Issue: Volume: 31 Issue: 4 (April 2008)

Nothin' But Blu Skies


As most content creators know, until a few short weeks ago, there had been a two-year war raging (five years if you count the pre-product, pre-emptive volleys) for the future of entertainable eyeballs and the ensuing bounteous wallets. It had been yet another format war—like VHS versus BetaMax and Rewriteable DVD before it—but this was a particularly high-stakes thriller of a format war that involved Hollywood alliances, hostility, high-tech intrigue, and big money. It was also a fight for the future of the not-so-free world of video and visual content distribution.

Consumer electronics companies advocating HD DVD and Blu-ray Disc (BD) had lined up on opposite sides of intellectual-property patents, and like most of Europe behind Austria-Hungary and Serbia in “The Great War,” most Hollywood studios fell into allegiance on one side or the other. They argued about technical superiority: Blu-ray’s 67 percent higher capacity of 25gb for a single-layer disk and 50gb for a dual-layer disk, and a higher maximum throughput of 40mb/s. Yet, like World War I, relationships probably mattered more than right or wrong, good or better.

Both formats supported high-def video and leveraged the same video encoding formats. And, while Blu-ray’s higher throughput offered theoretically higher image quality, for all practical purposes and common use, it is pretty much the same as HD HDV. The interactivity potential of both is comparatively similar, going far beyond what one can do with a regular DVD.

Like that early 20th century “war to end all wars,” this format battle was about a planned assassination, and in this case, DVD was the Archduke Ferdinand. Only this war wasn’t about who killed DVD, but who would get the chance to kill it, or at least supplant it. At stake were patent royalties for potentially years to come. Relationships were critical.

Sony, one of the Blu-ray main patent holders, owns Sony Pictures, which, in turn, owns the vast film library of MGM Studios. It also owns the juggernaut PlayStation gaming platform, and it just so happens that the latest version, the PlayStation 3, can double as a Blu-ray player. Nevertheless, Sony found allies in Matsushita (Panasonic), Pioneer, and Philips, as well as motion picture studios led by Sony Pictures, Walt Disney Studios, Paramount, MGM, Twentieth Century Fox, and others. And Blu-ray played nice by building interactivity around an open Java-based format called BD-J.

Toshiba, the main patent holder for HD DVD, launched the first offensives in the war by getting to market several months before Blu-ray, and it showed remarkable resourcefulness amid somewhat less broad support. Yet, it may have been Toshiba’s biggest alliance that hurt the most: HD DVD used HDi, an interactivity format from Microsoft. Given Microsoft’s history of co-opting technology, it’s likely that a lot of consumer electronics companies, perhaps Hollywood studios as well, saw that Microsoft dependence as unhealthy, if not profit draining. The majority ultimately lined up behind Blu-ray instead.

Thankfully, after two years of market confusion, and a million civilian casualties who purchased what turned out to be the “losing” format, HD DVD waved the white flag. In the end, it was a Switzerland of sorts, Warner Bros., that ended the fight, not through armistice, but by choosing Blu-ray. Warner had nobly supported both formats, released movies on both, and even purposed the “can’t we just get along” dual-sided TotalHD format that had Blu-ray on one side and HD DVD on the other. Then, in early January, just a weekend before the largest consumer electronics event of the year, Warner dropped HD DVD, stunning Toshiba. A few weeks later, major retailers, including Wal-Mart, gave up HD DVD’s shelf space to BDs, and Toshiba had no choice but to lay down its arms.

Make Hay While the Sun Shines
An intriguing situation? Well, probably not. VHS-Beta was supposed to be the format war to end all format wars. Blu-ray versus HD DVD was more like a high-budget sequel, and if you stayed home, nobody would blame you. The good news is that the cease-fire makes the future a lot clearer for high-definition video content distribution, and that opens opportunities for graphic artists.

Blu-ray is, first and foremost, the high-definition video successor to DVD, and Hollywood is looking forward to leveraging the increasing percentage of HD-capable televisions in the market as a way to sell movies to consumers. Indeed, with the format war raging on, cable and satellite were offering consumers most of their high-quality viewing possibilities. Now, Bu-ray gives Hollywood, as well as aspiring filmmakers, a format for distributing full-length films in a very high quality direct to the consumer.

However, for graphic artists, Blu-ray’s interactivity is just as important as the high-definition video content. That’s because BD-Java (BD-J) has far more capabilities than DVD in placing information in front of the viewer, and in ways that will require new visual paradigms.

For example, we’re all familiar with DVD special features that typically include director or actor commentaries, biographies, and past works, and “the making of” sequences. But imagine being able to access that information during the movie—not by pausing and going to a main menu to alter setup preferences or tracks, but by calling them up while the main video content remains on the screen, playing. That’s possible with BD-J.

Imagine commentary talking heads appearing within a picture-in-picture window in a corner of the screen. Imagine biographies popping up in a semi-transparent window over the side of the movie. Think about the new style of menus that would be needed for calling up these various options without pausing the movie. Now imagine the jumble of on-screen clutter this would cause if it were not approached with a thoughtful eye.

There are more possibilities, too, for disk-based games, such as titles that might be integrated into the movie, and more options for player interactivity (even with remote players). Clicking hot spots around props or actors might score trivia points; they might also link to direct commerce through an Internet connection that will be present on most Blu-ray players. The DVD format offered DVD-ROM components with computer data and links, but BD can feed directly to the Internet with links to movie-related commerce, travel, and community, or gameplay Web sites.

Not surprising given the nature of Java, BD-J scripts can be started by a variety of triggers. So, in addition to viewers calling up typical special features, BD-J applets (or Xlets) can be triggered to start automatically at specific times in the movie content. That could be as overt and annoying as Web pop-ups or Flash ads that run across a browser; but it also presents a potential new opportunity to add interesting information to the viewing experience. A rudimentary example of this might be the pieces of trivia that pop up across the bottom of classic movies on AMC, but more possibilities are left for the imaginative.

Naturally, understanding Java and, specifically, BD-J, will be a big advantage moving forward in that it will allow graphic artists to pursue very specific visions for new menu and feature designs. However, leveraging the full potential of BD will likely require a good deal of innovation and collaboration, and graphics professionals will undoubtedly be a critical part of that.

If you knew nothing about Blu-ray and HD DVD before, then more power to you. The format war was all about greed and pride; and, in a lot of ways, it was embarrassing to watch. Yet now that there is a clear choice for moving forward—and it’s a choice that offers opportunities to present content in new user interface paradigms—it’s time for graphics professionals to claim some of the spoils. They all really don’t have to go to the victors.    

Jeff Sauer, director of the Digital Video Group, an independent research and testing organization for digital media, has been covering the DCC industry for nearly 15 years. He can be reached at jeff@dtvgroup.com.

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