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 > >

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.

Interview: Paramount's CTO Alan Bell on getting more from HD discs

Interactivity means development time and development resources. Paramount's chief technology officer, Alan Bell, sat down with PC Advisor to answer a few questions.

Given the emphasis on interactivity during the panel discussion, we found some of his answers intriguing. This summer, both Pramount Pictures and DreamWorks Animation switched from supporting Blu-ray and HD DVD to backing HD DVD exclusively.

PCA: What can you tell us about the direction you see interactivity going in?

Bell: It acts as a safety valve - things that didn't get put into the local disc can be introduced by a connection, such as language tracks and filmographies, and so forth. You have an open-ended capability to enrich the content on the disc. And you can build communities. The whole notion of building a community around activities is where Web 2.0 is going.

Interactivity is an essential ingredient. With HD DVD, it's in place as a mandatory factor from the outset, so consumers will have it in their player without having to know to ask for it. And programmers can invest in developing content and ideas that rely on connectivity, having a clear idea of the publishing base.

PCA: Not having to ask for it brings up the point that people likely don't know what to ask for or anticipate asking for when it comes to player-based interactivity. Do you think it's too early for interactivity?

Bell: From a content-owners view, the way you program the interactivity is far more simplified if you have more consistency, more predictability, and better interoperability. It's the "keep it simple" principal.

We can deliver we want to deliver from the outset, with reliability and the results that we want. The technology being there from the outset is important from day one. It will take time for consumers to become educated on how to use features.

People should pay attention that one format - HD DVD - has this in place. The other format [Blu-ray] will undoubtedly get it right. But with HD DVD, those who bought early players don't have to be concerned about whether the future titles that may exploit more of the available features will work on those players. It's a better proposition for the consumers.

PCA: What percentage of the titles you'll be coming out with in the next six months will have connected interactivity on them?

Bell: We haven't made any predictions on interactivity. Transformers will have interactivity features. The bonus materials of DVD - you pretty much let it go, you lose contact with it. Did the consumer watch them or not watch them?

When you invest in the connectivity features, that means that after the title has been purchased by the consumer, there's another touchpoint [for the studio], where we connect back with the consumer.

That can be about promotional and marketing content, it can be a transactional relationship for selling products, or it can be about social networking.

PCA: You mention investment. All of this interactivity is going to cost money to sustain from a studio perspective - and raises the question of how long studios will maintain the communities. For example, you put a disc in your player that's four or five years old - will all of the vaunted connectivity extras and community still be available?

Bell: Life is going to get more complicated and costly, even as it brings these added opportunities for studios to bring their content out in different ways.

It will be common sense: A title issued X years ago where the interest has diminished - you'll move on to supporting more popular titles. You'll have to.