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High Definition and the future of viewing

Disk and broadcast systems battle it out

Analysis Over the past 20 years, the potential of high definition (HD) has seen development in a number of interlinked fields - broadcasting, consumer electronics and pre-packaged content.

Although definitions vary, the term HD itself generally refers to a television screen offering at least double the resolution of the highest quality standard definition TV screen—that is, a screen resolution of 1920x1080i (interlaced), or 1280x720p (progressive scan), versus the current European PAL standard of 720x576 at 50 Hz picture refresh rate (or NTSC standard at the lower picture quality of 648 X 486 at 60 Hz picture rate).

There is also a ‘true HD’ resolution, referred to as 1920x1080p, where each image is refreshed one at a time progressively in maximum resolution, rather than refreshed in two stages as happens with the interlaced system. By definition, the latter provides the best available visual quality that current technology restrictions allow - although today its primary role is as a picture acquisition (ie, production) format.

In any event, the crystal sharp image of HD means films can be viewed as the directors and cinematographers had intended them to be, with the visual quality matching (if not surpassing, on the right home entertainment system) that offered by a theatrical screening.

The implementation of HD takes place at several stages. In the first instance, there is the production stage, where content is shot and/or mastered in an HD format (either HD video, or simply 35mm film). In the second instance, there is the distribution level. HD content can be broadcast via either digital or analogue TV signals, or sold prepackaged as consumer media on either tapes or optical discs.

Although the D-VHS format, which gained some limited studio support, was an example of consumer HD media, DVD has been unable to fulfil the requirement. With current MPEG2 compression, and the codecs used by consumer hardware, standard DVD cannot store significant amounts of HD data even on a dual layer 9 Gb disc. To provide HD content on an optical disc, there is a need then for a product able to offer a high storage capacity - considerably more than the maximum 9 Gb capacity of today’s DVDs.

However, to reap the visual benefits of HD content, the consumer will need an HD home entertainment system. An HD optical disc device to play the discs, and an HDTV set to view the content at full resolution. In the US digital TV set/display market, there are three categories of product for sale:

  • SDTV: standard definition digital TV displays with a resolution below 480p.
  • EDTV: enhanced definition digital TV displays with a resolution of at least 480p, but below 720p.
  • HDTV: high definition digital TV displays with a resolution of 720p or above.

Why HD packaged media?

It may seem somewhat absurd to discuss what will replace DVD at a time when DVD software and hardware sales are continuing to grow. However, as with all rapid growth, early maturation follows. From a hardware perspective, although the number of DVD households is continuing to rise, the rate of growth has already begun to slow down. In 2003, there were a record 28m new net addition DVD households in Europe. In 2004, this has already dropped to 22m, and the decline in hardware growth rates is expected to follow as the market nears 80 per cent penetration by 2008.

The same argument is borne out worldwide. In the 2003-2006 period, annual hardware growth will decline from 66m to 58m new households a year.

A similar trend is evident in consumer spending on software. In 2003, the European DVD software market grew by almost €5bn. In 2004, this growth has dipped below €3bn and is expected to continue to fall, to somewhere around €500m a year by 2008. According to some studios, DVD software growth has already peaked in terms of the number of hit release titles that can be sold, with the business currently thriving off the back of growth in the deep catalogue and TV/entertainment releases.

Although the end is far from nigh, there is an issue in how to inject new impetus into the packaged media market - a sector that constitutes the major US studios’ single biggest source of revenue. In other words, HD discs, as a new mass-market proposition, could create a natural migration path for packaged media growth, possibly in line with the eventual phasing-out of the VHS as a home entertainment format.

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