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Science, Maths & Technology

Whatever happened to High Definition?

Updated Thursday 6th December 2007

What if you held a party and nobody came? Backers of each of two rival high definition video formats must be feeling just like that right about now.

If you've been into a shop selling DVDs you may have noticed a new section devoted to high definition disks that go by the name of HD-DVD and Blu-ray. These disks, representing billions of Pounds worth of investment are meant to be the future of the entertainment industry, but you may also notice that no one seems to be buying them. What has gone wrong?

The DVD is often called one of the most successful consumer products in history; millions of consumers were persuaded to replace their VHS tapes with more expensive disks. The reasons are not hard to fathom: DVD is more durable, a treasured movie can resist a sticky fingered child and hundreds of playbacks with little or no degradation; and it offers much higher quality images and sound than old-fashioned tape.

The future of DVD is uncertain, and this uncertainty is caused by changes in the television industry. Since the late 1960s European broadcasters have transmitted television signals using a standard called PAL using 625 horizontal lines to build a picture. If you have bought a television in the last few years you might have noticed the ‘HD Ready’ logo on some larger sets. HD refers to High Definition, a pair of standards whose images use either 720 or 1080 lines of information. High Definition Television (HDTV) is brighter, crisper and much more appealing than PAL, but it causes problems for DVD. A DVD image is made from 576 lines which looks perfectly acceptable on a PAL television, but appears blurred on a HDTV.

The obvious solution would be to put HD content on to DVDs, but this raises yet another problem. HD images contain between two and five times as much information as those used by DVD. A DVD can easily hold a two hour movie, the same disk could hold little more than twenty minutes of high definition footage. A high definition replacement for DVD was needed.

Larger diameter DVD disks would be one solution – just as an old-fashioned LP record could hold more music than a vinyl single. In fact, large disks were used to store movies before DVD was invented. The 30cm Laserdisc format was sold as long ago as 1978 and offered picture quality similar to that of DVD. However, the bulky, fragile disks were never popular with the public and Laserdisc never became a major format.

An alternative approach would be to squeeze more information on to a DVD-sized disc. Information on a DVD is stored in billions of tiny pits; each so small that five hundred of them could easily sit on a single full stop. The disc is read by a laser, the beam either hits a flat piece of metal and reflects a flash of light into an electronic reader, or it hits one of the pits and is dispersed. The pattern of flashes created by the turning disk represents the digital information originally stored on the disk, which is converted into video and sound by the electronics in the DVD player. The capacity of the disk could be increased by moving the tiny pits closer together and making each pit even smaller.

The final improvement to DVD would be achieved by new computer software capable of compressing images into a tiny fraction of their original size without spoiling their appearance.

In 2002, Toshiba and NEC unveiled the Advanced Optical Disk. Offering three times the storage of a conventional DVD, this new disk could be manufactured in existing DVD factories and offered a straightforward path to a high definition future. The following year, the industry body tasked with supervising the DVD standard made the AOD the official successor to DVD. Rebranded as HD-DVD, the first high definition movie disks were released in early 2006. The future of DVD was clear - or was it?

In short - no; there is a rival to HD-DVD and it comes from one of the giants of the electronic industry - Sony. Whilst many of us think of Sony in terms of televisions and the once all-conquering Walkman, it is actually a group of companies of which electronics is only one part. The Sony group also produces film, music and television through its Sony Music Entertainment and Columbia Pictures labels, but perhaps its most powerful weapon is the Playstation video game system.

Sony has sold more than 120 million Playstation 2 consoles, each containing a DVD player. In many countries the PS2 was the first affordable DVD player - it helped create the colossal current market for DVD entertainment. When Sony began to create the Playstation 3 they saw it as the centerpiece of a whole new business. Their new, proprietary high definition format would not only allow the PS3 to play bigger games, but it could be used for movies and music. Sony would licence their disk format to other companies, who would have to pay a licence fee on every disk. If this ambitious plan worked, Sony would have a colossal, guaranteed income for years to come.

Sony began work on their high definition disk format in 2000 and announced Blu-ray in 2002. With five times the capacity of a DVD, Blu-ray disks are even larger than HD-DVD, but were completely incompatible with the rival disks. Despite this, the majority of Hollywood studios announced that future movies would be released only on Blu-ray. It seemed that Sony had stolen the high definition market from underneath HD-DVD's nose.

Unfortunately for Sony, the Blu-ray technology proved to be difficult and expensive to manufacture. Supplies of the vital blue lasers used to read the disk were extremely limited, delaying the introduction of Playstation 3 and making it much more expensive than originally planned. Sales of the console have been solid, but unspectacular; the PS3 has not become the best selling games console once hoped by Sony and Blu-ray has failed to eliminate its rival and become the single high definition format.

Today the market for high definition content is paralysed; the two formats offer practically indistinguishable content, yet are completely incompatible with one another. Whilst the majority of movie studios favour Blu-ray, HD-DVD players are far cheaper than their rivals - American customers can now buy HD-DVD players for as little as $99. Perhaps unsurprisingly sales have been embarrassingly slow; this summer’s blockbuster Transformers sold 190,000 HD-DVDs in its first week of American sales, but the DVD release sold 8.3 million disks in the same period.

The Blu-ray / HD-DVD battle increasingly resembles two bald men fighting over a comb and it is quite possible both formats could lose out. There is another way of delivering high definition content and it comes from a technological superpower - Microsoft.

In the last few years, Microsoft has won a sizeable chunk of the video game market with its XBox and XBox 360 video games consoles. The 360 is a powerful machine, easily capable of producing high definition output, and it comes with a broadband Internet connection to Microsoft’s XBox LIVE service.

Originally LIVE was designed to let games players compete over the Internet and to download games data, but it is increasingly being used to provide video on demand - and much of that video is in high definition. The XBox Video Store was launched in America in late 2006 and will arrive in Europe early in 2008. XBox Video Store is a chance for Microsoft to steal a lead not only over Sony, but also Apple’s iTunes service which dominates online music downloads.

With over 14 million XBox 360s already sold and millions more to be sold during the run-up to Christmas 2007, Microsoft is making a strong bid to be the preferred provider of high definition content in millions of homes. Sony’s Playstation 3 could make a formidable competitor, but for Sony to provide online downloads of high definition content would almost completely invalidate its Blu-ray gamble, the company would have invested billions to almost no gain and be gravely weakened in the inevitable battle of the next-generation consoles.

Once people get used to the almost unlimited choice available online, why will they want to invest in either of HD-DVD or Blu-ray? In the meantime, there is one clear winner to the disk format war – DVD.

 

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