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Appeared on: Saturday, August 18, 2001
Interactive spec on tap for high-end DVD players

The DVD Forum is quietly working on an optional format for enhanced DVD-Video and DVD players that would deliver advanced interactivity for consumers while salvaging margins for OEMs hard hit by price wars.

"...The forum — comprising Hollywood studios, PC and consumer electronics manufacturers, software technology developers and chip vendors — is considering three software proposals that would expand the capabilities of high-end DVD systems. It expects to hammer out a standard by next summer, in time for OEMs to ship systems for the Christmas 2002 selling season.

"The ultimate goal of DVD-Interactive is to provide additional capability for users to do interactive operation with content on DVD disks or at Web sites on the Internet," said Hisashi Yamada, the DVD Forum's Working Group-1 chair. The forum also sees the spec helping content owners re-spin their DVD-Interactive content not only for PC DVD-ROMs but also for new network businesses, he added.

Several sources close to the DVD Forum told that the three technologies being investigated for the emerging interactive format include software from InterActual Inc. originally developed to provide ROM features and Web connectivity for DVD titles; MPEG-4; and Java- and HTML-based technologies promoted by Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. Matsushita confirmed that the company is taking part in the industry discussions at the forum. But Mitsunobu Furumoto, general manager of Matsushita's DVD business promotion department, declined to comment further.

InterActual has been working independently of the forum to bring its technology down to consumer DVD players, said Todd Collart, president and chief executive officer at the San Jose company, which has developed the de facto software standard for viewing Internet-connected DVD titles on a PC.

InterActual is working with unnamed consumer electronics OEMs to bring its software to market in time for Christmas 2002, said Collart, who also chairs the DVD Forum's Group 1-12. The ad hoc group was established last December to investigate advanced interactivity and Internet connectivity.

Basic software technology components used in InterActual's solution are HTML 3.2, JavaScript 1.1 and Macromedia's Flash 3.0. The major studios already use the InterActual APIs to write interactive content directly tied to DVD video playback.

In migrating the technology to the consumer DVD player, InterActual is adding TV-safe resolution and offering a DVD media services layer, about 20 kbytes in footprint, that sits between embedded browsers and a variety of DVD-player chip sets.

The hardware abstraction layer should eliminate the need for custom porting of InterActual software to every DVD chip set, said Collart. But because consumer DVD players use diverging operating systems, embedded browsers and chip sets, InterActual still needs to ensure that an embedded browser is ported to a real-time operating system supported by a DVD decoder chip set. In this way the browser can talk directly to the graphics chip in the DVD player.

InterActual's solution is "not about a so-called iDVD — a DVD player with a dial-up modem simply slapped on," said Greg Gewickey, a senior member of the technical staff. "Because iDVD is typically designed to let consumers browse Web pages that have nothing to do with DVD video, it will send an absolutely wrong message to consumers."

In contrast, InterActual adds Internet connectivity to the player in order to directly tie consumers' entertainment experience to DVD video content. The InterActual scheme allows content developers to embed interactive components right on a DVD disk as ROM data, or to make that ROM data available online.

Internet connectivity is handy, because once the interactive components are put up on the Web, they can be updated at any time. Further, integrating the ROM data into a DVD disk could present issues of disk access time, Gewickey explained. When a movie is recorded on a dual-layer DVD disk and ROM data is added at the tail end of the second layer, it would be difficult to access video and data simultaneously without chopping video, he said. But if interactive ROM data is on the Web, consumers can download that file into buffer memory inside a DVD player.

In contrast, MPEG-4's claim to fame is its object-based coding, allowing content owners to embed all the interactive components — dynamically linked to the video content — inside an MPEG stream. With MPEG-4, "There is no need to spend a long time in downloading the whole interactive code into your DVD player," said Ganesh Rajan, director of advanced technology at iVast Inc., a Santa Clara, Calif., company that has developed an MPEG-4-based streaming-media delivery platform.

MPEG-4 has other attributes — not the least of which is its status as an industry standard — that make it an intriguing candidate. "Because MPEG-4 is an object-based coding format, it would enhance many of the interactive features that you find in DVDs today," said Elliot Broadwin, iVast's chief executive officer. These include "navigating among movie segments and accessing ancillary information, such as the director's commentary, that bring added value to movies and other material released on DVD." Broadwin, however, declined to discuss matters tied to the DVD Forum's debate.

Some studios are also keen on MPEG-4. An engineering executive at a major film studio, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, called MPEG-4 "a future for DVD menus and interactivity," and for interactive TV broadcasting. The studio finds MPEG-4 attractive because "as a content provider, the endless re-working of content for different middleware and presentation engines is prohibitive," he said.

Depending on the selected technology, the new DVD-Interactive format could have far-reaching implications for everyone involved in the DVD food chain. DVD-player manufacturers must determine a new system architecture for the advanced DVD player, while chip companies will have to make sure their next-generation silicon meets the DVD-Interactive spec. Hollywood studios, meanwhile, must figure out an effective way to author and encode DVD interactive content.

Compared with PCs, most DVD players have very constrained system resources. If the DVD Forum picks the InterActual technology, for example, an enhanced player will need to support file systems, a beefier processor, a larger buffer memory or hard-disk drive to cache and read ahead ROM data, and a real-time kernel to support smooth operation between DVD playback and Web connectivity, according to chief executive Collart. The enhanced player will also need modem functions. Defining a spec that meets the requirements of both studios and hardware vendors "is a tough balancing act," he said.

If MPEG-4 is adopted, the timely availability of silicon could be an issue. Only a handful of chip vendors have media processors or codecs capable of decoding MPEG-4. Some industry players also point to a lack of tools for building MPEG-4 content as a stumbling block.

Still, chip and system vendors may welcome the new format as a route toward renewed profitability. Chinese OEMs have been churning out mainstream DVD players at low cost, and the price war has been brutal on Japanese OEMs in particular.

Michelle Abraham, senior analyst at Cahners' In-Stat, said a new interactive format "could give DVD-player manufacturers much-needed differentiation and profitability." She added, "This could help keep their hardware float above $150."

Some in the industry speculated that the DVD Forum may end up specifying the InterActual or Matsushita proposal as an interim step to enhance the current line of DVD players, while keeping MPEG-4 as a long-term goal. Work on the interactive format inevitably involves the DVD Forum in specifying an advanced player. That's a dicey issue, since the forum's charter involves the disk format alone; hardware is left to the OEM developers.

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