Archive for May, 2006

High-def optical discs: What you need to know now (2 of 3)

Tuesday, May 16th, 2006

The second in a three-part post which will also be a Perspective in the next C&I, possibly modified.

A High-Def FAQ

For those who want more information or are considering early adoption at home, these notes may be useful. I’ve been tracking HD DVD and Blu-ray since they were first mentioned, but background for these questions and answers comes from four primary sources: James K. Willcox’ “The format war goes nuclear” in the April 2006 Sound & Vision, Gary Merson’s “HD DVD versus Blu-ray” in the May 2006 Home Theater, a multiauthor special section on HD DVD & Blu-ray in the May 2006 Sound & Vision, and David Pogue’s overly-cynical “Why the world doesn’t need hi-def DVD’s” in the May 11, 2006 New York Times.

What do both formats have in common?

  • Both HD DVD and Blu-ray use blue-violet lasers (405 nanometer wavelength) to read 12cm (or 120mm) discs that are 1.2mm thick. Those physical dimensions are identical to DVDs and CDs (DualDiscs, which are CDs on one side and DVDs on the other, are slightly more than 1.2mm thick).
  • Both are designed for high-definition video, with up to six times the resolution of standard DVDs.
  • Both use heavier-duty DRM than DVDs: Advanced Access Content System in addition to other protections—but, unlike DVDs, both formats are supposed to provide a way to copy a movie to a hard disc or a portable player (“Mandatory Managed Copy”) while preventing further distribution. AACS can (but need not) include an “Image Constraint Token” that lowers component video output resolution to a maximum of 960×540, one-fourth the possible maximum resolution; that might partially cripple such discs for early adopters of HDTV (those whose sets don’t have HDMI or DVI/HDCP inputs). Fox, Paramount, Disney, and Sony/Columbia/MGM have all said they won’t use the token on initial releases.
  • Both will offer more advanced surround-sound options than DVDs, with higher quality, more channels, and potentially many more alternate sound channels (for languages, commentary, etc.).
  • Discs for both should cost a few dollars more than new-release DVDs: Current projections are $35 to 40 suggested retail for new releases, $25 to $30 for older items. (Amazon already lists some discs in both formats, suggesting that typical discount prices will be $20 to $25 in most cases.)
  • HD DVD and Blu-ray players will also play DVDs and CDs. As with DVD players, there’s less assurance that any given player will handle all of the recordable variants.
  • Warner Brothers, Paramount, New Line, and HBO plan to release discs in both formats. Netflix plans to rent discs in both formats. HP, LG, and Samsung are backing both formats on the hardware side—and Samsung and LG plan to develop players that can handle both formats.
  • Discs that began as movies should be mastered as “1080p/24”—that is, 1920×1080 resolution, with a full frame at that resolution generated 24 times a second. (24 frames per second is the standard rate for movies, as opposed to 30 or 60 fps for video.)
  • Players for both formats will allow you to make menu selections while the picture is playing (or while pausing the selection). In practice, some DVD players have allowed you to change options while a picture is playing for a long time, but you have to make the changes using the player’s menu system rather than the disc’s menu system.
  • Recorders and burners (that is, recording drives for PCs) will be available for both formats, probably within a year.

What’s different about HD DVD?

HD DVD was primarily developed by Toshiba, and its biggest strength is that it’s very similar to DVD—similar enough that the same production lines should be able to handle HD DVD with little adjustment. That should mean lower production costs for discs, at least initially. (Specifically, the lowest information layer is 0.6mm from the surface, just as in DVDs. The laser spot size is 0.62 micrometers, as compared to 1.1 micrometers for DVD.)

Single-layer HD DVDs store 15GB of data, just over three times as much as single-layer DVDs. Dual-layer HD DVDs will store 30GB, just over three times as much as dual-layer DVDs. HD DVD can transfer data at up to 36.55 mbps, as compared to 19.39 mbps for broadcast HDTV and 10 mbps for DVD. Note that these are all maxima—in the real world, most DVDs have much lower average data transfer rates, and the same will be true for high-def discs.

