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November - 2002 - issue > Cover Feature
Destination DVD?
Rahul Chandran & Venkat Ramana
Sunday, October 27, 2002
TRADITIONALLY, GOING TO THE MOVIES MEANS munching on popcorn and whispering messages in the dark. But if major studios like Disney, Warner Brothers, and Sony Pictures have their way, the whole movie entertainment scenario could soon change.

People will now be able to see near-perfect images, coming as close to human eyesight in resolution as possible, but with the added advantage of high-quality sound, while sitting in their own living rooms.

And how is that possible, you might ask? At the Sony Pictures facility in Los Angeles, Sumit Malik, Techology Director, Digital Authoring Center, leads a bunch of audio, video, and software engineers at work. The engineers are working to bring to market the next generation packaged media that can achieve film-like resolution on the TV screen, the holy grail of the video entertainment industry.

Far from being esoteric, technologies that are far better than even Hi-Definition DVDs are simply the next step in what could be, for consumers, "a whole new world of digital entertainment."

From The Ground Up

For Sumit Malik, it all started casually enough. An engineering student in Delhi College of Engineering, Malik decided to immigrate to the U.S. because the course taught in Delhi was straitjacketed. After finishing a degree in Mechanical Engineering from Stevens Institute of Technology, Malik arrived in Los Angeles to study animation. At around that time, he began to get offers from various companies for jobs in the animation industry. One of those offers was from Sony; he gladly accepted.

"When I came on board as the first employee for Sony's DVD center, it was still in its infancy. So I had the opportunity to be part of something from the ground up. Besides, Sony was the sort of company that would pull out all the stops if it believed in a concept," says Malik.

That was in 1996. What started out as a fledgling technology center with about eight or nine engineers eventually turned into a $14 million facility for DVD-authoring with more than 60 people. The center has created DVDs for major motion pictures such as Spider-man, Men In Black and Final Fantasy.

The center, when it was launched, was focused on DVD-authoring for the studio, and that remained their primary focus for almost five years. However, by 2001, the DVD field changed drastically and equations were frequently changing, so there was a gradual change in the way the center did business. "We went from being a mere DVD authoring center to a Knowledge and Technology center. And we branched out into other fields like broadband, video-on-demand, software engineering and copy protection." Six years, 5,000 DVD versions, and 1,000 titles later, the DVD center has become a place where cutting-edge technology goes into developing the perfect viewing experience.

Over the past five to six years, the Sony DVD center has developed a reputation for its expertise in compression. "Our people here are some of the best in the business. So, slowly but steadily as more people came to know about out abilities and capabilities they gave us chances to provide them with quality compression and related services."

"And so, as part of this broader strategy earlier this year, we changed our name from DVD center to Digital Authoring Center and took on a new direction."

Nowhere To Go

The early days of the DVD industry much resembled the early war between the VCR formats: VHS and Beta tapes. Some companies like Sony's Columbia Tristar, had already plunged into DVD technologies. Disney, among the most venerable of studios, stayed on the fence. Eventually, however, even Disney could not overlook the huge home DVD market being tapped by the likes of Sony and Warner.

The movie industry breathed a collective sigh of relief when in September of 1997, Disney announced its entry into the DVD Video market by Christmas of that year. The DVD Video format's success seemed assured.

But a look at the DVD market today would show that their fears were unfounded. "There are DVD players available for as little as $60. It's quite amazing that they can pack that much technology into $60 worth of hardware. And it's a clear indication that the technology has matured," says Malik.

Five years after Disney's momentous announcement, centers like Malik's have finally run into a roadblock, in terms of technology development. There is nowhere to go. DVD Technology has matured to such an extent that there isn't too much more to do in terms of better content delivery. The market is looking to new technologies to provide higher quality entertainment.

The Blu-Ray founders, a group of nine consumer electronics companies, are working on defining the next generation blue laser based high-definition DVD.

The DVD forum, comprised of a group of manufacturers like Sony, is working to enhance the format into something called enhanced DVD: ENAV (extended navigation), which brings more interactivity into the DVD, above and beyond the standards that are in use today.

"It is going to be a very big challenge…for our studios to get HD- DVD out there in the market and succeed because people are very satisfied with the standard DVD which is currently available. To provide the kind of interactivity that might interest people, we can't just use MPEG 2 video streams.. We have make it more interesting than the limited interactivity of DVD. We have to provide a new type entertainment that is really exciting and makes the consumer go out and get the content and the player," feels Malik. For Malik, then, the challenge is in making the enhanced versions, like Hi-Definition DVD, have features more compelling than merely better picture quality. And that explains their foray into Internet related technologies and other interactive mediums such as video-on-demand.

Even in terms of video quality alone, companies have come close to the practical limit of video resolution. "Because of the extremely high quality we are dealing with, we have to investigate what the human eye is capable of seeing. We are reaching a point where the technology is approaching the resolution of the human eye. For a high-resolution display in an average-sized living room, even high-definition TVs of about 36 inches, if you're sitting a more than a meter and a half away, you won't be able to see all the pixels that are being displayed. To appreciate higher resolutions we need to sit closer to the TV or have much bigger TVs and move to projection systems. We know the first is not practical so we have reached a human limit for resolution there," says Malik.

Surround and Conquer

Sony's strategy is simple. The company has its fingers in every pie, including its own company-specific technology initiatives. Since they own Columbia Pictures as well, Sony Corporation seems to be pursuing a surround-and-conquer strategy. They want to provide content as well as media at every level of the video and PC business—a kind of digital convergence strategy.

One of Sony's most exciting projects involves the popular hit daytime soap operas Days of our Lives and The Young and the Restless.

"Sony is working on system where these soap operas will be available on the Internet within hours after they air on television, so if you have missed an episode, you would be able to get it on our website and view the soap opera from the company."

It is interesting work developing the workflow for this project, something we call a digital production pipeline, an end-to-end system where we get the tape, encode it, encrypt it, and send it out to the website to download in four hours. It's a tight production timeline and it's a challenge to do something like that, but it's one of our more interesting projects at this time."

In the final analysis, it all boils down to how much more value Sony and other players can deliver to make the technology irresistible to consumers.

It all depends on the company's ability to digitize content creation, which has so far remained mired in the realm of the conventional.

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