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Blu-Tech

With the HD DVD competition set to launch within a month, Sony invited members of the CE press to the Sony Studios in Culver City, California for an update on Blu-ray technology and a demonstration of that format's formidable capabilities.

But before getting to the stuff we tech-geeks live for, they first announced that the initial batch of Blu-ray titles from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment and MGM is targeted for a May 23 launch. It will include 50 First Dates, The Fifth Element, Hitch, House of Flying Daggers, A Knights Tale, The Last Waltz, Resident Evil Apocalypse, and XXX. Additional titles will be released on June 13, including Kung Fu Hustle, Legends of the Fall, Robocop, Stealth, Species, SWAT, and Terminator. In addition, Underworld Evolution will debut in early summer day and date with the DVD. While Blu-ray will support multiple layers, all these first titles are expected to be limited to a single layer.

Additional Blu-ray titles are also expected from other studios supporting the format. Is it just me, however, or do I see an absence of major recent hits—like, say, Spider-Man on the Sony/MGM list? In the early days of DVD, studios were reluctant to release prime titles until there was a large installed base of players to support significant sales. A title released early, the conventional wisdom went, would become stale by the time most people could play it. But with Special Super Deluxe Edition re-releases now a proven commodity, that argument doesn't sound so convincing.

Most of the event involved the discussion of a number of technical details about the format, plus demonstrations. I won't go into the widely known tech details of Blu-ray here, such as its 25GB/50GB data capacity (single/dual layer) and its physical aspects (much like a DVD apart from its blue case, at least as visible to the consumer).

Probably less known is the fact that there are actually two Blu-ray modes. Movie Mode is the mode that will be used for high definition films. BD-J Mode is a fully programmable mode that includes interactive features, like games and Internet connectivity. Both modes can be used on the same disc—for example, a movie plus an interactive game as a special feature. While the subject was not raised, presumably the more elaborate games will be reserved for Sony's upcoming PlayStation3 platform, which will support both Blu-ray games and movies. Just how much interactive gaming a conventional Blu-ray player will support for possible bonus features—Hitch: The Game perhaps—is a question that won't be clearly answered until we see the dedicated Blu-ray players and movie discs.

We've written before about the Blu-ray user control options that extend well beyond those of DVD. Not only will Blu-ray support more elaborate menus, but many menu features may be accessed without interrupting the film. If you want to change the soundtrack or subtitles, view the scene selection menu, or overlay special features that the disc's authors have created (a talking head commentary, perhaps) you can do so as the film continues to run.

During the Q&A session, Sony's Don Eklund confirmed that Sony and MGM titles would be encoded on the discs at 1080/24p. The user will set the player to convert this native resolution as required to match the capability of his or her display. For most displays, the user will set the player for 1080/30i or 1080/60p. But if your display will accept 1080p/24 you can set it for that output, and the display will presumably double or (preferably) triple the frame rate to eliminate flicker. A display rate of 1080p/48 or 1080p/72 would eliminate the need for 3/2 pulldown, producing smoother motion and minimizing artifacts.

At this time Sony has no immediate plans to implement the Image Constraint Token (ICT). The ICT is the part of the AACS copy protection scheme (used in both Blu-ray and HD DVD) that forces the player to down-rez its analog component video output from the disc's 1920x1080 high definition resolution to 960x540p. The result: you will get high definition only from the player's digital video output (HDMI or DVI). Early HDTV adopters of component only sets would then be limited to standard definition 540p from their fancy new players.

But all of these early Sony and MGM titles will produce full high definition from both the analog component and digital video outputs of a Blu-ray player. Whether or not to turn on the ICT, however, will rest with each studio and may be done on a title-by-title basis. How other studios will implement this feature in their releases remains to be seen.

All of the Sony and MGM titles will initially be encoded using MPEG-2, the same compression scheme (codec) used for DVD and most broadcast high definition. Sony says that they have performed comparative tests between MPEG-2, VC-1 (based on Windows Media Video 9 and formerly known as VC-9) and AVC (often referred to as MPEG-4, MPEG-4 Part 10, or H.264). Sony's tests reportedly show that VC-1 (Video Codec 1) and AVC (Advanced Video Coding) may surpass MPEG-2 at data rates below 20Mb/sec, but MPEG-2 was superior at the rates Sony plans on using for Blu-ray (variable, but up to a maximum of 30Mb/sec).

Sony did concede, however, that future improvements to these other codecs might well allow them to exceed MPEG-2 at all data rates. When this happens, Sony will begin using them. All Blu-ray players will be required to support all three codecs out of the gate. (It's probably no coincidence that Sony brought this subject up, as HD DVD titles appear likely to opt for AVC or VC-1. Both of these codecs offer at least two-times the efficiency of MPEG-2. The higher efficiency is needed by HD DVD, which at 15GB/30GB, for single and dual layer respectively, has considerably less data capacity than Blu-ray.)

On the audio side, all Sony and MGM titles will include both conventional Dolby Digital and DTS soundtracks (not the new Dolby and DTS higher definition audio formats, some of which will require new decoders at the user end). We are still waiting for confirmation of the data rate to be used for Dolby Digital (it could well be the current maximum of 640Kb/sec, which is higher than the 448Kb/sec commonly used on DVD), but the DTS track will be at the original DTS data rate of 1.5Mb/sec. All DTS DVD tracks apart from a few released in the early days of DVD have been at half that rate.

More interesting, however, will be an additional audio feature on all Sony/MGM releases—5.1-channels of uncompressed PCM audio. The only glitch here is that since no consumer standard exists for carrying 5.1 channels of uncompressed audio via a single digital link, it will be accessible only via six separate analog audio outputs on the players. Shades of DVD-Audio and SACD! And since the bass management via the 6-channel analog inputs of many receivers and pre-pros is questionable to non-existent, it's time to break out those Outlaw ICBM bass management boxes! Unfortunately, you will also then also be captive to the quality of the six channels of audio A/D conversion in your Blu-ray player.

The most exciting part of the event involved demonstrations of Blu-ray using Sony's flagship 4K D-Cinema SXRD projector producing a peak light output of 14 foot-Lamberts onto a 23' wide screen. A split-screen image was used to compare DVD with Blu-ray, and the program source was a trailer from the upcoming film Click. It was no contest; the stunning Blu-ray was a 16-ounce New York strip sirloin next to the DVD's ground chuck. This wasn't entirely a surprise, given the size of the screen. Another split-screen presentation compared the 400Mb/sec HD master with the Blu-ray file mastered at 25-30Mb/sec. Here, only the tiniest differences were visible on film grain and the finest picture details—and we had to freeze the image to (barely) spot those.

Click was shot using the new Sony Panavision Genesis 1080/24p HD video cameras. The detail in the image, as seen on Blu-ray and presumably transferred directly from a digital file, was incredible. A final demonstration, of a clip from the conventionally filmed A Knight's Tale was not quite so jaw-dropping, but still looked better than most theatrical film presentations in all but the very best theaters equipped with state-of-the-art projectors and pristine prints.

To cap off the event we were given a tour of Sony's disc mastering facilities where skilled technicians were busy producing masters and menus through the magic of computer programs, a process that could never be fully comprehended in a short visit. But one interesting fact was revealed. These first Sony and MGM titles will each have a hidden Easter Egg containing several setup test patterns— a sweep, a standard SMPTE pattern including, among other things, a PLUGE, color bars, and a resolution monoscope. You should be able to access these patterns by entering 7669 on your Blu-ray player's remote (7669 is S-O-N-Y on a telephone). But don't tell Sony I told you!

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