February, 2001 | It's not hard to make a case for
Web-connected DVD. While DVD has the bandwidth to enable
a truly immersive, media-rich experience, its contents,
once fixed on disc, are static and unchanging. Web content
is continually updatable, but cannot approacheven
over what is optimistically referred to as "broadband"the
video and audio fidelity of DVD. Put the two together, however,
and you've got synergy, a total solution.
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
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 De-mystified and the
DVD FAQ (http://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 recently moved on.)
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."
CLIENTS AND COSTS
While developers consistently point to compatibility as their
top concern, Graboyes says they also face other obstacles
to DVD/Web integration. Aside from creative issues"What
should we do with this capability anyway?," he saysclient
budgets for both money and time are a major factor.
"Unfortunately," Graboyes continues, "both title developers
and authoring tool manufacturers have been in a race to
the bottom, releasing $99 authoring tools and also pricing
a 60-minute encode-and-burn at $99. So the perception among
clients is that this stuff is easy. It's hard enough to
get even $10,000 out of a client for a standard DVD-Video
project, let alone another budget for advanced Web-DVD development.
A decent Web site for a major client can cost $50,000 to
As for time, Graboyes says Zuma allows six weeks for a
standard DVD-Video project. "That's actually rather short
in the industry," he says. "We would require maybe twice
that to develop an advanced WebDVD title, and it is rare
to get that much time for a project."
Graboyes also cites the influence of the underlying material
on the client's interest in adding Web-enabled features,
particularly in a home video context. "It takes an 'A' title
to make an 'A' DVD," he says. "No matter what you do to
a 'B' or 'C' title, it will never match something like The
Matrix in pure sales."
If a client does take the DVD/Web leap, Graboyes says,
the biggest development issues are writing complex HTML
creates exponential testing. Think about Win95, 98, NT,
2000 and Me, plus Mac and other concerns, for each and every
button, video, etc."
Despite these various hurdles, the DVD/Web concept does,
in Graboyes' view, meet one of the essential criteria for
success: it has a "killer app." But he sees business considerations
that currently make that applicationdirect sales from
an already-purchased DVDproblematic. "What if a DVD
included an advanced WebDVD catalog allowing direct purchase
of new product? There's an obvious benefit to the consumerdirect
purchase, full-screen previews, advanced functionsbut
it would be a major problem for outlets like Tower, Virgin,
and Good Guys. Why would they sell a disc that would let
the distributor steal away their customers?" These business
issues need to be resolved, Graboyes believes, for WebDVD
to realize its full potential.
As Taylor points out in the revised edition of his book, there
are a couple different ways to conceptualize DVD/ Web integration.
In his view, the common approach of trying to create links
from DVD-Video content to the world of PCs and the Internet
is only appropriate for very simple titles. "The DVD-Video
specification includes no provisions for jumping outside of
its own limited universe," he writes. "A much more flexible
approach is to design the disc so that the computer takes
control and wraps the DVD-Video inside its own much larger
universe... The HTML page can take over with its own menus
and windows, or it can play the video in full-screen mode
to mimic normal disc playback, perhaps placing a small icon
in the corner that the user can click to gain access to enhanced
Microsoft does not make DVD authoring tools as such, and
the "PC-centic" approach that Taylor describes fits well
with the company's general inclination to integrate capabilities
directly into the operating system. "Windows Media Player
has supported scriptable DVD playback for about two years,"
Taylor says. "A new alternative, MSWebDVD, is focused more
specifically on DVD. It's available in Windows Millennium
and DirectX 8, which is being released fall 2000 and can
be installed in Windows 98 and Windows 2000." (Developer-oriented
information is available at http://msdn.microsoft.com/library/psdk/wm_media/wmplay/mmp_sdk/dvdoverview.htm
"Windows Media Player and the MSWebDVD ActiveX control
can be embedded into Web pages and other ActiveX hosts for
scriptable control of DVD playback," Taylor continues. "In
addition, C++ programmers can use the DirectShow API directly.
This is the approach taken by InterActual, SpinWare, and
other companies that build tools on top of DirectShow."
InterActual Technologies, in San Jose, California, is
the most established of the vendors offering DVD/Web tools;
more than 200 movies have shipped with the company's PCFriendly
software in the DVD-Others zone, including The Abyss,
American Pie, The Spy Who Shagged Me, The Blair Witch Project,
and The Matrix. An upgraded player component, renamed
Interactual Player 2.0, was scheduled to ship by early January
InterActual's tools embed DVD-Video and other content
in HTML; playback is through a custom "browser/ player"
that provides a consistent framework for presenting the
various types of content. Other components automatically
analyze the DVD decoding situation on the host computer
when the disc is inserted, and lead end-users through the
process of correcting outdated or incompatible configurations.
