A Blu-ray Day in LA

Earlier this week companies supporting the upcoming Blu-ray high definition disc format gathered at the Fox Studios in Los Angeles to give an update to the assembled press. The companies represented were Buena Vista Entertainment (Disney, Touchstone, Miramax), Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment, Panasonic, Pioneer, Dell, and Sony.

The main purpose of the get-together was to present a new Blu-ray demonstration highlighting the interactive features that will be available in the format. And, of course, to generate more publicity for Blu-ray.

The presentation began with a discussion of the format's status. There wasn't much hard news that you haven't heard before. Fox is convinced that there will not be a format war, and indicated that the Blu-ray camp was working with retailers for an aggressive product launch. Pioneer believes that BD (the acronym for Blu-ray Disc you'll see and hear more and more often) will co-exist with DVD for years to come. Blu-ray players (and, presumably, recorders when they arrive) will also play back DVDs.

Managed copy will be possible with BD, enabling distribution around the house but not, of course, over the Internet. (Allowing managed copying should also open up the market for Kaleidescape-like media servers for HD video.) And contrary to rumors, an Internet connection will not be required for playback of movies on BD, but will be needed for some of the format's interactive features.

The panelists were a little vague on whether or not 2-layer BDs will be available for the first releases, though ultimately everyone expects those 50GB 2-layer discs to be almost universal, much like 2-layer DVDs. A single layer BD is more than sufficient for a HD movie and some extra features.

Hybrid discs are planned, which will carry both widescreen HD and pan-and-scan SD versions of the same film—though indications are that these hybrids will require a 2-layer disc. The SD layer will be readable by a conventional DVD player. Both versions of the film will be on the same side of the disc. The Blu-ray group argued that HD-DVD plans to use both sides of their discs for hybrids, eliminating the space for a label.

There are implications to the SD versions being pan-and-scan that may be a cause for concern among widescreen fans. Will the studio releasing a hybrid BD then not feel any need to release a conventional widescreen DVD, thus cutting enthusiasts who have not yet converted to Blu-ray out of the widescreen loop?

The demonstration of Blu-ray's features was impressive, particularly its interactive menus. You can call up the chapter menu on-screen without interrupting the movie. The format is also far more flexible than DVD in how it allows extra feature content to be overlaid on top of the movie image. Personalized settings (for such things as your preferred soundtrack) can be stored for each film in your collection (depending on its size, I would imagine) and are instantly recalled the next time you play the disc. It would also be nice if subsequent viewings would also skip over trailers and even FBI warnings, though no one mentioned that as an option! Don't we all know by now that copying the movie—even if you could—will send you to Devil's Island forever?

You can also reorganize chapter stops and annotate favorite scenes for direct playback. Extra content—in HD—can also be downloaded from the Internet, though some type of data storage must be built into the players to make use of it (an extra feature on more upscale players, perhaps?).

IHD-interactivity is still being considered for the format, but at present it still uses BD Java. (For more on this, go here).

In addition to this IHD/BD Java issue, the AACS copy protection scheme is still awaiting final approval. And no one would yet commit to whether or not HD will be available from a BD player's analog component video outputs. "It's still under study" is the same answer we've been hearing now since the issue first arose a year or so ago.

But none of the participants saw any serious obstacles to a 2006 launch. Just when in 2006, however, is still very much up in the air, at least publicly. Blu-ray is planning a formal launch at next month's 2006 CES in Las Vegas, but that doesn't mean that hardware and software will ship immediately afterwards. Product launches and delivery dates are often very different things.