The Future is Now

DVDsIt’s the early eighties all over again in the fight for your lounge room, and a PC might render your entertainment unit obsolete. Drew Turney reports.

Some people think VHS beat out Beta as the format of choice for home video because it was the right length for Americans to record an average baseball game, despite Beta being a higher quality (and more expensive) format.

Whatever the truth behind the first ever format war, DVD effortlessly washed over the tide of VHS after 20 years, outstripping video sales and rentals after only five years of production. Now, the battle for the next generation of DVD is getting hot, and the choices are staring to be made at ground level.

The two new formats slugging it out – Blu-ray and HD DVD – work by using a blue rather than a red laser, which allows for a more concentrated image on the disc surface. In practical terms that means a lot more storage capacity — 25GB for HD DVD, 50GB for Blu-ray.

Big deal? you may well ask — my box set of CSI does me very nicely. Let the nerds and early adopters spend thousands on technology nobody has any use for yet.

The big deal is that TV’s going to grow up. The Australian federal government say they’re switching the analog transmission band off in 2008. That means we’ll all be using high-def digital TV, which facilitates the best possible picture on those massive projector screens we all drool over in Harvey Norman before going home to our 60cm TV.

But when those huge LCD and plasma TV systems are the standard, they’ll need more than a standard signal (both transmitted across the airwaves and read off a DVD) to fulfil their incredible capacity for picture and sound quality, a level of detail current DVD technology simply doesn’t have space to hold.

What’s more, if you’re a special features junkie, higher data capacity will be the mother lode. Instead of a throwaway featurette and trailer reel, how does separate commentaries from every major cast and crew member, playing the game tie-in, chatting online with the filmmakers and remixing the movie with different scenes and camera angles sound?

Industry heavy hitters are divided right down the middle between the formats. Sony — progenitor of the Blu-ray format, appear to be betting the farm, and with seven out of the eight major studios releasing Blu-ray movies, it looks like a safe bet. But the NEC and Toshiba led HD DVD has advantages, and its supporters (including Microsoft) certainly aren’t to be sniffed at.

The official nod from standards associations are already happening, but the real winner will be decided by you yourself in the coming months, and the player you choose will either enjoy centre stage in your lounge room or be gathering dust in the shed with your old Betamax VCR.

One Device to Rule Them All

Of course, the form that player takes is still being thrashed out thanks to a whole different battle in digital home entertainment — the Media Centre PC.

The theory of a media centre PC is sound; most of the entertainment content in your life – from photos and music to TV shows, movies and DVD content can be digitised, so why not engage a PC system to control and access it all, doing away with messy cables, formats and components that don’t fit together?

Several players think they have the answer. Intel’s Viiv (rhymes with ‘five’) and AMD’s Live are both content format and delivery system. In fact, the media centre PC is both the hardware and the concept in one. The machinery you buy will contain a processor to actually run things, a chipset that contains the drivers for your sound, video, etc, and the operating system, which is the interface you use to access your media.

As in the desktop PC world, Microsoft already appears to own the field with its Windows XP MCE (Media Center Edition). In the case of the format, Viiv is more or less the umbrella term for everything a media PC delivers – including content. At the moment, there isn’t much Viiv-enabled content available on our shores, but Intel are taking some major Australian music publishers and film distributors to lunch as we speak…

The media centre PC can take the form of an everyday PC tower, but most of the models out so far look like a component of your existing video or hi-fi equipment. They can sit out of the way and look like they blend in, driven from the lounge with anything from a wireless keyboard and mouse to a remote control.

Better still, connectivity means your media centre PC can connect to the Internet and give you a world of digital content services straight to your TV screen. And it’s much more than Teletext with better graphics.

Taking just one example, a subscription to IceTV not only streams program listings straight to your TV screen, it gives you total control over recording or playing back. Pausing or replaying a broadcast as it happens, recording two other channels while you watch a third, setting the system to record your favourite show every week or skipping through ads in 30-second blocks is just the beginning.

With formats and the means to deliver them converging further all the time across and between media, TV stations and newspapers losing money hand over fist and fortunes being made on Crazy Frog ringtones, who knows what form a night’s entertainment will take?

Some of the biggest electronics manufacturers in the world are betting a fortune that they do, and they need guinea pigs — are you up for it?