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Sneak Peek At Warner's 300 HD DVD

I don't know the degree to which interactivity will drive next-gen HD sales, but HD DVD is leading in this category, big-time. Already ahead with picture-in-picture driven features such as Warner's In Movie Experience and Universal's U-Control, Toshiba's latest firmware updates for all its players, including the first-gen players, have enabled web-based interactivity for broadband users that is now available on a few titles, with more to follow.

It's fascinating that HD DVD is so far ahead with interactivity, but perhaps it shouldn't be given Microsoft's backing and involvement with the format. But the important distinction here isn't just in what's on the discs. The fact that every existing HD DVD player is compatible with every one of these features is very different than what Blu-ray currently brings to the interactivity party with respect to both software and especially hardware.

With the possible (if not probable) exception of the PlayStation3, no current BD player I'm aware of will support picture-in-picture interactivity. Some standalone BD players required a firmware update before they could even play the Pirates of the Caribbean movies at all. It's no secret that these Java-enhanced titles load painfully slow in standalone players- we've timed second generation players at over two minutes loading the menus on these discs- and playback glitches have abounded for anyone not using the PS3 to play these BDs.

Further, only BD players released after October of this year must be compatible with Java-based features like the picture-in-picture features described above. Even the second-gen standalone players from Pioneer and Sony and others that are in stores now won't support these features, which will undoubtedly appear on discs at some point. HD DVD players have been required to sport Ethernet connections and dual video decoders for PIP from day one.

I'm not writing this to gong on Blu-ray, which will undoubtedly catch up at some point, but rather to give credit where it's due. On the interactivity front, HD DVD is a remarkably mature product, and the fact that no first generation players or consumers are left behind is praiseworthy.

Now that these distinctions are drawn, the topic at hand here is the first web-enabled HD DVDs. Taking advantage of my recent relocation to Washington state, I was invited over to Redmond to visit with Kevin Collins, Microsoft's HD DVD Evangelist and see the latest and greatest in HD DVD interactivity with a sneak peek at Warner's 300, which offers some of the most powerful extras yet. Here's what I saw- and to drive home one of HD DVD's chief advantages, Kevin played back all of these features using a first-generation Toshiba-built, RCA-branded HD DVD player.

Warner's Blood Diamond and Bandai's Freedom Vol. 1 are on the market already. To read brief reports on the web-enabled features for these titles read the two Blogs below this one on my Blog page.

Forgive the lack of screen shots. I chose to move forward and publish this rather than wait.

The most compelling thing about next-gen HD, from the chapter selections to the PIP features, is that the experiences are "in band." In other words, they run simultaneously with the film, and don't require the viewer to leave the viewing of the film to pour through these materials.

300 makes the most compelling use I've yet seen of PIP features. 300 is a heavily processed blue-screen movie- that is, the actors ran around in a studio in front of blue screens and practically everything else was CGI'd in later. The PIP shows the unprocessed blue screen material, and it's fascinating to compare. The colors, the "film" grain, the back drops, the waves of arrows, it's all fake. Well, OK, some of the spit and drool is real (don't ask).

Another nice touch, totally in tune with the program material, is that the icon indicating when 300 has IME material available is a nice big splatter of blood. Not exactly an intimate character study, this one.

300 allows users to choose favorite scenes, and groups of scenes and arrange them in order. The web connectivity here allows users to choose screen names and store and then share their favorites scenes and groups of scenes with other users on their "buddy list." A site hosted by Warner stores the requisite info.

Going a little further, I could give out his screen name and readers adding me to their buddy lists could pop their own copies of 300 into their connected player and see the scenes I talk about in my reviews, and compare the performance I describe with review product. I know that's specialized, but I'm kind of excited about it. So, be nice if you want to get on my list!

Even if Blu-ray wins this format war decisively, we should be thankful in some respects that HD DVD's been in the race. HD DVD raised the bar high right out of the gate with picture and sound quality- the first BD titles suffered greatly in comparison, prompting the BD studios to get better fast (which they did). And here we are a year out, and HD DVD is still raising the bar with interactivity, something both formats have promised and only HD DVD has delivered so far.

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