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HD-DVD: T2 and Beyond (11/2003)
by Douglas Dixon
You may have noticed a lot of noise about high-definition television (HDTV) lately, and more affordable HDTV-compatible televisions and wide-screen displays appearing in stores. Interestingly, one of the major drivers for home theatre systems actually has been DVD, delivering movies with high-quality video and surround-sound audio right in your living room.
But DVD video resolution is actually not high-def, so set-top systems stretch the video to fill the display, as do DVD player applications when playing DVDs on your computer. So, imagine how much better movies on DVD could look if the discs contained true high-definition video. This is the promise of HD-DVD, high-def on DVD, a great concept now being thrashed out in the industry, and in the marketplace.
DVD manufacturers are exploring several approaches to HD-DVD, including more aggressive compression to squeeze more material on the discs, and moving from red- to blue-laser systems to increase the disc capacity. And even while these proposals are being discussed in the industry standardization groups, companies are going ahead to release new HD-based DVD products.
Meanwhile, Microsoft is making an end-run around the whole concept of the DVD-Video format through the use of its Windows Media format for high-definition material. Microsoft is delivering Windows Media movies in theatres for digital cinema, on DVD discs for high-def movies on your PC, and even built in to set-top DVD players. The new "Terminator 2 -- Judgment Day" DVD, released in the second quarter of 2003, actually includes a second version of the movie in HD Windows Media format, playable on today's high-end PCs. While not a polished consumer experience, these first experiments show the exciting potential of HD on DVD.
As explained in Jim Taylor's DVD FAQ (www.dvddemystified.com/dvdfaq.html), there are two ways to think about the meaning of "HD" for DVD: high-density and high-definition. To get more stuff on a disc, you either have to redesign the physical disc with smaller grooves (higher density), or you have to compress the video harder to make room for more resolution (higher definition).
There are now several proposals along both these lines for a new HD-DVD format. The capacity of the physical disc can be increased by changing from the current red-laser system to a smaller-wavelength blue-laser system. The Blu-ray Disc format (www.blu-raydisc.info) is actually being built into professional products by Sony, and offers up to 27 GB per side, or 5 to 6 times the capacity of today's DVD discs.
Other proposals would replace the current MPEG-2 video compression format with a more advanced encoding format, such as MPEG-4, allowing perhaps 4 times more video to fit on a disc, or an entire movie in high-def. This approach could maintain compatibility with existing red-laser systems, but would not directly support high-def broadcast formats that use MPEG-2.
HD-DVD discs designed with either approach clearly would not be playable on existing set-top players. These proposals are being discussed within the DVD Forum (www.dvdforum.com), the industry association that developed the base DVD formats. At this point, do not expect movies on HD-DVD in the near future. Not only do the competing manufacturers need to come to agreement on formats, but then the Hollywood studios also need to be reassured that their material will be sufficiently protected.
Meanwhile, you do not need to wait for HD-DVD; it's already here, in another form. In June 2003, Artisan Home Entertainment released a new DVD edition of "Terminator 2 -- Judgment Day," upgraded from the previous "Ultimate Edition" to this new "T2 - Extreme DVD" version.
The Extreme Edition promises a better quality DVD transfer, digitally mastered from a 1080 progressive, 24 frame per second high-definition digital telecine transfer. Plus, it offers DVD bonuses including 16 minutes of additional scenes, interactive commentary, new documentaries, and a Dolby headphone audio track for listening on the go.
Most interestingly for the future of movies, however, the second disc of the set includes another bonus, "T2: High Definition" -- the complete theatrical version of the film in Microsoft Windows Media 9 series, playable in high resolution and 5.1 surround sound on high-end PCs. This not just a demo, or a sample; this is the entire movie, tucked away as data files on the DVD disc, and at roughly four times the resolution of the DVD video. That's how much video compression has improved in the past decade since the adoption of the MPEG-2 format used on regular DVDs.
For the moment, however, you need a pretty hefty system to play the HD material in Windows Media 9 format. The recommended system requirements include a 3 GHz processor, 512 MB RAM, 1600x1200 or higher resolution 128 MB video card, and 24-bit 96 KHz multi-channel sound card. The HD playback also is designed for the Windows XP environment, and requires Windows Media Player 9.
To play the HD movie, insert the DVD in your computer. The default behavior should be to launch the InterActual Player installer from the disc, which should install the playback engine (if needed) and then start the disc playing. You then are presented with a DVD menu, offering the High Definition movie as one option.
This works great on some machines that are configured for the expected default behavior, but, as my experience showed, the process of getting this disc running can be problematic on some systems. There is minimal written documentation of the process included with the disc (much less the inevitable glitches), although there is a FAQ and some support material hosted on Web (which is not referenced in the disc materials).
Even just playing a regular DVD on your PC still can be a bit confusing these days, when you have several different players dueling for the privilege of presenting the DVD to you. First, Windows XP includes a built-in DVD player as part of the Windows Media Player, except that Microsoft did not include a MPEG decoder as part of the base Win XP platform. As a result, most PC and DVD-ROM drive manufacturers also bundle a DVD player application with their systems, such as CyberLink PowerDVD or InterVideo WinDVD. These include a general MPEG decoder that also enables Media Player to play DVDs.
