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Wednesday, January 15, 2003
Forum to select next-generation DVD codec by March


After much delay, the DVD Forum will select an advanced encoder/decoder for the HD-DVD format in the next few months, allowing development of next-generation DVD systems to move forward. The failure of the standards-setting body to se lect a codec for the HD-DVD format has stalled work at chip and systems vendors and delayed the arrival of next-generation DVD products.

While a parade of new DVD players, DVD/hard-drive combo units, DVD recorders and DVD camcorders graced the Consu mer Electronics Show last week, HD-DVD systems were notably absent.

Hisashi Yamada, chairman of the DVD Forum's Working Group-1 and chief fellow of technology for Toshiba Corp., told EE Times at CES that the DVD Forum will complete its codec s election process and publicly announce its decision in March. Forum representatives previously said they planned to complete their work by mid-2002.

The DVD Forum appears to be considering several codecs as candidates. These include H.264, the techni cal specification of which is scheduled to be frozen in March; MPEG-4 Advanced Simple Profile; MPEG-2 with a so-called "enhancement layer;" and Microsoft Corp.'s Windows Media 9. All the codecs have reportedly produced satisfactory high-definition quality pictures at the DVD Forum's technical working group, packing 9 Gbytes of high-definition content onto a two-layer DVD using a red laser, with encoding bit rates as low as 7 Mbits/second.

"All those advanced codecs have continuously made significant improvements over the last several months," Yamada said, without providing details. "We're reaching a point that it's almost impossible to pick one." But the DVD Forum will in fact select a codec this time around, Yamada promised.

Many in the chip i ndustry believe the DVD Forum will select H.264, which is currently being pursued by many consumer electronics companies. Microsoft's Windows Media 9 was also submitted to the DVD Forum and is said to have done well technically, but one source close to Mi crosoft, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said, "WM9 didn't stand a chance politically."

Intensely political

The DVD Forum's selection of a codec is complex and intensely political because many forum member companies hope to apply blue laser technology to next-generation DVD recorders/players. While some are developing red laser-based HD-DVD players, others are said to be promoting dual laser, red- and blue-based HD-DVD systems. Even those in the blue-laser camp are divided, with some pushing the Blu-Ray as a standard, while Toshiba, NEC and others are proposing another blue-laser system. Despite the possible confusion, DVD Forum members are believed to be in agreement on adopting a low-bit-rate codec for HD-DVD.

At CES las t week, Sony Corp.'s chief operating officer Kunitake Ando, a big supporter of Blu-Ray laser technology, said, "It makes sense to me to use an advanced compression algorithm" for next-generation red-laser-based HD-DVD players. "If you need a drastic chang e, Blu-Ray is still important, but we need to carefully assess the timing of the technology introduction."

Sony is scheduled to launch its first Blu-Ray products in Japan "shortly," Ando said. This product will not target the consumer DVD market, ho wever, but rather "business-to-business" HD applications, Ando said. Blu-Ray-based consumer products won't start appearing until early 2005, he predicted.

Meanwhile, Paul Liao, chief technology officer at Matsushita Electric Corp. of America (Secaucu s, N.J.), said his company is codec agnostic. "The ultimate decision has to come from Hollywood studios," he said. But he warned that red-laser-based HD-DVD could kill HD "if we are not careful." Some studios are said to be looking for a genuine film look for HD-DVD movies, but heavily compressed H.264 video could fail to capture the film "grain" essential to the look and feel of a movie, Liao said.

The consumer electronics industry could provide Blu-Ray-based HD-DVD products to a high-end niche mar ket without damaging the market for current-generation DVD players based on red laser technology, Liao said.


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