Picture's fuzzy for DVD
By Junko Yoshida
March 1, 2002 (3:55 p.m. EST)
PARIS - The look of the next generation of digital video disks got
harder to call when the DVD Forum's Steering Committee voted this
week to approve the use of low-bit-rate compression for
The DVD Forum's decision, made at a meeting Tuesday (Feb. 26) in
Tokyo, to stick with a red-laser-based scheme but switch to
low-bit-rate compression, came only a week after nine of the world's
biggest electronics companies agreed to promote a blue-laser-based
format for next-generation video and computer optical disks. That
format, the Blu-ray Disc, was developed outside the forum, but all
nine of the initial backers are forum members.
Looking to avoid what they say would be a costly shift to blue-laser
technology, steering committee member Warner Bros. and other
content-production companies are behind the new DVD Forum proposal,
which uses low-bit-rate encoding technology such as MPEG-4 to cram 9
Gbytes of high-definition video content onto a two-layer DVD. Blu-ray
uses MPEG-2 compression, as does the current DVD standard. A
single-sided 12-cm Blu-ray Disc would store 27 Gbytes of computer
data, record 13 hours of broadcast TV or hold two hours' worth of
Of the 17 companies that sit on the DVD Forum steering committee, 11
approved the low-bit-rate encoding approach. The remaining six -
including Matsu****a, JVC and Philips - reportedly abstained.
The nine steering committee members backing the Blu-ray Disc are
Hitachi, LG Electronics, Matsu****a Electric Industrial, Pioneer,
Royal Philips Electronics, Samsung Electronics, Sharp, Sony and
Thomson Multimedia. Aside from Warner Bros., the other committee
members are IBM, Intel, Taiwan's Industrial Technology Research
Institute (ITRI), JVC, Mitsubishi, NEC and Toshiba.
It is clear that the DVD Forum did not arrive at its decision this
past week without some pain. Sources disagreed not only on what the
vote meant but even on what had been decided.
Some sources involved in the developments insisted that they saw no
contradictions in pursuing both blue-laser and low-bit-rate
approaches. "I don't think it's confusing. It's only natural" to
pursue both paths, since both encoding and blue-laser technologies
continue to evolve, said Jan Oosterveld, a member of the Philips
group management committee responsible for corporate strategy.
Blu-ray is a recording format for real-time interlaced TV programs,
including HDTV programming, while low-bit-rate encoding is positioned
as a prerecorded HD-DVD playback format for movies, said Chris Buma,
program manager for A/V disk recording at Philips. "We don't see
Blu-ray as replacing DVD; rather, it complements the next-generation
Buma added that the steering committee's decision to go with
low-bit-rate encoding - as low as 7 Mbits/second - would not
necessarily preclude the use of blue lasers in the future.
But an industry observer who spoke on the condition of anonymity
warned that industry efforts to draw distinctions between playback
and recording formats, while helping some companies rationalize their
technology decisions, might confound consumers seeking to make sense
of the new standards. "It all depends on the timing," the source
said. If Blu-ray-based recorders come to market sometime next year,
consumers will likely expect [those] recorders to be able to play
back a prerecorded Warner Bros. HD-DVD movie disk based on MPEG-4."
The industry thus walks a fine line between advancing DVD performance
and fragmenting what to date has been an aggressively robust market
for DVD disks and equipment.
The use of blue-laser technology is a natural fit for the many
consumer electronics companies worldwide that have already invested
heavily in its development. Further, some companies would like to see
the use of MPEG-2 compression continue in the new-generation disks to
provide continuity with the current DVD standard.
But the world is also full of new ideas for lower-bit-rate encoding,
including wavelet, MPEG-4 and such proprietary codecs as Microsoft
Corp.'s Corona. The DVD Forum's technical working group has already
proved that encoding rates as low as 7 Mbits/s will yield HD video of
acceptable quality. And one movie studio executive argued that while
MPEG-2 continuity would be desirable, switching to blue-laser
technology to achieve it would involve a "very costly" overhaul of
disk-manufacturing operations that would jack up the price of DVD
disks and equipment to levels unlikely to be accepted in the
Philips' Oosterveld declined to discuss blue-laser costs but did
acknowledge that the technique "would be far more costly than the
current red laser."
