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Blue-Laser Blues: Getting HD video to disc

All we want is HD video on disc! It's bad enough to have the confusion of yet another messy format war between the Blu-ray Disc and HD DVD formats. But the industry is further dampening the promise of these formats by failing to learn from the hard-fought experience of the early days of DVD on PCs. Instead, the same frustrations in just being able to play movies, and burn and share content are back again -- and further aggravated by the confusions created by aggressive copy protection.


As a result, the industry's best customers (the enthusiasts and early adopters of high-def video (that might even be useful in promoting the formats) are actually being blocked from being able to work (or even play) with the new formats.

For example, an independent production house here in Princeton is eager to author their new HD production to Blu-ray disc, but has continually run into brick walls. They're not part of the in-crowd that are authoring studio films with $100,000 tools, but they've been trying to work with manufacturers and integrators and buying Blu-ray software, burners, and players.

However, the first tools only created discs with no menus, and while some new tools create menus, today's set-top players refuse to play the recorded discs. Oops! Meanwhile, the tools and players are only starting to provide the ability to save the cost of burning expensive discs by working from folders on hard disc. And the format itself does not support the intermediate path of sharing short-form HD material on DVD.

Why is this so hard to understand? Well, here's an attempt to write down my rant on the problem, and explain what's needed to address it.

The Pain

Remember the pain of the early days of DVD?

- We needed special hardware to play discs on a PC.
- We had to burn expensive test discs, because the authoring tools and the software players did not understand about "burning" test projects to a folder on hard disk. (A work-around was to copy the data to the root directory of the hard disk.)
- We could not share the excitement with others, because the early tools did not support using the ubiquitously available previous generation technology (i.e., VideoCD and SVCD, playable on PCs with CD drives).

And now the same pains are back! Apparently, we've learned little, so the deployment of the "next-generation" Blu-ray and HD DVD formats still are plagued with similar problems -- and more.

In the past six months I've seen:

- Software players that refuse to play protected discs at all, on PCs without "blessed" (HDMI) displays, even though the studios officially permit down-sampled SD playback.
- Software players that refuse to run at all on current systems, demanding new top-end hardware, even though the same existing systems can happily play and edit HD content, and even author and preview HD blue-laser discs.
- Software players and authoring tools that can only burn to physical disc, and do not support creating and playing content from hard disk folders.
- Players, tools, and even formats that do not support using blue-laser formats on DVD.
- Manufacturers of external drives that say they are not sure whether they can support movie playback because of copy protection.
- Set-top players that refuse to play recordable discs in proper and useful formats.

As a result, we're seeing new products that don't provide useful solutions:

- Authoring tools shipping without corresponding software players (you have to burn to physical disc).
- Authoring tools that create discs in what should be legal formats, yet current set-top players refuse to play them.

So the next-generation disc formats end up looking less useful and less playable than good old DVD.

The Promise

Remember the original promise of high-def blue-laser discs: Enjoy movies in high-def! Time-shift HDTV with a high-def disc recorder! And the HD disc offered an even better potential for video pros and enthusiasts: Finally, it seemed we had a way to share the high-def video that the new generation of HD camcorders and HD-compatible editing tools have enabled -- by burning your own content to the Blu-ray and HD DVD formats.

Unfortunately, although not surprisingly for new technology, early set-top players have been expensive and have not delivered on the full promise of the formats. And set-top HD recorders are still not in sight, at least in the U.S.

But even worse, it's still really not possible to use these new formats to share your own HD content. It's even hard to just test and demo the new formats to build interest and excitement, since they require not only the hardware drives, and new player software, but also upgraded PC systems and peripherals to conform to the copy-protection requirements.

What we want is to be able to get started authoring, playing, and sharing HD content. That means:

- Player software that runs on current systems to play movies and authored content.
- Interesting sample content to demo the power of HD and new interactivity.
- Authoring and playback software that works from folders on hard disk, in addition expensive optical discs.
- Hardware players that support recorded discs with at least DVD-like interfaces, and short-form material recorded on standard DVD discs.
- Clear explanations of what we can expect: which formats work with what discs on which hardware devices.

