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A format war has been averted, so can we look forward to a new age of digital video, or this another cunning plan to make us buy more electronic gadgets we didn’t know we needed?



The story so far. Since the compact disc first appeared in the early 1980’s ways have been sought to use it to carry video, as well as high-quality digital audio. It makes a lot of sense, one format, one disc, one player. Unfortunately the technology has taken longer to develop than expected and to make matters worse engineers -- doubtless prompted by over-zealous marketing people -- blundered up several blind alleys, leaving behind them utter confusion, and a lot of very irritated consumers.


Then, in 1992 it looked as though the matter had finally been settled with the announcement of a world-standard, called Video CD. This allowed up to 65 minutes of digitally compressed video and high-quality audio to be squeezed on to a standard 12cm disc. Okay, so 65 minutes isn’t enough for a feature film -- you need two or more discs -- the quality can be a bit iffy, but what the heck, it’s digital, it moves and it’s in colour. What’s more, discs can be played on CD-i consoles and personal computers, but only if they’ve been fitted with an expensive full-motion video cartridge or adaptor.


Unfortunately as we now know CD-i and Video CD hasn’t been a great success. Not everyone wanted to rush out and buy a video games machine, to watch a handful of films on disc, that had to be changed halfway through. In the early days picture quality was dreadful, and in the mind of many consumers, a poor alternative to VHS VCRs, which have a vast software base, and can record TV programmes.


It all went quiet again, until the middle of last year when the first reports of two new digital video disc (DVD) systems began to seep out. The first one to make the headlines was the result of a joint venture between Philips and Sony, who went public on the 16th of December. Their system, originally called HDCD (high density CD) was subsequently renamed MMCD (multi-media CD) to emphasise its potential as a multi-format entertainment platform. Six weeks later, on January 24th this year, SDCD (super density CD) was unveiled amidst considerable media hype. This was being developed by a group of consumer electronics and movie industry companies, known as the SD Alliance, led by Toshiba and Time-Warner.


It was clear from the outset that both systems would have enough capacity for a full-length feature film, and multiple digital audio channels. In fact the general specifications of the two formats were remarkably similar, and they shared a good deal of common technology, but the two groups remained implacably opposed to one another and appeared determined to go ahead and develop incompatible players and discs, that would reach the marketplace by the middle of 1996. The scene was set for an expensive and highly damaging format war, reviving memories of the bloody VHS Vs Beta and laserdisc battles of the 1980s.


Demonstrations of prototypes of both systems over the past six months showed picture and sound quality to be excellent, far better than VHS and as good as, if not better than Laservision. AV performance was not, and has never been an issue. The Philips-Sony camp pointed to the fact that their system had more robust data processing, the single-sided discs would be cheaper to produce, and the development of coding systems and microchips was at an advanced stage. The SD Alliance’s trump cards were higher capacities, using bonded double-sided and later multi-layer recording systems, plus they had the all-important backing of the movie industry; neither side appeared willing to back-down.


The crunch finally came on August 14th, following the publication of a press release issued by the influential Computer Industry Technical Working Group. It expressed concern over the effects of a format war and urged both sides to work together, to develop a single format. After that things happened very quickly. A week later a Philips spokesperson admitted that the two groups were in discussion and on September 15th both sides issued statements, confirming that they had reached an outline agreement, to develop a single DVD format, based on key technologies from both systems.


So how will it all work? The discs will use a 0.6mm substrate and based on Toshiba’s bonded multi-layer design, giving a capacity of 4.7 gigabytes. That’s enough for up to 133 minutes of recording timer per layer. Philips and Sony’s contribution will be the digital processing, modulation and error correction systems. The specification allows for a variety of audio configurations, it appears highly likely that NTSC discs mastered for US markets will use the six-channel Dolby AC-3 system. It’s less certain what the rest of the world will get, but here in Europe the Musciam system is a front-runner for PAL discs. This incompatibility is quite deliberate and intended to safeguard Hollywood’s copyright protection zones and phased movie release schedules.


That brings us more or less up to date, there’s still a few technical loose ends to sort out, and doubtless quite a bit of political wrangling still to come, including the name of the new format. Spokespersons for Philips and Sony have told us that no decisions have been made, Toshiba’s statement makes it clear that they intend to keep the ‘SD’ label. Nevertheless all things being equal, with the wind in the right direction the first players and discs could reach the shops next September. Players will be backwards compatible, able to handle audio-only CDs, and possibly a few other members of the CD family as well.


But will it fly?  The crystal ball is still a bit hazy but one thing is for certain, we’ve been here before, and no-one will buy a DVD player unless and until there is a good selection of software at sensible prices. They’re off and running, stand by your wallets!





DVD is more than just a playback medium, the technology exists for recordable discs as well, though the software industry is deeply concerned about the potential for piracy. Electronic copy protection systems will have to be in place before domestic DVD recorders appear in the shops. The same problem is holding back the new high-performance digital video cassette (DVC) format, originally planned as a successor to VHS. The first DVC camcorders have recently gone on sale in Japan but homedeck VCRs have been put on hold. An then there’s digital memory cards or ‘Flash Rams’. Solid-state memory modules could leapfrog both tape and disc, if the price is right, but don’t junk that VCR just yet...




TV is going digital as well. Digital TV broadcasting (DVB) from satellites has already begun and plans for a terrestrial digital TV service in the UK in 1997, were outlined by the Department of Heritage in August, but what does it all mean? The plus points for digital TV are that it makes more economical use of the airwaves, so you can cram in more channels. It’s also a big step towards widescreen and high-definition TV. The downside? Well, more doesn’t necessarily mean better and to receive all these wonderful new channels you’ll need a new TV and/or a set-top converter box, more than one if they don’t agree a common standard. Digital TV also means pay TV, someone’s going to have to pay for it, guess who?



Ó R.Maybury 1995 0510




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