February 2001|Since the current generation of DVD players is based on a specification that makes no provision for Web connectivity, the target platforms for Web-enabled DVDs are DVD drive-equipped computers. Using Web pages stored on disc in the DVD-Others zone (outside the VIDEO_TS directory), there's no trick to creating a title on which DVD and the Web co-exist, allowing the user easily to go online for supplementary content related to the DVD-Video program. What's more challenging, however, is creating true interaction between the two realms.
"True Web-DVD integration should allow interactive capabilities equivalent to standard multimedia authoring," says Blaine Graboyes, creative director and COO of Zuma Digital in New York City, a leading DVD production house. For examples of what DVD/Web integration has to offer, Graboyes points to a couple of marketing-oriented corporate projects done recently by Zuma.
"We created marketing discs for GUESS? that use music videos and behind-the-scenes videos from GUESS photo shoots," he says. "Viewers can watch the videos and link directly to Web pages where they can purchase the products. We also completed a four-kiosk installation for Kenneth Cole in their new flagship retail location at Rockefeller Center. The kiosks allow viewers to watch fashion shows, interviews, and advertising in full screen. Eventually, when viewers see an outfit they like, they will be able to touch directly on the video and link out to Web pages with product details and ordering information."
It turns out, however, that projects taking full advantage of integration are fairly rare. "We see an enormous interest in the concept," Graboyes says, "at least when it is understood by a potential client. But little true resources are being applied." The exception, he says, is in the area of A-level Hollywood movies. But even in that category, Graboyes remains unsure as to how important Web connectivity is to DVD consumers.
"Web connectivity certainly does not sell more discs today," Graboyes says, "at least for commercial movies. But it does build the community around a title or studio, and that, of course, should be the main goal. However, I'm not certain that consumers really want such content. No one will really know if consumers want interactive entertainment until 40 million people are sharing a compelling experience on an ongoing basis. Until then, it's all just research and development."
Compatibility and Platforms
To get millions of users experiencing integrated DVD/Web content, it's not enough to have millions of computers with both Internet access and DVD playback capability. You've got to be able to assure title publishers that the integrated features of their titles will actually work on most (preferably all) of the installed base. So far, that's still not a claim that anyone can make.
"There are significant obstacles to combining DVD content with the Internet," says Tony Knight, president of SpinWare, Inc. in San Jose, California. "Perhaps the biggest obstacle is the lack of a consistent, universal playback architecture that can be distributed across several platforms."
Knight traces the problem beyond technology to the familiar root of all evil: money. "To play a DVD inside a Web page," he says, "you must have an MPEG-2 decoder, and, in most cases, a Dolby/DTS decoder. These components come with licensing fees of $2-$7 per title, and it's prohibitive for a tools manufacturer such as SpinWare to absorb the costs."
Because of the fees, Knight says, the vendors of DVD/Web solutions have based their approaches on communication with the end-user's existing DVD decoder. "That's where DirectShow comes in," he says. "Microsoft recognized the need to integrate Web-based content with DVD a long time ago, and created the DirectShow multimedia programming interface to allow content developers to talk to the software decoders on the end-user's machine. This allowed a unified interface for Windows, as long as the user had a compatible software DVD player."
Unfortunately, Knight says, not all third-party decoders have the same level of compatibility. "Some work very well, and others work just marginally. It poses a considerable burden on developers to try to achieve functionality that works consistently across the highest number of machines."
Jim Taylor, author of DVD Demystified and the DVD FAQ (www.dvddemystified.com), adds that DVD decoders shipping today on Windows systems are all compatible with DirectShow, but in the past many weren't. "About 25 percent of the installed base of DVD players don't work with DirectShow," he says, "and therefore don't work with any of Microsoft's WebDVD solutions." (Taylor was engaged by Microsoft for a time to work on DVD issues, but is now Chief of DVD Technology at Sonic Solutions.)
Microsoft's solutions not only leave behind those who haven't upgraded to at least Windows 98, they also ignore other operating systems that title developers would like to reach, leaving many who purchase titles unable to take advantage of integrated functionality. "Mac users," Knight says, "will live with WebDVD envy for quite some time, since Apple has not developed anything similar to DirectShow's programming language. Apple failed to take steps to allow developers like ourselves to talk to the Mac OS' sole software DVD player. So Apple will be playing catch-up for quite some time, assuming that it now believes that its users want WebDVD support."
As for the upcoming generation of set-top boxes combining DVD and Web connectivity, Steve Perlman, president of tools-maker Visible Light Digital in Winter Springs, Florida, points out that "there are a lot of diverse and proprietary strategies. A standard is being proposed by the informal Haiku group, but there is no guarantee that manufacturers will adopt this, or how long it might take. So while we intend to provide cross- platform support, there are many technical issues. We will have to consider each platform separately and add support as appropriate."