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High Definition and the future of viewing
Disk and broadcast systems battle it out
The two major formats are not alone in the market. Some manufacturers have put forward their own variations on the HD optical disc format, largely borne out of a desire by manufacturers in certain territories to reduce DVD royalty payments. None are considered serious contenders for next-generation global packaged markets, although they may take a slice of their domestic regions.
Enhanced Versatile Disc (EVD)
The EVD caused a recent stir. Initially developed by China’s Beijing E-world Technology and the US technology company On2 Technologies, it is supported by leading Chinese consumer electronics manufacturers SVA, Shinco, Amoi, Xiaxin, Yuxing, Skyworth, Nintaus, Malata, Changhong and BBK.
The platform was approved by the Standards Administration of China, and the first EVD devices were unveiled at a special event in Beijing on November 2003. Put simply, it is widely assumed that the concept was devised as a means of eliminating royalty payments made to the DVD Forum by China’s manufacturers in a bid to reduce manufacturing costs. It is reported that Chinese manufacturers need to pay approximately $14 in royalties for every DVD player they make.
Technically, the EVD is based on the existing red laser disc format. However, it uses proprietary compression solutions, developed initially by On2, with chipsets subsequently delivered by LSI Logic, to fit 120 minutes of HD content onto a dual layer 9 Gb DVD. According to the group, the standards body is at present working on a 16 Gb EVD.
The first commercial EVD devices were launched in the Chinese market in January 2004 by manufacturers Shinco, SVA and Amoi. In a bid to push sales and raise the profile of the format, Shinco took the unusual step of announcing negotiations over content for the format from some US studios, including MGM and Fox, and promised 1,600 EVD titles overall in 2004.
But plans were scaled back to 300 titles, with the first titles only appearing in July 2004, and only 50 titles having appeared by the start of September. The studio titles are not expected to be in HD at the moment. Unsurprisingly, this has affected sales, as has the high cost of discs (an EVD movie disc costs twice that of DVD) and players (an EVD player costs twice that of a DVD player). Alhough a target of 200,000 EVD player sales in 2004 was set in January, the average sales figure has been around 1,000 players a week.
Ironically, due to the low take-up, EVD manufacturers have had to make their players compatible with the DVD standard in the interim period, therefore obliging them to pay the $14 DVD royalty on top of $2 per player they already pay for the EVD standard.
Forward Versatile Disc (FVD)
FVD was developed by the Advanced Optical Storage Research Alliance, a consortium of 28 Taiwanese optical storage firms, and Taiwan’s Industrial Technology Research Institute (ITRI). The platform uses Microsoft’s Windows Media 9 (WM9) advanced video encoding technology to store content on a standard red laser disc. It was officially released in April 2004, and has a 6 Gb capacity on a single-layer disc and 11 Gb on a dual-layer. This means that a single disc can store 135 minutes of content at 720p (not true HD). Like EVD, it is a localised effort to reduce the cost of royalty payments paid by DVD hardware manufacturers.
The disc physics have been specifically developed by CMC Magnetics, RITEK, U-Tech Media and Prodisc Tech, whilst hardware manufacturers Lire-On Technology, Mustek, Quanta Storage, ALi and BenQ are making the player hardware drives. Limited supplies of FVD hardware was in Taiwanese shops by end 2004, with the first main shipments expected - probably in the Chinese mainland - about now .
Digital Multi-layer Disc (DMD)
The DMD HD format is the brainchild of Russian company D Data. The format uses a standard red laser to read data from specially coated disc layers. The discs can store up to 30 Gb of data using a twosided disc with six layers on each side, according to D Data. The standard single-sided disc, however, will be 15 Gb, four layers, offering 130 minutes playing time. The maximum resolution, however, will not be true HD - actually only 1920x1080i (interlaced, not progressive scan).
The company has opened an office in New York and is pitching its technology to hardware makers and content owners. It says that DMD players could be built using existing manufacturing capacity and would retail for around $300.
