Secure DVD Players for BAFTA Judges

The British Academy of Film and Television will be supplying judges with secure DVD players from Cinea for this year’s award season. The move is intended to answer studio’s concerns that “screener disks” sent to judges for consideration sometimes end up being pirated and ending up on the internet. Cinea’s secure players have already been used for the Oscar awards, following the MPAA’s campaign to halt the distribution of screener disks.

The specially encrypted disks will only play in Cinea’s S-VIEW sv300 DVD players, though the players themselves can play ordinary DVDs too. Disks are sent to the authorised viewer and are initialised and marked with the player identity when inserted into the sv300. By initialising the disks in this way, studios will know which player the disk came from if it ever goes astray.

“We are very pleased to be working with Cinea to give our members the opportunity to receive secure screeners. The British Academy takes the threat of piracy very seriously, and we welcome any solution that can reduce the risk of unauthorized copying.” said David Parfitt, Chair of BAFTA’s Film Committee.

Variety is reporting that it will cost studios US$25,000 (€20,650) per film, plus a license fee to Cinea, to secure the screener disks with the S-VIEW system. Cinea will pay for the players and encoding themselves, and is in discussion with studios for further uses of the S-VIEW technology to secure the post-production process for film makers. It can be used for the secure distribution of dailies and other works in progress, ensuring that digital copies don’t end up being leaked onto the internet. Something that was almost impossible with 35 or 70mm film.

Each sv300 player is individually addressable, allowing distributors to decide exactly who views their content, from large groups of thousands to a single individual.



Dualdisc – Yet Another Disc Format

The big four record labels have decided that the way to sell more is to launch a new format – and here it comes, DualDisc. EMI, Song BMG, Universal Music and Warner Music have been quietly scheming away to produce the new format, which, as its name suggests, is a CD – DVD hybrid.

Playable on just about any drive that can play either CDs or DVDs, the DVD partition of the disk can contain extras like videos, interviews and photo galleries. How does it work? It’s really not that sophisticated – it’s just a double-sided disc with a CD substrate on one side and a DVD substrate on the other. As the format has been approved by the DVD forum, it will be allowed to carry the DVD logo.

DVD-Audio and SACD have not been very successful, and this is an attempt to recapture a lost market.

CDs are about 1.2mm thick – the new format can be about 1.5mm thick, which may cause it to jam in some players, though it is still within the upper limit for the CD standard.

The key advantage for audiophiles is that music quality is preserved. Extras on CDs tend to eat into the amount of space available for storing music, so bit rates can suffer on longer discs. Better still, listeners can enjoy DVD-A quality encoding on the DVD side at home whilst using the CD side in their cars and personal stereos. Perhaps it’s not so evil after all.

The first titles will include albums from Five for Fighting, Audioslave and Dave Brubeck. Sorry, who are these things aimed at again?

“We are delighted to be offering the first in a series of DualDisc titles,” stated Doug Morris, Chairman and CEO of Universal Music Group. “By combining music, video, interactivity and portability in a single disc, DualDisc will add an exciting new dimension to the consumer’s musical experience.”

“Dual Disc opens a new, exciting creative dimension for artists to express themselves and connect with fans. It’s an entertainment-packed product and is a big step in our effort to give fans music whenever, however and wherever they want it,” said David Munns, Chairman and CEO EMI Music North America.

DVD Plus International, a German company, is claiming ownership of a patent relating to a dual-format DVD, called, predictably, DVD Plus. Since Dualdisc is set for an October launch, they had better sort that one out pretty sharpish.

DualDisc – coming soon

MPAA Takes Action Against Chip Manufacturers

The Motion Picture Association of America has sued two chip manufacturing companies for selling integrated circuits to manufacturers that produce non-approved DVD players.

The MPAA isn’t happy that the makers of some DVD players deviate from the the agreed standards and produce appliances that do not feature the full range of DRM features. Consequently, the MPAA is suing Sigma Designs and MediaTek for distributing Content Scramble System chips to such companies, and thus breaking their original license agreement to distribute the chips only to other CSS-licensed outfits.

CSS and related DVD technologies are controlled by a technology group called the DVD Copy Control Association, and any manufacturer must agree to their contract terms before they can work with the format.