This stuff needs to work as expected, especially based on our expectations from the success of DVD.

Software Players

First-generation software players like CyberLink PowerDVD and InterVideo / Ulead WinDVD were focused on playback of movies from physical drives (as part of a software bundle with the drive). They also tended to require new high-end systems with upgraded components to satisfy hardware copy protection requirements.

If the proponents of these HD formats want to build interest and excitement, it really would seem to make sense to encourage playback support across a broad range of systems:

- Allow playback on less-than-optimal systems (with a warning); and certainly don't require exotic new video card support. If a system can be used to play and edit HD video, and even author and preview HD discs (much less play HDTV from a HD tuner), then it's beyond presumptuous for a player to just refuse to even run on it.

- Allow movie playback on legacy systems without authorized copy-protection support, albeit at standard definition. The studios have authorized SD playback on set-top players with analog displays, so PC-based playback should at least provide a DVD video experience.

- Support playback from content authored to folders on hard disk. "Burning" to hard disk is a standard technique used in DVD authoring for testing and demoing a project, while avoiding the time and cost of burning a physical disc.

- Support playback from content authored to a standard DVD. Even if the DVD is not playable on set-top players because of format restrictions, burning short-form productions to DVD is still tremendously useful for archiving and sharing. In particular, it provides an interim path for sharing HD content (and evangelizing the formats) with the huge installed base of systems with DVD players.

All this allows early adopters to share and demo not only the promise of HD video, but also the extended interfaces and interactivity provided by the new formats.

Sample Content

A lot of learning happened in the early days of DVD as people viewed and deconstructed each other's discs. And excitement grew as consumers saw the quality and interactivity in store demos, on each other's homes, and on the desktop. However, the adoption of the HD disc formats will be slowed by the ongoing format war, and the ability to demo on PCs is limited by the significant system and copy-protection requirements.

Instead, it would be tremendously useful to be able to demo these formats without requiring a new burner, new system, new video card and display, and copy-protected discs:

- Provide demo discs that showcase the capabilities of the formats, with HD vs. DVD video and interesting interactivity. I've seen HD DVD demos like this at conferences, and a retail store demo disc like this for Blu-ray, but nothing for consumers. In comparison, Microsoft did a great job evangelizing its early experiments with its Windows Media High Definition Video (WMV HD) format. It produced WMV HD demo DVDs, and included WMV HD content with several commercial movie DVDs -- including a full version of the movie in HD.

- Provide non-copy-protected demo discs. Why does even a collection of movie trailers on HD disc have to be fully copy protected? After all, the Apple QuickTime Movie Trailers site has a whole section of trailers in HD that you can download (720p and 1080i). Similarly, while the movies distributed in Microsoft's WMV HD format were copy protected, they were authorized for playback any time after an Internet verification.

- Provide demo clips for downloading. There's a much larger audience of people who could be demoing these formats and getting interested in them -- all that's required is downloading demo clips and a trial version of a software player. Again, for comparison, Microsoft did this well with the WMV HD Content Showcase, which includes both HD demo clips and trailers for downloading.

Hardware Players

The first generation hardware players were focused on playback of Hollywood movies, and not recorded content. But DVD has set the expectation to be able to burn a disc and have it play almost anywhere, and the same considerations need to be addressed for the HD formats:

- Support playback of content authored and burned to recordable discs, write-once (R) and rewritable (RW).

- Support playback of recordable discs in both simple modes (i.e., without menus, like BDAV Audio/Video mode) and more sophisticated modes (i.e., with menus and interactivity, like Blu-ray HDMV Movie mode).

- Support playback of these formats recorded to DVD discs, for easy sharing of short-form content.

