HD Format Wars
Issue: Volume: 28 Issue: 3 (March 2005)

HD Format Wars

In any case, more HD content is being produced, edited, and distributed over the air, satellite, and cable. However, HD is not being recorded for mass distribution, nor rented at video stores, nor delivered to clients on disc. That’s because the DVD-Video disc format doesn’t support HD.

While DVD was the most successful new product launch in history in terms of the speed of mass adoption, according to the Consumer Electronics Association, the DVD-Video specification cannot accommodate HD content, and, therefore, neither can DVDs as we know them.

That’s a problem the industry is trying to solve. Unfortunately, there is more than one solution, and a format war is already afoot between competing proposals: HD DVD and Blu-ray Disc. At stake for content creators is the final piece of an increasingly enticing HD puzzle that goes from production to post and increasingly to broadcast, but not yet all the way to other forms of distribution.

On the one hand, of course, DVDs are just discs-bit buckets that can hold any kind of data, whether video, text documents, or photographs. And a standard 4.7gb DVD-ROM can hold well more than an hour of HD video content if it’s compressed with MPEG-4 or VC-1 (the SMPTE name for the pending Windows Media HD standard). Unfortun-ately, almost no DVD players can play them because they are all built to support only the standard-definition MPEG-2 based DVD-Video standard. Thus, there’s a need for a new authoring standard and a higher-capacity disc.

The first option, HD DVD (originally known as Advanced Optical Disc), was developed by Toshiba and NEC, and will have a capacity of up to 30gb on a dual-layer disc (15gb/layer). It squeezes more data into the same physical area of an Audio CD or DVD, in part by relying on a shorter wavelength blue laser instead of the red-laser technology used in existing players. HD DVD augments that storage capacity by supporting current MPEG-2 compression, but also the more efficient compression and smaller file sizes of MPEG-4 (including H.264, Advanced Video Coding) and VC-1.

The alternate approach, Blu-ray Disc from Sony and Philips, also uses a blue laser, but adds phase-change technology to fit up to 27gb (single layer)/54gb (dual layer) on a single-sided disc. Admittedly, the 30gb of HD DVD sounds like plenty of storage. But history suggests that if the space exists, content creators will find a way to use it. Until last fall, the Blu-ray supported only MPEG-2, but now also supports MPEG-4 (H.264 AVC) and VC-1.

HD DVD has the potential for greater, less-expensive, backward compatibility and could even rely on existing equipment for copying and replicating discs. Blu-ray’s phase-change technology would make that impossible. But it’s Blu-ray’s larger capacity that seems to be winning more industry support.

The DVD-Forum, the self-appointed regulator of the DVD industry, has formally sided with HD DVD, and under many circumstances that might be enough to seal the deal. Yet Blu-ray is gaining accolades for technical superiority, and the growing list of proponents includes some odd bedfellows. For example, Matsushita, Panasonic’s parent, is siding with archrival (in just about everything else) Sony on Blu-ray. Pioneer, the main DVD-RW adversary to Sony/Philips’ DVD+RW technology, sees a Blu future, too, as do Hitachi, LG, Mitsubishi, Samsung, Sharp, and Thomson/RCA. Even computer heavyweights Dell and HP have come out in support of Blu-ray. And now that Microsoft’s VC-1 codec is to be supported by Blu-ray, a potentially powerful force has been neutralized on the HD DVD side.

Still, while the prospect of a format war between device manufacturers is bad enough, this battle has the potential to be particularly brutal. Rather than just technology companies, the proponents include technology companies that own Hollywood studios, and that raises the unseemly prospect of movies playing on one type of player and not the other. As of now, Paramount, Universal, and Warner Bros. have come out in support of HD DVD, while Sony Pictures, Disney, and Columbia have voiced support for Blu-ray Disc.

The questions moving forward are how strong or soft those studio endorsements really are, and whether there is enough momentum on the Blu-ray side to turn the tide before mass-distribution players hit the markets. (First-generation products of each type are already available in Japan and have been announced domestically.) At the just-ended annual Consumer Electronics Show, Blu-ray clearly had the stronger presence throughout the show floor and more enthusiastic support from a wide variety of entities.

That could all have been the result of a better marketing campaign on the part of the Blu-ray group. However, one of the most striking announcements at what is usually a product-centric trade show was Sony Pictures formally concluding its acquisition of MGM Studios, including MGM’s massive film archive going back through motion-picture history, all of which will be available for Blu-ray, high-definition release.

In the interest of simply letting content creators work in higher quality without limitations, it would be nice if that sheer volume of support, both from manufacturers and content owners, turns out to be enough to end any format war before it really gets started.

Jeff Sauer is a contributing editor of Computer Graphics World and director of the Digital Video Group, an independent research and testing organization for digital media. He can be reached at jeff@dtvgroup.com.