High-Def Discs and Tapes

Because every new format seems to set off a format war, we were a little surprised when nine major electronics manufacturers announced that they actually agreed on what the next-generation recordable optical-disc format should be. Christened the Blu-ray Disc, the new blue-laser-based format provides for 27 gigabytes (GB) of data on a single side, which is enough for 13 hours of standard-definition video or 2 hours of HDTV; the standard also calls for dual-layer, 50-GB discs. Although prototype discs were displayed in protective caddies, as shown at left, the final plan might call for bare discs.

The Blu-ray system's high-speed data-transfer rate (36 megabits per second) will allow it to record and simultaneously play back prerecorded high-definition video. Licensing for the format is scheduled to start this spring, but recorders aren't expected to make it to market for as long as five years. Although each Blu-ray disc will contain a unique ID to be used for copyright protection, it's not clear whether Hollywood studios will line up behind the format.

Our initial surprise at the agreement was tempered a bit when we looked a little closer. While the nine companies - Hitachi, LG Electronics, Matsushita (Panasonic), Pioneer, Philips, Samsung, Sharp, Sony, and Thomson (RCA) - are members of the DVD Forum's steering committee, the Blu-ray work was conducted outside that industry group. Notably absent from the Blu-ray backers are Toshiba, which played the largest role in developing the DVD format, and JVC, which recently announced its high-definition D-VHS tape format known as D-Theater.

About a week after the Blu-ray announcement, the DVD Forum voted to take a different tack toward high-definition DVD. Instead of moving to blue lasers - whose shorter wavelengths allow more data to be crammed onto a disc - the high-def DVD format would keep today's red laser but do away with MPEG-2. The discs would be physically the same as today's DVDs, with the same capacity, but use more efficient data compression. A low-bit-rate encoding scheme like MPEG-4 or an improved version of MPEG-2 would allow high-def content to be stored.

So, yes, high-definition DVD is coming. But don't hold your breath. And don't be surprised if we end up with two incompatible high-def disc formats - one blue-laser-based and recordable, the other MPEG-4-based and playback only.

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