Most HD DVDs will use MPEG-4 or VC-1 (otherwise known as Windows Media 9) data compression, more aggressive compression schemes than the MPEG-2 used for DVDs. At least one Microsoft honcho claims that MPEG-2 “will not look as good” as VC-1 at the highest possible resolution (1920×1080 progressive). Notably, although HD DVD discs will supposedly be mastered at 1080p, the first generation of HD DVD players won’t go above 1080i (essentially half the resolution).

The royalty package for HD DVD players supposedly totals around $12 per player.

The first HD DVD players, from Toshiba, sell for $500 and $800 and are already on the market. (An RCA model that may already be on the market is a Toshiba player with an RCA faceplate.) More will follow from other makers. Microsoft plans to offer an HD DVD drive for the Xbox 360 some time in 2006.

Interactivity on HD DVDs will be based on Microsoft’s iHD software, in turn based on XML.

Some studios will release dual discs, with a DVD on one side and an HD DVD on the other. In the future, three-layer HD DVDs might yield 45GB capacity.
Backers of HD DVD include Toshiba, Sanyo, Microsoft, NEC, and Universal.

What’s different about Blu-ray?

Sony is the primer mover behind Blu-ray—but it’s made every effort to build a strong coalition. The Blu-ray Disc Association includes more than 170 companies, including most of the consumer electronics companies that were on the “VHS side” in the first recorded video format war. While Blu-ray discs are the same size and thickness as DVDs, the primary information layer is a mere 0.1mm from the surface—and those discs have a new “scratchproof” coating to make such fine tolerances workable. The laser spot size is 0.48 micrometers.

Single-layer Blu-ray discs store 25GB of data, just over five times as much as single-layer DVDs. Dual-layer Blu-ray discs store 50GB of data. Blu-ray can transfer data at up to 48 mbps.

While Blu-ray discs could use MPEG-2, MPEG-4, or VC-1, most initial releases from core Blu-ray backers should use MPEG-2, including all of those from Sony-owned studios, which will aim for an 18mbps data rate. (Warner will use VC-1 for both Blu-ray and HD DVD discs.) As you’d expect, Sony claims that MPEG-2 at the high data rates that Blu-ray’s capacity makes feasible will yield the best possible pictures. All Blu-ray players will support 1080p output.

The royalty package for Blu-ray supposedly totals around $30 per player.

The first Blu-ray players will list for $1,000 and $1,800. Samsung should have players out at the end of this month or early June with Pioneer and Sony close behind. Sony’s PlayStation 3 includes a Blu-ray drive.

Interactivity on Blu-ray discs will be based on Blu-ray Disc Java (BD-J), itself based on Java.

While dual discs have been demonstrated using Blu-ray on one side, no studio has said it would release such discs. Multilayer Blu-ray discs holding 100GB have already been demonstrated.

Backers of Blu-ray include most PC and consumer electronics firms (Apple, Dell, Hitachi, Mitsubishi, Panasonic, Philips, Pioneer, Sharp, TDK) and studios (Sony/Columbia/MGM, Fox, Disney/Miramax/etc.—the Buena Vista family, Lions Gate). Note that almost every Hollywood studio belongs to the Blu-Ray Disc Association.

Why are there two formats?

Money, technology and ego. The primary developers on both sides covet the patent royalties. Sony and Blu-ray friends argue that the higher-capacity disc will be needed; Toshiba and HD DVD friends claim that HD DVD’s similarity to DVD will make the “transition” faster and easier.

Discussions toward a compromise took place over several months. Similar discussions (and a healthy shove from studios and computer makers) finally resulted in a single DVD format (two competing formats had been developed, but only one made it to market)—but this time, talks fell apart.

Who benefits from high-def discs?

The cynical answer is “studios and consumer entertainment companies”—but that’s only true if people decide that high-def discs and players are worth buying.

So the real answer is another question: When do high-def discs make a difference?

There’s a primary answer and a secondary answer. The secondary answer is so arcane at this point that it’s probably not worth worrying about.

