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DVD: The First Three Years

Mark Waldrep

April 2000 | It was March 1997 when the first DVD hardware and software reached the U.S. In those early months after its release, manufacturers, retailers, industry pundits, and especially the home video industry held their collective breath waiting for clues from the marketplace that the format would usher in a new digital age for movie delivery. Just as the compact disc had done for the music business some 15 years earlier, the introduction of DVD-Video hardware and software represented a revolutionary shift from its analog predecessor. The move from VHS tape to 12cm DVD discs, and the subsequent increase in the storage capacity to HD-DVD levels (already demonstrated at CES 2000), will occur over a surprisingly short interval of time.

The creation of a well-produced DVD-Video title was a major undertaking in the opening months of 1997, and remains challenging three years down the line. The process still requires the talents of an experienced technical and creative team of developers using sophisticated hardware and software. There are many more authoring products available to producers of DVD-Video titles today than at the format's inception, but most have limited feature ranges that prevent them from being truly "professional" tools.

The production level of most of Hollywood's earliest DVD-Video releases was rudimentary during the first year of the format's existence. Nudged along by a few pioneering studios and DVD producers, the production level of the average title has improved substantially over the past three years. Titles that lack motion-graphic menuing, video transitions, proper navigation, and elegant interfaces still dominate the marketplace, but those that do offer these features have repeatedly proven their worth through increased market presence and sales figures.

A second major trend associated with the establishment of the DVD format has been its acceptance in the non-entertainment arena. When considered as a convenient random-access video delivery device, DVD-Video finds applicability over a wide range, encompassing not just entertainment but trade show kiosks, sales and marketing presentations, and education/ training programs. Now that there is a sufficient installed base of set-top players and DVD-ROM-equipped computers, corporations are not only using the format on dedicated presentation systems but are distributing discs to consumers.

For the first time, potential customers can be engaged by a compelling multimedia presentation at a trade show and then interactively explore the same high-quality audio and video at home. The addition of WebDVD links to company sites completes the loop in an ideal sales model.

The importance of Internet-enabled DVD-Video/ DVD-ROM hybrids over the past three years has grown tremendously. Since the very first WebDVD (Sgt. Kabukiman N.Y.P.D. from Troma) was released in fall 1997, Hollywood studios and smaller independents have begun to understand that placing Internet connection software on their discs and building a database around their users' online activities is valuable to consumers and marketers alike.

The emergence of set-top DVD boxes, with modems hooked up to your television, will bring what has been exclusively the domain of your computer system to the living room. Watching "enhanced TV" will expand the reach of ecommerce beyond the realm of computer users and solidify the convergence of entertainment and information systems as a universal model. The addition of Internet tie-ins to non-entertainment DVD productions will become increasingly common over the coming months, adding up-to-date information and transactional interactivity to DVD's signature high-quality audio and video. The successful combination of cyberspace with "DVDspace" is a promising trend that is often overlooked by myopic Internet evangelists.

The issues surrounding DVD-Video disc navigation are still problematic. The inconsistent implementation of the navigational commands (especially the misuse or avoidance of the TITLE function) of the DVD-Video specification remains a key concern; it's counterproductive, and will ultimately slow the format's acceptance by consumers [See Waldrep's Games People Play: The Case for Consistent DVD Navigation," May 1999, pp. 34-39--Ed.]. There has been some minimal action towards standardization taken by interested parties, and it is worthy of note that both of the DVD "universal" players that I've seen have replaced the TITLE button with a more descriptive TOP-MENU button. Apparently, the concept of a "title" doesn't translate too well to a music product, and the designers of the hardware have accepted the need for robust interactive controls for DVD. It's a small step, but critical to the long-term acceptance of the format. Let's hope the developers get the hint and improve their navigational planning.

So, three years have passed and we have a commercially viable disc-based digital format known as DVD. Consumers have embraced the format for its ability to deliver Hollywood movies with high-quality video and exceptional audio. DVD producers are beginning to understand and exploit the creative possibilities of DVD for uses beyond the Hollywood model, and Internet links are becoming a standard fixture on many first-run movies. Who knows what the coming months will mean to the music industry as the DVD-Audio format sorts out the problems it is having with encryption and software development? My crystal ball shows a clear trend towards the unification of the video and audio flavors of DVD.

Mark Waldrep (mwaldrep@aixentertainment.com), regular columnist for DVD Between the Lines, is founder and President of AIX Entertainment, Inc. and Pacific Coast Sound Works, Inc. He has been involved in all areas of interactive multimedia development and audio production since the mid-1980s, and is the inventor of i-trax, a hybrid audio and data CD format.

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