The HD DVD spec anticipated some of these issues with support for HD DVD on DVD, while this is still in progress for Blu-ray. In addition, early Blu-ray players only support recordable discs in BDAV format, and will not play recordable discs authored with menus in HDMV format.

Hardware Burners

The early HD format drives were players and not recorders, repeating the early experience of CD and DVD -- except that the HD drives are typically also bundled with complete systems, again to satisfy the requirements for both processing power and hardware copy protection support. Early HD disc burners have become available (admittedly much sooner and at much lower prices than early DVD burners), but these were focused on data recording and not movie playback, and did not include bundled software for authoring video.

In order to be comfortable stepping up to these products, consumers need to be clearly informed about the capabilities of these devices:

- Support a strong labeling / logo program that clearly explains what a drive can and cannot do. (Something clearer than "CD-R/RW, DVD-+R/RW/-RAM, BD-R/RE", and more helpful than Microsoft's "Plays for Sure -- Audio / Video -- Download / Rental / Subscription".)

- In particular, explain clearly if a drive can play protected content, recorded content, and which flavors of which version of the spec.

- Then clearly communicate the expectations for discs created by an authoring tool, in different formats.

This would seem to be a good job for the promotion groups set up for the two formats, which could be collecting and disseminating information about available products and how they match to the current functionality defined by the specifications.

Authoring Software

The next generation of consumer / corporate DVD authoring tools are upgrading to HD disc, including Apple DVD Studio Pro, CyberLink PowerProducer, Pinnacle Studio, Roxio / Sonic MyDVD, and Roxio DVDit HD.

However, again the first versions of these products were designed for bundling with burners, and therefore were focused on burning to physical disc. But burning discs is slow and expensive, especially when learning a new tool, much less a new format. And burning also requires an expensive drive (not only with first-generation hiccups, but that also is sure to be obsolete in a short time). Instead, it would be very helpful to allow experimenting with HD content in the new formats without needing any special hardware.

- Support "burning" to folders on hard disk, for software playback, and later burning to physical disc.

- Support burning to standard DVD in HD format. This is useful for archiving, demoing, and sharing, whether or not the format officially supports playback of DVDs on set-top players.

- Support burning discs with interactivity at least equivalent to DVD menus.

- Support quick and easy burning and updating of clips on a disc, equivalent to a set-top video recorder (i.e., without fancy menus). These new formats support video in a variety of formats, so the software should make it really easy to review the clips on a disc, delete them, and add new clips. (Eventually interchange discs with set-top recorders, so they can be played and updated on either the set-top or the desktop.)

We just want to get our HD video to disc, so follow the DVD example and make it easy to experiment and easy to burn.

Bottom Line

The concept of the next-generation HD disc formats is exciting. However, consumer mass adoption of HD players will come slowly, because of the format war, player and drive costs, copy protection costs (HDMI-enabled video cards and displays), and lower perceived need (especially without recording capability).

Meanwhile, there's a strong pent-up need to display and share HD content on disc, especially as formats like HDV and AVCHD make capture and editing more affordable and accessible. Yet this path is stymied by an ongoing series of logistical roadblocks in the playback and authoring workflow.

Even from my perspective, I was working with and demoing Windows Media HD years ago, even with the WM DRM copy protection, because I could set it up to run on a then-high-end laptop, playing from hard disk and from DVD. But today there's still no clean path even for demoing the excitement and potential of HD disc -- with a lack of sample content, and difficulty authoring and playing back personal content.

The enthusiasts and early adopters, and pros like wedding and event and corporate videographers, are all interested. So when will the industry pay some attention? You'd think this would also build excitement in the formats, sell software, and promote sales software, burners, player hardware, and HD movies.

Getting this done should not be a big effort; What is missing is attention from the format owners, hardware manufacturers, and software developers -- so these wonderful new advanced next-generation formats will finally at least have the functionality that we've been using for years with DVD...

Related articles:

- Getting to High Def: HDV Video to High-Def DVD on your PC

- The Promise of Next-Gen HD Discs

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