Primarily, high-def discs matter if:

  • You have an HDTV with a large enough screen for the difference to be visible (I’d say at least 40″ diagonal, although I’ve seen suggestions that 35″ might be large enough). If you’re watching very close up, as you might (for example) on the forthcoming Toshiba Qosmio supernotebook with its 17″ high-def screen and HD DVD player, you could also find the difference worthwhile.
  • You can see the difference between true high-definition TV (at least 720p) and regular DVDs (480i)/standard TV. Apparently, millions of people who own HDTVs don’t watch HDTV (either they have an HDTV monitor and haven’t acquired an appropriate tuner or set-top box, or they have an HDTV but don’t know how to find the HDTV stations) and aren’t aware that they’re missing anything.
  • You care about the difference. Nobody really knows how many people will find high-quality DVD, upscaled to HDTV resolution (although “upscaling” doesn’t add new picture information), “good enough” when compared to high-def discs.

Secondarily, the extra storage on high-def discs could matter in several special situations, although I’d guess none of them are relevant at the moment:

  • You don’t care much about the extra visual quality, but your golden ears are offended by the shortcomings in current DVD surround sound. High-def discs should have higher-quality sound and more channels.
  • You’re looking for language tracks that aren’t on current DVDs; with up to 32 channels, high-def discs could include a wide choice of dubbed or subtitled choices—although that requires that studios go to the expense of providing such choices.
  • You’re hot for interactivity. Increased data rates, more data space, and internet connectivity (which will be present in most players) could yield much more interesting interactions—but how many of you think much about DVD interactivity?

What happened in similar format wars?

Similarity can be hard to define, but here’s a quick take on several dual-format situations, offered chronologically:

  • Videocassettes: Betamax was first and better, but VHS had a longer recording time and more big companies behind it. Outcome: It took more than a decade for complete victory (actually 13 years, the period from Betamax’ introduction until Sony introduced a VHS recorder), but VHS won. (Note: Betamax really wasn’t “first”—it was maybe fifth or sixth or tenth, but it was the first videocassette format to have any significant success in the home.)
  • High-definition audio: DVD-Audio and Super Audio CD (SACD) came out at roughly the same time, both using DVD capacity to store higher-resolution sound and surround sound. Outcome: In this case, nobody won: While DVD-A and SACD still exist, neither could be considered a success. Most SACDs were probably sold because they were compatible hybrids (dual-layer discs with one layer playing as a CD, the other as an SACD, e.g., some Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan releases), and it’s notable that Sony—originator of SACD—releases a few DVD-As and has basically scrapped SACD. A few high-end classical labels still release SACD. “DualDiscs” keep DVD-A in the market, but barely, particularly because some players can’t handle the slightly-out-of-spec CD side. The question that really can’t be answered is whether the dual failure is because there was a competition or because most listeners don’t care about surround sound and couldn’t hear the difference between CD and high-res audio. My guess is the latter. I would note that “universal players” became available within a year of the formats’ release, and eventually became affordable—but nobody much cared.
  • Recordable DVD: DVD-R/RW and DVD+R/RW emerged at roughly the same time (as did another format, DVD-RAM, which is primarily limited to specialized uses). Each format had certain advantages and a range of supporters. The advantages were subtle enough to be mysterious to most of us. Outcome: For most computer users, a draw: Virtually all modern DVD burners will handle all recordable and rewritable DVD formats except DVD-RAM.

Updated 5/19 (thanks, Ruth): WordPress now tries to retain Word formatting on a cut-and-paste, and this time that resulted in a fair amount of gibberish, at least on some browsers. I’ve eliminated all of the Word formatting, I think, possibly damaging intended formats along the way.

And I’ve been reminded of why I write directly in WP…

High-def optical discs: What you need to know now (1 of 3)

Monday, May 15th, 2006

HD DVD. Blu-ray. They’re both 12cm. discs, the same size and thickness as CDs and DVDs. They’re both primarily designed for high-definition movies and other video, with three to five times the storage capacity and playback data rate of DVDs. They’re both either just on the U.S. market or just about to reach the U.S. market, after typical delays. Here’s what I believe you need to know now—as people and as librarians.

The Short Version

Unless your academic library supports a film studies department or your public library is extremely well funded and supports a high-income population of early adopters, you can and should ignore both high-def disc formats for at least a year and probably two years or more.