Dan Robbins, MPAA Chief Technology Counsel said: “Responsible corporate citizens honour the contracts they sign. There is no leniency for irresponsible companies that seek to circumvent the system and operate outside of the law.”

This latest action from the MPAA shows that they are keen to use a variety of techniques to protect their business – this doesn’t revolve around copyright law like previous instances, this is about contracts.

DVD Copy Control Association

Blockbuster Launch Online DVD Rental Service

Blockbuster have launched Blockbuster Online, as service that allows subscribers to choose films from the company’s 25,000 title catalogue – and then have them posted to their home.

Not quite the giant leap we were all hoping for, and a bit late, but it’s a step forward. This is essentially the same service that Netflix and others have been providing for, well, months. Years, even.

Blockbuster don’t think they’re late to market at all: “We think now is the opportune time for Blockbuster to enter the online rental business, and we plan to quickly establish ourselves in this arena by aggressively marketing, pricing and combining our online program and in-store capabilities,” said Shane Evangelist, Blockbuster vice president and general manager of BLOCKBUSTER Online. “Very simply, we plan on providing the best online movie rental service available. To this end, the BLOCKBUSTER Online monthly fee is currently priced below our biggest competitor for the three-out rental plan. Plus, we are offering 25,000 new release and catalogue titles. We believe that all of this, combined with our marketing savvy, should help Blockbuster to develop a substantial share of the online rental business by the end of next year.”

Certainly, recognition of the Blockbuster brand should make it easier for them to gain ground in an already established market.

Subscribers can rent unlimited films, up to three at a time, for US$19.99 (€16.30) a month. As they’re paying a subscription and can only hold three titles at a time, there are not late fees – so that copy of Three Weeks Notice can sit there unwatched for as long as you like, just because you can’t get to the post office.

Blockbuster will be offering free rental coupons valid in its stores to encourage subscribers to still pop into the local branch now and again – of course, posting DVDs means that customers won’t be buying so much high-margin popcorn and chocolates anymore.

Blockbuster Online

PlayStation3 Will Use Blu-ray

Sony has a announced that its forthcoming PlayStation3 console will include a Blue-ray drive DVD drive. Blue-ray is a higher density DVD technology, and will be able to store around 50gb of data by the console’s release at the end of 2005.

The inclusion of the Blue-ray drive is sure to guarantee mass market acceptance for the format, in the face of competition from other high density DVD technologies. Sony are particularly keen to see the format flourish as it is one of the founders of the Blu-ray group and has invested heavily in the technology. The main competitor, HD-DVD, has recently received a boost from Microsoft when they announced that their next version of Windows, codenamed Longhorn, would support it.

Blue light optical disks can store more data on them because the wavelength of blue coherent light is shorter, and therefore can read smaller pits, which are also packed closer together.

As Blu-ray is not currently compatible with standard DVD technology, this means that the drive will not be able to play standard red laser DVDs, or run Playstation2 software. It remains to be seen if Sony will be using a special dual-format drive, of taking the expensive step of including two drives in the console.

Blu-ray Home

321 Studios Closes

321 Studios has closed down after a series of court decisions that ruled that its key product, DVD X Copy, was illegal to distribute.

The software had been marketed as a tool that allowed consumers to exercise their legal right to make backups of legally purchased products. Whilst consumers do have this right, they must defeat the copy protection present on disks in order to do so. Defeating a copy protection system is illegal in a number of countries, including the US and Europe.

Since copy protection systems are seen to interfere with consumers’ fair-use rights, groups like the EFF believe that revisions to the law to make it fairer for customers are not far off.

321 Studios, based in St. Louis, had faced several court cases this year from industry leaders such as Vivendi Universal Games and Atari, and had even revised their product to remove the DVD descrambling component, CSS.

At the high of its business, 321 Studios employed nearly 400 staff and expect make US$200 million (€166 million) in sales in 2004.

The injunction only applies to 321 Studios – it is not illegal to own or even operate the software itself.

321 Studios

H.264 Codec Adopted for Next-Gen HD DVDs

The DVD Forum has ratified the new H.264 Advanced Video Codec (AVC) for inclusion in the forthcoming High Definition DVD platform.

