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Blu-ray and HD DVD: should you care?

After a lengthy and painful birth, Blu-ray and HD DVD discs are well-and-truly here. But we can't help but feel a little underwhelmed with the impact HD movies have had on our lives. Interactivity was supposed to allow new possibilities between your TV and high-def movies, but are those features ready for prime time? We take a look, and for a second opinion, asked the head of Paramount Studios.

Two levels of interactivity were discussed recently at the DisplaySearch HDTV Conference 2007. The first level, on-disc interactivity, refers to games and pop-up information intended to supplement the movie being played.

The second level is internet-connected interactivity such as social networking and sharing, shopping and downloading extra content. Extra content might be trailers, new features, audio tracks and subtitle tracks.

What players can do now

Today's Blu-ray players can handle on-disc interactivity (as in the case of the Liar's Dice game on Disney's 'Pirates of the Caribbean Dead Man's Chest'). But of all existing devices that handle Blu-ray, only the PlayStation 3 (review here) currently can be upgraded to handle internet-connected interactivity.

By contrast, all HD DVD players have an ethernet port and support internet connectivity. Titles such as Universal's 'Heroes' and 'Evan Almighty' permit you to do things like download content and shop.

Universal has said that 40 percent of consumers who bought the 'Heroes' HD-DVD disc signed up for an online account. Given the geek appeal of this NBC series, we're not astonished that this happened. But somehow we doubt that a comedy such as'Evan Almighty' will garner anywhere near that level of support.

The HD DVD camp is heavily promoting the fact that its network-connected interactivity is available today - and certainly Blu-ray has to play catch up on that front. Although Blu-ray is capable of providing similar features, development of the hardware and software needed to actually do so is lagging behind HD DVD's progress.

On the other hand, we question whether interactivity is truly meaningful at this point anyway. For instance, Andy Parsons, of the Blu-ray Disc Association, says, "Picture and sound are what motivates people to check out [high-definition movies]. Interactivity is difficult to explain to people; that's not what someone is going to the store to check out."

(Alan Bell, CTO of Paramount, discusses interactivity with PCA later in this story.)

Interactivity's benefits: what they?

Interactivity is difficult to sell to people. The community aspects of sharing bookmarks and rating collections - the selling points that the HD DVD camp is talking up - will gain steam only when the technology attracts a critical mass of users who use the content and the ancillary social-networking conceived around that content.

The same issue haunts the social-networking components of Joost.com (review here), the web TV streaming site. Neither HD DVD nor Blu-ray is anywhere close to achieving the necessary critical mass.

For that matter, movie studios aren't fully primed to offer such connected, interactive features on a large scale either. So far, Universal is leading the pack. It introduced its U-Shop component tied to the release of 'Evan Almighty' this week. So the ability to shop for 'Evan Almighty' tie-ins will set off a stampede of consumers just dying to buy into a high-def format? It doesn't seem altogether likely.

Now, let's face it: 'Star Trek' fans with money to burn who want to shop for memorabilia while watching the HD DVD release of the original series may see the U-Shop component being a fun and welcome novelty. For the first 10 minutes, anyway. But does the appeal of shopping via disc have staying power? The answer is not particularly clear to us at this point...

NEXT PAGE: we speak to Paramount Movies' CTO > >


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