If your library started acquiring DVDs in the first half of 1997, you might be one of the rare exceptions. If you didn’t start until 2000 or later, and that served your patrons well, then you need read no more: If you ever need high-def discs, it won’t be for at least a couple of years.

Film studies? You probably had a collection of 12″ LaserDiscs until recently, and maybe you still have some. If you already have HDTVs available, you’ll probably be acquiring both high-def discs fairly soon. The bad news is that there are two incompatible (for now) formats, and the early players are pricey. The good news is that the discs are priced closer to DVDs than to the old first-release videocassettes—and there won’t be enough of them this year to burden your budget heavily.

Note: This is Part 1 of a three-part post. Part 2 (the longest part, a high-def disc FAQ) will appear tomorrow. Part 3 (my own conclusions) will appear Wednesday.

This series of posts will also be a Perspective in the June Cites & Insights, if all goes as planned. That Perspective may be slightly different than the posts.

If anyone who reads this works at (or knows someone who works at) USC, or Beverly Hills Public Library, or another library that my fit into my “exception” categories (USC: Film school; BHPL: Well-funded library with strong service and at least partly high-income/high-tech population), I’d love to hear from them as to what their plans are, or whether they have any. Such responses would make the difference in the C&Iarticle.

Big Man on Mulberry Street

Thursday, May 11th, 2006

Night before last, we moved forward one more week in our viewing of Moonlighting, season 3 (we never watch more than one episode of any show on DVD in any one week…).

The episode was one of the truly remarkable ones that help explain why the show always had trouble staying on schedule. You see the title above. It features a lengthy modern dance sequence set to “Big Man on Mulberry Street,” written and performed by Billy Joel. It’s a great sequence–and a great episode.

In some ways, it harks back to perhaps the most remarkable episode of Season 2, “The Dream Sequence Always Rings Twice,” which–among other things–was broadcast in black & white, over the objections of the network.

In any case, the episode is another highlight of one of the truly great series.

Aficionados will know that we’re in for a truly special treat next week: The only episode that we happened to tape at the time, on an expensive S-VHS cassette, which we’ve kept intact ever since and watched several times.

RLG: A staff appreciation

Wednesday, May 10th, 2006

Time for a coffee-break post–not one giving more details about the planned merger (because I still don’t know much of anything), or about how a “merger” of 1100 people and 70+ people works in practice, or about the comparative roles of OCLC and RLG.

Instead, a brief, informal comment about one major reason (perhaps the major reason) I’m still at RLG after almost 27 years:

The people.

Not all of them, not all the time–but RLG people are some of the best, most capable, most caring people I’ve had the pleasure to work with.

Development/systems (which I’ve been part of for most of my tenure hearhere, although not all of it) includes a fair number of degreed librarians (most analysts, quite a few programmers and managers), and an even larger number of people who care about what we do–about getting it right, following standards, providing as much innovation as we can afford, working with and for our members and users, and working as an efficient, effective, human team.

I stand in astonishment at the sheer talent of some of the people in dev/systems, including names you’ve probably never heard.

It’s not just development/systems. The RLG Information Center (RIC), our front-line user assistance folks, consists of thoughtful, professional people devoted to providing the best possible customer service. I believe RLG has a reputation for doing exactly that (and take pride in the part I’ve played, from time to time, handling Eureka feedback and troubleshooting problems discovered by usres). It’s the people who make that happen.

The same could be said in every division–membership programs and initiatives, product management, operations, even F&A.
The quality of the people, both as workers and as people, is one big reason that quite a few of us have been here for quite a long time. I’m not the employee with the longest tenure (I think I’m #6, actually). I’ve talked to some recent additions who noted that they keep working here in part because the other people are such good people and care so much about what we’re doing.

That’s a coffee break’s worth of appreciation: Long overdue, but here at last.

Those oldies but goodies…

Wednesday, May 3rd, 2006

So two minutes after I post a link to the press release saying RLG and OCLC are combining, a colleague sends a link to this.

“This” being that the first major speech I ever gave, more than 13 years ago, is today’s Library Link of the Day. In case you’re wondering, no, I didn’t touch a word of that speech when I loaded it to my personal website in 1999–and haven’t edited it since.