Even worse, installing other hardware such as DVD burners or other software applications such as media players and DVD authoring tools may install additional DVD players. For example, Sonic MyDVD installs its own Sonic CinePlayer application. And Hollywood movie discs such as T2 actually contain an autoplay installer for the InterActual Player, the playback engine often licensed by studios to present both DVD video and computer data content on PCs (formerly PC Friendly).
Each of these players will happily volunteer to install itself as the default player to start up when you insert a new DVD disc, or even may compete for the privilege. To address this problem, Dell has resorted to including yet another piece of software on its systems, a DVD Sentry application that intercepts add-in DVD players and offers to run the originally installed player application.
Depending on your system setup, you may want to adjust the options for your various player applications to curb their helpfulness and have them just run when you ask them to. You can see all the installed options in the Properties dialog for your DVD drive, under the AutoPlay tab for DVD movie content.
On one of my systems which had autoplay disabled, I needed to run the InterActual installer twice in order to get it configured properly. Even if the InterActual Player is already installed on your system (from a previous movie), you still need to run the installer on each new movie disc, which loads movie-specific "skins" and graphics for the player. You typically can tell when you have install problems if the player application does not have a custom look for the specific movie.
Artisan has done a great job of integrating the DVD video and computer data portions of the T2 disc under single menu. Other discs require that you switch modes in the InterActual Player, to either play DVD video or use a web browser interface to access the DVD-ROM computer content. On the T2 disc, the DVD menu interface both plays video and launches computer applications as needed.
Once you pick the High Definition option on the main menu, the disc moves to the next menu, which depends on whether your system is set up to play the HD content. If you are using some other DVD player (or viewing on a set-top DVD player), you see a text screen explaining how to start up the InterActual Player on the disc. If you are using the InterActual Player, but do not have Windows Media 9 installed, it offers a menu option to begin the installation right from the DVD (no download required). And if your system software is configured properly, you then see a menu option to begin playing the movie.
But now there is one more hurdle before you can play the HD movie: it uses Windows Media 9 digital rights management (DRM) technology to protect the content. Actually, Artisan has chosen to supply the movie with a 5-day unlimited play license, which is continually renewable. What this means is that Windows Media will need to connect to the Internet every five days in order to authorize and renew the license. This is apparently Artisan's way of keeping track of the use of the HD movie, although this can be a problem if the five day period happens to expire when you get on the plane ready to enjoy the movie on a long flight, or when you want to demo this cool new technology on a business trip.
In addition, there are other technological glitches to overcome in this process. For example, the license process failed and never seemed to complete on one machine, without any explanation. I then poked around on the disc to find the actual Windows Media files, and tried to play them directly in Media Player. This resulted in a useful error message explaining I needed to enable cookies. After messing with Internet Explorer and my software firewall, I finally was able to complete the license process and play the movie.
And T2 in HD looks great, with crisper video and more detail. However, the user interface provided through the InterActual Player is very basic, with just the play controls and the ability to jump to a specific chapter. The interface is slow and clunky (you even can cause two different sets of play controls to be shown at the same time). So just sit back and enjoy the film.
The Windows Media HD video is stored at 1440 x 816 resolution and then stretched to display at 1920, so the HD content is around twice as wide and twice as high as MPEG-2 DVD video at 720 x 480 pixels. The Windows Media audio is six-channel 5.1 surround sound (440 Kb, 48 kHz, 16-bit). The movie then is encoded at 6.8 Mbps, in the same range as used for DVD video. All of this material, at a running time of 152 minutes, is squeezed into 6.5 GB of space, fitting comfortably on a single 8.54 GB double-layer DVD disc along with the other DVD and PC content.
Of course, the movie looks even better on a large display screen. Make sure that you have the display properties set to full color (32 bit) and a high screen resolution (the HD video is wider then a typical 1280 x 1024 pixel display resolution). Also, if you want to project the HD video, try to do better than an old SGA-resolution projector at 1024 x 768 resolution.
While the DVD industry is thrashing out alternate approaches to high-def and high-capacity HD-DVD formats, Microsoft is plowing ahead with its Windows Media format. For digital cinema, Windows Media 9 is accepted as a screening format at major film festivals, and three films were screened in the format at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival. Microsoft also has facilitated the development of digital cinema playback systems to support the format, and Landmark Theatres and Microsoft announced in April 2003 that all 53 Landmark Theatres across the United States will be installing Windows Media 9 digital cinema theater systems on 177 screens. And in the consumer electronics industry, over 170 devices support Windows Media Audio and Video formats, from portable audio players to set-top DVD players.
On the PC, DVD releases such as "Terminator 2 -- Judgment Day" now provide the ability to play HD movies on your desktop. However, with the high-end machine requirements and dicey system configuration issues, this really should be regarded as an interesting first experiment, and a glimpse of the near-future possibilities that will come with ever-faster machines and smoother software.
Jim Taylor's DVD FAQ
Microsoft - High Definition Content Showcase
Terminator 2 Extreme Edition
Standing in the Shadows of Motown
SyncCast - T2 Extreme DVD - Support
InterActual Player Support
CyberLink - PowerDVD
InterVideo - WinDVD