To complicate matters, while Warner Bros.' low-bit-rate proposal got
the nod this week, those who attended the Tuesday meeting apparently
came away with varying conclusions about what would be the forum's
chosen technology for low-bit-rate encoding.
Some said the steering committee had moved to back MPEG-4. Others
asserted that no clear decision had emerged about whether to use
MPEG-4 or an improved version of MPEG-2 - MPEG-2 Main Profile @ High
Level for HD Encoding - integrated with pre- and post-processing
capabilities. Philips demonstrated the latter approach in December at
the forum's technical working group meeting.
"We are still in the starting phase," Philips' Buma said about the
codec discussions. "We are far from coming to a decision" on a
definitive compression scheme.
"We are not interested in a low-bit-rate encoding shootout," said a
Japanese senior executive who asked not to be identified. The
executive said forum members have seen demos of a number of encoding
technologies, including a wavelet-compressed HD-DVD movie. "We want
to test further how either MPEG-4 or an improved version of MPEG-2
would eventually fare at 7 Mbits or lower," the source said.
Given the strong representation of consumer electronics companies on
the steering committee roster, the door is likely closed to
proprietary schemes like Microsoft's Windows Media codec, code-named
Corona. The decision will likely boil down to MPEG-4 vs. the
souped-up MPEG-2 variant.
Several DVD Forum members said they have been pleasantly surprised,
every time the two MPEG standards have been reviewed and compared, to
find that both approaches have continued to make marked progress.
"It's remarkable what an increased computational processing power can
do to pre- and post-processing of video images," the Japanese
executive said of the MPEG-2 version tweaked for high-definition
video. "Once you clean up images by filtering before encoding, you
can really squeeze a lot onto a disk without changing the fundamental
On the other hand, MPEG-4's object-based coding capabilities open the
door to the interactive applications for DVD. Object-based coding can
also be used to allocate more bits for certain objects - such as a
fast-moving object within a frame - thereby improving coding
"One can use advanced motion-detection filters for that," said
another executive who works for a Japanese consumer electronics
Although the first Japanese source said the forum intends to decide
on a low-bit-rate scheme within three months, the DVD Forum's
tendency to require "further study" before every crucial decision
could open the door to the Blu-ray Disc.
Blu-ray prototypes have been demonstrated by Philips, Sony and
Panasonic. Licensing for manufacture is expected to start in a couple
of months. Although Blu-ray promoters have refused to say when they
plan to ship Blu-ray based systems, the first recorders could hit the
market next year, some observers said.
Oosterveld, reach this past week, called the recent unveiling of the
Blu-ray Disc agreement in Tokyo a "technology announcement."
"Everyone knows that blue-laser technology exists," he said. "We've
decided that it's best to announce our technology agreement early on,
in order to avoid confusion and speculation." In the meantime, he
said, Philips will "continue to focus on promoting our DVD+RW."
The low-bit-rate camp believes its approach will benefit nearly
everyone involved in the DVD industry. "Hollywood studios can
repurpose their content one more time for HD-DVD, without making a
costly investment in brand-new replication equipment based on a blue
laser," said a U.S. executive who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Further, as Chinese companies make strides in DVD players at the
expense of Japanese and European companies, the inventors of the DVD
standard are seeking ways to protect their margins and differentiate
their products from Chinese imports.
The U.S. executive claimed a switch to blue-laser equipment would
make advanced players prohibitively costly, whereas a red-laser-based
player that could handle both MPEG-4 and MPEG-2 decoding would carry
a palatable retail premium of $25 to $50.
Still looking for that Home Theatre.