, and others). Perhaps the strongest parallel to the present HD-DVD and Blu-ray conflict is found in the prehistoric days of DVD, when Sony/Philips' Multimedia CD (MMCD) vied with Super Disc (SD) from Hitachi, Matsushita et al. to see whose vision of DVD would make it to market. Ultimately, the two camps compromised on a hybrid format that became DVD. (We should be so lucky with HD.)

No such compromise happened with DVD-R/RW and DVD+R/RW, of course; several years on in the saga of writable DVD, both formats remain distinct (though they both tend to be found in the same drives nowadays). It's anyone's guess, at this point, which direction the road to blue-laser DVD will take—whether proponents of the competing formats will reach a pre-release compromise or force the public to decide. With players supporting each format now shipping in Japan, signs currently point to both formats coexisting, at least for awhile. The same technology giants who brought us DVD are also key players in HD-DVD and Blu-ray, but it's interesting to note that alliances have shifted from those established during the DVD±R/RW format war. For example, Sony and Pioneer, leading proponents of DVD+R and DVD-R, respectively, now find themselves on the same side.

Another interesting question is which camp Hollywood will support. Video is just one type of content that blue-laser media will deliver—technically, the "HD" part refers to the discs' high-density storage capacity, not their ability to store high-definition video—but it's video that drives manufacturing, sales, and general acceptance of the format. Beta did not last long as a viable format once VHS became the mass-production choice of the movie industry. Many argue that VHS won out, in fact, because cheaper camcorders made it the format of choice in the straight-to-video porn industry, just as home video changed the stakes in that game. It's encouraging to imagine that whichever camp wins the race to desktop recordability—and thus wins the hearts of videographers—will triumph in the blue-laser DVD space. But given that big-budget, high-definition video will initially drive interest in HD-capable DVD formats, odds are the first content providers that can mass-produce video in that format—the major movie studios—will draw consumers to whichever format they choose.

Many factors will affect that choice, and thus where the road to blue laser actually leads. One is capacity. Another is recordability. But the key factors, initially, will be manufacturing costs for players and media (and how much new equipment is required for manufacturing), and how each camp crafts the logical format that will succeed and determine how video will be delivered on the blue-laser discs they propose.

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