The H.264 codec, formerly known H.26L, was was developed by the Motion Picture Experts Group (responsible of course, for the various MPEG formats) and the International Telecommunication Union, and has now been ratified into the MPEG-4 codec. The codec enables a variety of video content to be compressed for transmission and decompressed for playback in a highly efficient way.

Apple has already made an announcement to the effect that H.264 will be included in a release of its QuickTime platform next year.

“Apple is firmly behind H.264 because it delivers superb quality digital video and is based on open standards that no single company controls,” said Philip Schiller, Apple’s senior vice president of Worldwide Product Marketing in a statement.

H.264 is intended to be used on a number of platforms, and as such covers a wide spectrum of bandwidth requirements – from HD television to mobile phones. The codec is highly efficient, and has been demonstrated playing back 1920×1080, 24fps HD movies at up to half the data rate of MPEG-2. Less data means room for more channels – or better audio and video.

Don’t expect HD playback performance on your new mobile phone – Apple’s test detailed above required a dual processor G5 to do the playback. The new codec will be more suited to digital television broadcasts to phones and mobile movies with a much lower resolution.

How H.254 works – and it’s not too technical, either

MPEG resources on the internet

The Self-Censoring DVD Player

RCA, a Thomson brand, have launched a DVD player that can be programmed to skip content that viewers find unsuitable. The US$80 (€68) player contains software from ClearPlay that checks the inserted DVD against a database of titles and skips sections that may offend, based on a selection of filters. Because of this the player can only “protect” viewers from films it already knows about.

The player comes preinstalled with 100 filters for films such as Daredevil and Pirates of the Caribbean. Owners of the player can pay US$5 (€4.22) per month to receive internet updates, which they simply burn to a CD from their computer and then feed to the DVD player. So it looks like protecting the peoples’ moral sensibilities is a revenue stream in itself.

ClearPlay’s database currently contains filters for 500 popular films. ClearPlay, based in Salt Lake City, allow viewers to filter on four categories: violence, sex and nudity, language and (the intriguingly named) “other”. That’ll be drugs then. When a scene comes up that hits one of the filters, bad language is muted or the scene itself is skipped.

Studios don’t like the idea of a player that edits their films: “ClearPlay software edits movies to conform to ClearPlay’s vision of a movie instead of letting audiences see, and judge for themselves, what writers wrote, what actors said and what directors envisioned,” The Directors Guild of America said in a statement. “Ultimately, it is a violation of law and just wrong to profit from selling software that changes the intent of movies you didn’t create and don’t own.”

Apart from impending action because of this latest product, ClearPlay are currently being prosecuted in association with a video rental outfit in Colorado, “Clean Flicks” for editing films and then burning them back to DVD.

The censoring DVD player is an interesting and scary idea – and since it’s optional, then it only allows viewer’s to do what they’ve always done when watching films, skip the bits they find uncomforatble or inappropriate. In fact, I covered my eyes and stuck my fingers in my ears several times during Moulin Rouge, as it was so offensive.

The ClearPlay user-managed filter is a far better option than allowing regulators and broadcasters to censor films for viewers without consultation.

…though Channel 4’s “melon farmer” edit of Robocop should go down as a modern classic.


“Fun you – melonfarmer!”

Zoo Tech’s New Take on DVD Production

ZOOTech’s Stuart Green believes that there is a fundamental problem with the way that DVDs are produced at the moment, and that means that production companies and publishers are not realising the full potential of the medium. Stuart is Chief Technology Officer at ZOOTech, a UK company redefining the way that DVD titles are created.

Extras, bonus features, mini-games and disk navigation are being created using a methodology that has grown out of traditional VHS production – and it’s time to change.

“The industry works in a counter-intuitive way – it’s very inefficient because it’s grown out of the video industry,” Stuart told me, “Assets for each title are created first, and it’s very laborious and costly. Consequently, content can be unambitious. Video, graphics, icons are all designed and sourced and then the structure of the disk is created. With each menu option or choice in a quiz game, choices can grow exponentially – testing can take huge amounts of time for very simple items. So, for a simple image gallery each page, every path and option has to be tested. Every step could potentially have a mistake.”

