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the editor's spin

The Magic Barrel

Stephen F. Nathans

June 2000 | Field trips aren't quite what they used to be. Missing a day of work doesn't match the unqualified, guiltless glee of missing a day at school. Speeding down endless stretches of highway in a shiny new Audi doesn't pack quite the thrill of rattling along in battle-scarred, clattering activity buses amidst the shouting, razzing, and intimidation of fifty-odd hyperactive pre-pubescents. And since we're not in North Carolina anymore, the day doesn't end with a gratis starter pack of cigarettes courtesy of R.J. Reynolds, Liggett & Myers, or whatever pillar of the local business community happens to be brandishing its good works that day.

Hard as they tried, the tobacco barons never really made themselves our heroes; it was just the break in monotony that made these days memorable. There were exceptions, of course, Winston-Salem's Krispy Kreme doughnut factory being the most notable. That was, after all, where we discovered the method behind the magic, Homer Price sprung to life, a marvel to behold.

I probably could have hung it up right there after the Krispy Kreme experience, since perhaps life's greatest mystery had been unlocked. But there was one other mystery that particularly intrigued me that still lay beyond my grasp.

I am speaking, of course, of the way they make records. LPs, 45s, 78s--all those seemingly identical spiral grooves that encompassed the secrets of the universe in compact blasts of rock 'n' roll. But now I don't have to regret not growing up in Terre Haute or Scranton anymore. As editor of EMedia Magazine , I get to meet some great people, and see wonderful places from St. Paul to Santa Barbara, but none so viscerally dazzling as the WEA manufacturing plant I had the pleasure of touring last month in bucolic Olyphant, Pennsylvania.

And I did indeed see vinyl pressed and pruned, the way the amorphous platters get stamped from a mirror image of the grooves then trimmed to a perfect circle. The machines looked pretty much as I imagined them--time-worn and a little cobbled together, but humming along nonetheless. They seemed to tell their own story, twilight of an industry and all that.

But that wasn't the story I was invited there to hear, and it wasn't even the best story I heard all day. My official business in Olyphant concerned DVD, observing close at hand the intricate workings of state-of-the-art pressing and packaging systems that crank out upwards of two million discs a day--including CD and DVD--with eye-popping efficiency I hadn't witnessed since I ran the Marine Corps Marathon.

Walking amongst the cogs of industry with a couple of its captains, I experienced sights and sounds not entirely unfamiliar to me (WEA's isn't the first replication plant I've visited, and I've seen these machines disembodied on the RepliTECH show floor), but at WEA, things seemed bigger and more automated.

I also heard a great story about one feat of DVD manufacturing that's been accomplished there and--at least as far as titles in release go--nowhere else. I'm referring to that where-the-sidewalk-ends DVD format, the elusive DVD-18. This is DVD at the farthest edge imaginable, pushed to full capacity with two sides of two layers of 4.7GB each, totaling a totemic 18.8GB. Of course, there was nothing in the original DVD spec that said DVD-18 couldn't be done; it was simply that at the time no one actually knew how to do it. And as we've reported in EMedia Magazine before, the engineers at WEA were the ones who figured it out.

And that's where the storytelling part comes in. Like any good creation story (e.g., that famous one in the first book of Moses), the genesis of DVD-18 has two versions. Rick Marquardt gave me the story on-site, but in following-up with his colleague Bill Mueller to get the details, I unearthed variations on the theme. The versions aren't contradictory by any means, one simply suggests serendipitous happenstance and the other a more rational evolutionary theory. I prefer the serendipity version, the one I heard at the plant. Either way what they did is pretty ingenious.

A DVD-18, logically enough, is essentially two DVD-9s stuck together. But you can't do that exactly, since a pressed disc consists of two half-thickness discs molded together, as opposed to two full-thickness discs because the resulting 2.4mm would be too thick. The problem was transferring "top-layer" (Layer 1) data to the disc's data Layer 0. According to Marquardt, as they experimented with half-thickness discs (changing the material used and pulling them apart), they made a key discovery: When the discs were separated, where the adhesive used to bond the discs remained, so did a (nearly) perfect impression of the pits that comprise the Layer 0 data. Several tweaks and refinements after that accidental "Eureka" moment, the surface transfer process (STP) that makes DVD-18 possible was honed to production-ready precision.

Mueller tells the story a little differently. He says WEA's understanding of the effectiveness of the adhesive imprint, separating discs with pit art exposures, dates back to the laserdisc days. From there, it was just some educated "theorizing" that led to applying the principle to DVD-18. Mueller goes on to say that DVD-18 output remains "very, very low" relative to DVD-5, 9, and 10 output. But the title list is slowly growing, pushing into the documentary series category, which seems a natural fit since one of these discs can hold the capacity of roughly 10 VHS tapes. This makes a nice alternative sell to DVD's extra-feature and interactive elements that many home-video fans may continue to find superfluous.

Imagining the possibilities of DVD-18, I'm reminded of a dream my college roommate said he had, in which we walked into a record store and stumbled upon a mega-multi-CD set including everything Otis Redding ever sang, said, and thought. Maybe even DVD-18 couldn't capture all that, but it sure makes a better souvenir than a clandestine pack of smokes.

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