When the DVD Forum met in Seattle recently, high on the discussion list was approval of the first commercial version of the HD-DVD blue-laser based disc format aimed at high-definition television and movies.
Approval for the HD-DVD-ROM format, whenever it comes, will make official what has been looking increasingly likely for the past year: a battle between two formats and their supporting companies to become the de facto replacement for today’s DVD.
Both of the new formats, HD-DVD and Blu-ray, are based on blue lasers. Blue light has a shorter wavelength than the red light used in CD and DVD systems, allowing the laser beam to make a smaller spot on the disc surface.
With each bit of data taking up less space on the disc, more data can be stored on a 12cm disc.
As a result, discs can hold between 15GB and 30GB of data, depending on the variant of the format used, compared to current DVDs that can hold between 4.7GB and 9.4GB of data.
That extra space is important if discs of the same size as DVDs are to be used to distribute movies and other content in quality comparable to high-definition television (HDTV).
The main backers of the HD-DVD format are NEC and Toshiba.
Approval of version 1.0 of the read-only variant of the High-definition/high density DVD (HD-DVD) format was discussed by the DVD Forum steering committee, chief research manager of NEC’s media and information research laboratories, Hiroshi Inada, said. The outcome of those discussions should be known soon.
A preliminary version of the HD-DVD-ROM format, version 0.9, was approved in November last year. It specifies a storage capacity of 15GB on a single-layer disc. A dual-layer read-only disc will hold 30GB.
Three video codecs are expected to be mandatory: MPEG2 for legacy support of DVDs, MPEG4 AVC (H.264) and Microsoft’s Windows Media 9 (VC-9).
The format was expected to be approved very soon, said Inada after unveiling NEC’s latest work towards commercial HD-DVD drives.
In the seven months since NEC first showed a prototype HD-DVD drive, engineers at the company have succeeded in reducing the size to a conventional half-height form-factor.
The company claims one of its biggest advances to date has been development of a pickup head that is compatible with both the new high-definition format and existing DVDs and CDs. The head is in the new drive.
If the format is approved soon, the first commercial drives from NEC should be available in about a year, according to Inada.
The company planned to sell the drives to manufacturers of personal computers and also to consumer electronics companies for use in digital video players and recorders, he said.
The competing format, Blu-ray, comes from a group of companies led by Sony and including Dell, HP, Hitachi, LG, Matsushita Electric Industrial (Panasonic), Mitsubishi, Philips, Pioneer, Samsung, Sharp, TDK and Thomson Multimedia.
Sony stole a lead on the competition when it launched the first commercial Blu-ray recorder last year. However, with a price tag of about $US2715, the device is still far from becoming a mass-market product. With several other companies planning to launch commercial Blu-ray products this year, prices are likely to fall.
NEC’s Inada, however, isn’t worried about Blu-ray’s apparent early advantage in the market place.
Hollywood movie studios rather than consumers would likely decide the fate of the two formats, he said.
The HD-DVD format could have the edge with the studios, he said.
The reason: HD-DVD discs are similar to current DVDs in that the recording layer is sandwiched between two 0.6mm layers of plastic in the middle of the disc.
This means existing production lines can be easily converted to manufacture HD-DVD discs — a possibility that was confirmed in conversations with Taiwanese disc makers at the recent Computex trade show in Taipei.
Because the recording layer in a Blu-ray disc is 0.1mm below the surface on the top of a 1.1mm substrate, this disc will require a new production line.
Hollywood studios, which produce billions of DVD discs a year, were very sensitive to even a slight rise in the price of production, Inada said.
Desperately seeking Simon
Siemens researchers have developed a handheld computer (above) that acts as a virtual shopping assistant.
The project achieved a technological breakthrough by enabling natural spoken dialogue to be used with such tiny terminals.
The prototype, which is named Simon, shows users how to get to the stores they’re looking for in a shopping mall.
Simon can also help them search for specific products.
It is a user-friendly application of the location-dependent services that in the future will become standard for cell phones or handheld computers.
The researchers are also working on a system that would allow visitors to the home to announce their arrival not only by ringing the doorbell but also by making your telephone ring (below).
Cordless phones are becoming monitoring and communication devices for the home.
They act as input and output devices for this purpose.
When a visitor presses the doorbell, not only the bell but also all of the cordless phones ring simultaneously and a text message such as “Front Door” appears on the display.