Stuart argues that this is the wrong way round, and wants to turn the production process on its head.

He has a strong case, too. In traditional multimedia production, the application is flow charted, designed and built first, and then the assets are added.

Enter ZOOTech’s DVDExtra Studio, and application based on the DVDExtra methodology. DVDExtra studio allows DVD developers to produce features, extras and DVD games that are as accomplished as CD-ROM based multimedia applications – without producing a CD-ROM title.

A DVD-based multimedia application has many advantages over a CD-ROM – there’s no installer, it’s instant, it can be operated via a remote, and it gets into the living room far more easily.

Developers plan the disk in DVDExtra Studio, which then uses a new compilation technique, Predictive Preprocessing, to evaluate all combinations of button press and checks all paths for dead ends and validity – it then generates the required assets. Generating assets for a DVD can be a time consuming task, says Stuart: “In DVD production, all assets have to be on the disk, as the player can’t render graphics. Complex disks from big studios can require tens of thousands of elements. Even simple disks need hundreds.”

Indeed, DVDExtra Studio has been used on the new Who Wants to Be a Millionaire DVD game. Previously, other versions of the game had been available on PC and PlayStation formats. This new version captures the feel of the TV programme much more closely with DVD quality video of Chris Tarrant, rather than the disembodied voice of the previous version – or the polygon rendered version of the last PS2 game. The DVD version required ZOOTech’s program to generate and keep track of more than 200,000 graphics.

The application also helps with localisation: during production, as text for each title is read in from a database, a project can be given a new translated text file and buttons and other assets will be automatically translated into the new language, getting a DVD title into more markets, faster.

DVD Extra Studio is compatible with Macromedia Flash and Director, tools traditionally used in multimedia production, and can accept input from both applications.

ZOOTech claim their application reduces the risk and development time of complex DVD components, saving money and freeing creative staff to make more immersive products. It also takes the format in new directions.

There are many limitations in the platform and player-related quirks that cause problems when authoring a DVD – for example it is extremely difficult to layer graphics on top of moving video because of player architecture. Also, since DVD players have limited logic capability, many features that multimedia developers take for granted, such as saving state between sessions, are simply impossible. DVDExtra Studio contains tools and workarounds for common requirements and quirks.

Being able to produce disks easily, Stuart says “opens up new markets hitherto unavailable – other kinds of disks, such as marketing DVDs for mailshots, training disks and point of sale material. It’s an outstanding medium for promotions that were previously just done on the internet. Imagine getting a DVD from a car manufacturer, and being able to specify exactly the colour scheme and options for a car – and seeing that car in DVD quality video.”

So, what next for DVD production? ZOOTech are working with hardware manufacturers to help production houses test disks for potential problems: “We’re creating new test disks with more demanding functionality on them, and working with manufacturers to gather information on incompatibilities – this will help producers work around limitations and anticipate problems.”

See ZOOTech, and Stuart at NAB, 17th to April 22nd, Las Vegas.



Gateway’s Wireless, XP Media Centre-aware, DVD Player

Gateway have released an upgrade to their wireless DVD player – and it seems to be a world first. The ADC-320 Wireless Connected DVD Player will take a wide range of content from your PC and show it on your TV. Ideal for watching all those TV programs you recorded with the Windows Media Centre PVR.

The 802.11g enabled player will connect to a PC up to 300 feet away, and is compatible with Windows Media Centre as well as ordinary Windows boxes. Interestingly, multiple ADC-320s on the same wireless network can “listen in” on a media stream and display the same content in multiple locations – handy for events and large parties. Consequently, the DVD player incorporates security features to enable it to comply with secured networks, supporting WEP and WPA encryption.

The player also supports a large range of formats: MP3, MPEG1, 2 and 4, Windows Media , Microsoft PVR and AVI files.

This new hardware is essentially the previous ADC-220 with a firmware upgrade and a 802.11g card in the back – in fact, Gateway are already offering an upgrade path to the 320 through their website.

An ADC-320 will set you back US$199 (€166), and is available now.

More about the ADC-320