If you’re inclined to read “The death of print…” (it’s a long title), you might also want to read this piece, which I wrote in 1999 at the same time that I added the 1992 Arizona Library Association speech to my personal web site (then on AT&T Worldnet, since disappeared because I moved to SBC Yahoo!, which of course is now AT&T Yahoo!, but…)

For that matter, you might also want to read this–the lengthy handout that accompanied the Arizona speech and was entirely additional material. I also haven’t changed a word of that since 1992.

Anyway, thanks, Library Link of the Day. This was a good day for a surprise blast from/to the past.

Changes certain, nature unknown

Wednesday, May 3rd, 2006

I don’t write about RLG (where I currently work and have worked for almost 27 years) all that often–for a variety of reasons.

There are exceptions. This is one of them.

We heard about this about 150 minutes ago as I write.

“This,” for those who don’t bother to click through, is the announcement that RLG and OCLC plan to merge.

And that, other than the title of this post, is all I can say at this point–not because I have any secret decoder ring, but because I don’t. Don’t bother to ask: I am devoid of insider information.

If I was a young man…

Tuesday, May 2nd, 2006

Dah dah deedle deedle … no, that’s “rich,” and that’s a whole ‘nuther topic.

I’ve been thinking about this for a while, and maybe it’s time to set some halfbaked thoughts down in a post:

What if I was, say, half my age at this point (that is, 30 years old)–possibly four to six years out of library school (let’s assume further that I had the sense to go get that MLS while the getting was good, before I’d become hopeless as a student), probably in a “techie librarian” position, probably just starting to do a little professional activity and formal writing? Where would I stand on some of the current “generational” controversies and other stuff?

Since I had worked in three or four programming languages (Assembler, COBOL, PL/I, and the “language” used to program an IBM 188 collator via patchcords) by the time I was 30, and had done some moderately large and fairly small applications, it’s fair to assume that I’d probably be up to speed in C++, PERL, and other appropriate languages and techniques for today’s applications. I was a pretty good analyst and programmer then (and I’m still a pretty good analyst), so I’d probably be a pretty good analyst and programmer–but with an entirely different toolkit.

It’s also fair to assume that I’d be enthusiastic about web services and social software, that I’d believe that pretty much anything could be done quickly and easily with the right combination of tools–and that I’d be mighty impatient of those who weren’t ready to see rapid change.

I’d probably have a blog. It probably wouldn’t look much like this one. I can’t imagine that I’d do anything as peculiar as Cites & Insights–but then, I was never known for my vivid imagination.

I’d like to believe that I wouldn’t regard all of the previous generation as Luddite old fools only suitable for typing catalog cards and resisting change, wishing they’d all retire so that we could take over (and no, I’m not going to link to that particular blog, thank you kindly), but I’d probably hold some extreme opinions and might be brave enough to say some of them, doubtless including absurd overgeneralizations. (Gen-gen is not the exclusive property of any generation.)

I doubt that I’d be on the speaking circuit. I was shy at 30; I’m shy at 60 (but compensate); I’d be shy if I was 30 in 2006. And, frankly, I’m not sure that I’d be the kind of thought leader who would be worth hearing. I wasn’t a young lion back then; I doubt that I’d be one now.

None of this makes much sense: There’s no way to predict how I’d cope with today’s world at that age, and I wouldn’t really trade in the last 30 years if the chance arose. Thinking about it makes me a little more cognizant that some attitudes I may find a little brash, a little extreme, a little..well, those might be exactly the attitudes I’d have if I was that age. And maybe I’d be right.

Neither am I saying that age brings wisdom, at least in my case. I’m a lot more experienced than I was at 30. Does that mean I’m wiser? Let’s just say I’m a lot more experienced and let it go at that.

YBP Academia now features C&I essay

Monday, May 1st, 2006

As noted in the current Cites & Insights, “certain select C&I essays will also appear in the YBP electronic resource Academia.”

YBP calls Academia an online magazine, and I think that’s right.

The first such appearance is there now in the May 2006 issue–“The Journal of Electronic Publishing Returns!”, very slightly modified from the Spring 2006 C&I to work better as a standalone essay.