It is planning to build a disc manufacturing plant in Germany with government backing - reportedly. The plant could produce DMD discs that would cost content owners only slightly more than conventional DVDs. To date there has been talk of some limited content support, purportedly from Time Warner’s Turner Pictures.
According to D Data, it aims to have DMD hardware and software on the market by the first quarter of 2005 although possibly not in US. This appears a major oversight given the company’s desire to target the HD broadcast home recording market. A number of Taiwanese hardware manufacturers are looking at the standard with the prospect of developing players for the format.
High Definition Video (HDV)
Another Chinese format, HDV was developed by Beijing’s Kaicheng High Definition Electronic Technologies, which owns core technologies for the format, as a rival to EVD. Though Kaicheng contends that its red laser standard can provide discs with the capacity to store five times more than a standard DVD (using MPEG-4), the format’s ability to provide actual HD has been brought into question by engineers working for the Chinese government (as well as issues of backward compatibility, amongst others).
Notwithstanding the criticism, Kaicheng has pressed on, with an aggressive focus on South East Asia. It has teamed up with several domestic Chinese manufacturers to produce HDV players, including Shenzhen Utek and Wanlida. Kaicheng provides these partners with HDV chips, and the first batch of 30,000 Utek-produced HDV players has already been completed.
It is currently negotiating with large national Chinese retailers to promote their products. To support the format, Kaicheng currently offers more than 400 titles in the HDV format, though unsurprisingly nothing from the mainstream US studios.
Internationally, the company reportedly shipped 6,000 units to France and in October 2004, Kaicheng announced a deal with an unnamed European distributor to ship 1m HDV players to Europe.
Though not a specific format in its own right, the Warner Bros backed HD DVD-9 proposal is worth a mention. The idea is that by using advanced compression, such as AVC or VC-1, a 120-minute HD movie can be stored on a standard red laser DVD-9. It’s a proposal that has many similarities with EVD and FVD, but stays firmly within the ambit of the technical DVD specs laid down by the DVD Forum.
The business case for this has been that packaged HD movies could be offered on existing DVD-9 discs, thus avoiding the cost of utilising new replication equipment. In this respect, some studios feel it is important to have the option of using HD DVD-9 as a cost-saving measure on certain highdefinition releases.
To date, backers of the HD DVD format have confirmed that HD DVD-9 will be offered as an option within their specification. By contrast, the Bluray group has yet to confirm the inclusion of this option within their specifications.
DivX is a proprietary video compression technology developed by DivX Networks, which has in recent years used its format to make some headway in both the online sector and the DVD hardware market. DivX enables the compression of DVD-quality video to 10 per cent of that of MPEG-2. Recently, the company announced that its technology will have been incorporated in over 20m DVD players shipped by end 2004.
Notably, all of these devices will be able to play back DivX encoded titles downloaded from content partner websites. At present, DivX has 75 content partners, offering around 18,000 titles for download. However, most of these are lower tier movies with no blockbuster content to speak of (although there is an impressive mix of well-known television content).
The current content business model sees some titles being available for download so that they can be subsequently burnt onto a CD or DVD, to be played back on a DivX-certified DVD player. Unique to DivX’s plans is true interoperability between an online environment and DVD - enabling the consumer to transfer secure content freely between the PC and the TV.
The next stage in the DivX DVD strategy seems to be a shift towards DivX-HD - advanced compression that, according to the company, can compress HD files to approximately 25 per cent of existing broadcast HD files. The aim is not only to enable quick Internet distribution but to fit a feature-length HD movie, a standard definition encode, multiple audio tracks and bonus features onto a single red laser DVD. This, however, sees the picture quality pushed down to 720p, with a bit-rate as low as 4 Mbps.
The company is currently offering movie trailer downloads in HD, and is planning to work with manufacturers to launch DivX-HD DVD players in 2005.