Originally created 04/27/97

DVD: The new wave in home theater



David Fox is a consumer-electronics company's dream customer. Fox already has a 53-inch color television, and last week he became one of the first buyers of a digital versatile disc, or DVD, player.

"It seems like the technology of the future," said Fox, 41, a Voorhees (N.J.) resident. His household is one of more than 15 million in America with a home-theater setup, including a large TV, surround-sound speakers and video players.

Until now, those video players have been videocassette recorders or, in a small number of cases, laser-disc players. Now comes the DVD, which promises a viewing and sound experience similar to that of a movie theater.

Fox, who has had a laser-disc player, bought his DVD because of the promise of higher technology as well as lower prices for DVD movies.

Laser-disc movies cost about $40, while most of the new DVD titles are expected to sell for around $20, although list prices are $24.95.

But DVDs are more than just a new technology to play movies on your television. The new players also are becoming available for personal computers, in what is one of the first concrete signs of the much-discussed convergence of television and computing.

With their high memory capacity, DVD players will not only bring full-length movies to the personal computer, but also will revolutionize the complexity and length of computer games.

Eventually, there will be rewritable DVD devices, which will bring multigigabytes of new storage to computer systems.

For now, the focus is on video. Scott Varner, product trainer for Bryn Mawr Stereo & Video of King of Prussia, says DVD technology was developed to allow a full-length movie to go on a standard-size compact disc, which has a diameter of 4« inches.

DVD players are capable of delivering "a picture better than we've experienced so far," said Varner. The colors are more vivid, especially reds, which are difficult to duplicate on older technology. The players also can deliver the most advanced sound available, Dolby Digital, so that a home theater can be just like a movie theater.

A DVD is an optical disc encoded like a compact disc, but it has many times the storage capacity. The format offers 500 lines of visual resolution compared with 240 lines of resolution on videocassette.

A single-layer DVD recorded on one side can play about 133 minutes of video, which is long enough to show about 97 percent of the movies ever made, Varner noted. The discs coming on the market now will have that capacity, but eventually there will be discs recorded on two sides - with two layers of data on each side.

The capacity is staggering, by today's standards. The two-layered discs recorded on both sides will have a capacity of 17 gigabytes of information, enough for almost nine hours of video.

The technology can offer up to 4 video streams, 8 audio streams and 32 text streams. It offers movie producers the possibility of offering different versions of the same film on the same disc.

For example, an R-rated and a PG-rated version of the same film could be recorded on the same disc, as well as versions with up to eight languages. A version with a single language on the soundtrack could contain subtitles in 32 languages by using the text streams.

The Dolby Digital surround-sound offers five channels of sound as well as a sixth channel for a subwoofer to carry low, rumbling sounds and other special effects.

The companies with players on the market so far include Panasonic, Pioneer, Sony and Toshiba. The companies have not released preliminary sales figures, but the first devices were on the market in February. Demand is strong, they say, and in some cases, electronics stores have been sold out and have waiting lists. Prices range from about $599 to $1,700.

"There has been a lot of pent-up demand for DVD," said Jonathan Thompson, a spokesman for the Consumer Electronics Manufacturers Association. "Most of it is coming from early adapters looking for a simple, more robust format; looking for bolder, crisper sound and a better picture."

The Dolby Digital is better than the Dolby ProLogic Surround Sound consumers now know from their televisions, stereos and even PCs today. The new standard has front left, right and center speakers where most of the dialogue in a movie will take place. It has left- and right-rear channels for special effects and the subwoofer channel for booming effects such as the rumbling of a tornado.

Fox bought a Pioneer player on which he can play DVDs as well as 12-inch video laser discs. He said he got a high-priced model, almost $1,000, because he has a library of more than 100 laser discs that he would like to continue to play.

More than three dozen movies already are available on DVD, and more are hitting the market each month, but with demand high and supply low so far, Fox expects it will take him some time to build up a DVD collection. He said he likes to watch at least two movies a week.

And he'll soon be able to watch them in new ways.

DVDs allow viewers to choose different aspect ratios for viewing films, either the 4-by-3 aspect now available on televisions or the wider 16-by-9 aspect that will be available on new digital televisions.

The DVDs also allow viewers to pick their own camera angles for scenes, if that information is added to the disc by the manufacturer, and they can give parents the power to prevent their children from watching objectionable material. The DVD players have parental lockout features.

The DVDs can play not only the new video discs, but also music CDs and CD-ROMs that now play on computers.

The DVD technology is the first to be developed for use on both computers and television, noted Jodi Sally, product manager for Panasonic's DVD player for television.

Creative Labs is the first, and so far only, company offering a DVD player for computers. Panasonic is working to release a computer version of a DVD player in summer. The Creative Labs player costs $499.

Other companies, led by Intel Corp., the world's largest manufacturer of central microprocessors for personal computers, are working to bring low-cost DVD players to PCs. The Creative Labs version is built primarily with specialized computer chips, but Intel is working on a software solution that would be less costly.

That software solution depends on licensing an encryption algorithm - which prevents copying of the discs - from Matsushita Electric Industrial Co., the Japanese parent company of Panasonic. Creative Labs prevents that with its hardware.

So far, the negotiations over the licensing have been slow-moving, said Michael Moradzadeh, program manager of Intel's copy-protection task force. The algorithm, known as the Content Scrambling Systems, was adopted by the computer, consumer-electronics and movie industries last year to prevent the pirating of DVD films and other content.

"The current status is that we are still very closely engaged with the consumer-electronics industry and the motion-picture industry to finalize many of the key issues, particularly being able to implement the copy-protection technology in a cost-effective manner, which for us means in a software version," Moradzadeh said. The negotiations with Matsushita have been particularly slow, he said.

"They are several thousands of miles away and they have a different approach to everything," he said. "A lot of us haven't spent a lot of time dealing with Japanese companies on a business level."

Intel, Compaq and others are extremely keen on getting an agreement, because DVD is a key piece of the firms' strategy of creating PC Theater, home-entertainment centers built around the personal computer.

Gateway 2000 pioneered the concept last year with its Destination system, but with DVD now possible, and digital television just a couple of years away, the other firms see great market potential.

"This is absolutely the kind of technology that the PC Theater platforms will be able to take advantage of," said Moradzadeh. He expects software-enabled DVDs to be included in personal computers by early next year.