The company also takes on technical support for titles using
the player, which is very appealing to movie studios.
"Our strategy is to leverage the tools and standards that
the Web developer is familiar with," says InterActual's
vice president of Marketing, Leonard Sharp. "The authoring
providing full control over the DVD-Video, as well as a
full-function event handler. Virtually anything that can
be delivered on a Web page can be authored onto the disc,
or hosted online, with interactive DVD-Video embedded in
the content. Conversely, while displaying DVD-Video, either
in a window or full screen, authored 'events' can be trapped
and redirected to Web pages or other content."
Part of what makes InterActual appealing to developers
is that it can reach more end-users than a simple DirectShow-based
approach. "Our key advantage is direct support of the native
DVD navigators that ship with the vast majority of PCs,"
Sharp says. "While these solutions also ship with DirectShow
filters, player applications use native navigators for performance,
display quality, and compatibility. DirectShow is our safety
net for those solutions that do not have native navigators."
Sharp also says that InterActual is fundamentally committed
to cross-platform support. "Our goal is to support the greatest
number of systems with the highest level of quality. Not
only DirectShow and proprietary navigators under Windows,
but the Mac and next-generation, Internet-connected settops
Content authored for PCFriendly playback was inaccessible
to Mac users, but that has changed with Player 2.0. However,
Apple's failure to make available a DVD-Video API limits
what can be done compared to Windows. "On the Mac," Sharp
says, "the video is displayed separately in Apple's DVD
Player the only mechanism available currently to display
DVD-Video on the Macwhile the Web content is rendered
within a Netscape window."
Sharp adds that Mac content authored to InterActual's
API will also work on Windows, but the converse is not necessarily
true. "The Apple DVD Player does not provide all of the
functionality that we have access to in Windows or on settops,"
he says. "So more advanced functionality and integration
A COMMON GOAL
While InterActual has become almost a de facto standard
for Web-connectivity on movie titles, Visible Light is focusing
on corporate and professional multimedia markets where applications
such as Macromedia Director and Authorware are core tools.
The company's OnStage DVD For Director was released in October
(you can download a test drive at http://www.onstagedvd.com).
ActiveX and Powerpoint versions were both scheduled for release
in December 2000.
"OnStage DVD allows multiple strategies for DVD/Web integration,"
Perlman says, "with control accomplished through our API.
Using Director or Authorware, you can launch any page in
either Internet Explorer or Netscape. The DVD content may
be played in a resizable window or full-screen. Using HTML
and the Internet Explorer engine, you can use Flash as a
front end and spawn DVD playback in a resizable window or
full screen. HTML links or buttons control DVD playback.
And using Visual Basic or C++, an IE window can be embedded
into an application and displayed next to a window playing
Perlman adds that OnStage DVD also includes "Event-Controlled
Interactive Response," which monitors DVD activity and responds
with Web-based events. "For example," he says, "when Title
2 on the DVD begins, a browser window can pop up with related
Spinware, meanwhile, has just made iControl Web Edition
available to developers. "It allows you to embed an ActiveX-based
DVD player inside a Web page," Knight says, "enabling 'full
duplex communication.' The running DVD playback can dictate
URLs that the user sees in adjacent windows, while, at the
same time, the user can click on links that will take him
to specific parts of the disc. We can also fire URLs based
on title and chapter changes, and overlay buttons on top
of the DVD image."
Zuma's Graboyes, who says that his company has "used all
of the available pre-built toolsets, as well as creating
our own proprietary tools and approaches," points out that
without support for non-DirectShow approaches, alternatives
to Interactual will only allow developers to reach 50-70
percent of end- users. But as more users upgrade to DirectShow-capable
versions of Windows, this limitation should gradually become
less important. At the same time, if Apple finally shakes
off its apparent indifference, QuickTime may yet provide
a cross-platform opportunity. The common goalwhat
Knight calls "a marriage of the Internet browser with media-rich
content on disc"is already clear, but it's still too
early to say exactly how we'll get to the altar.
Companies Mentioned in This Article
InterActual Technologies, Inc.
100 Century Center Court, Suite 200. San Jose, CA 95112;
408/436-6700; Fax 408/436-6709; http://www.interactual.com
1340 S De Anza Boulevard; San Jose, CA; 408/996-7390;
Visible Light Digital, Inc.
195 West SR 434, Winter Springs, FL 32708; 800/596-4494,
407/327-7804; 407/327-5006; http://www.visiblelight.com
222 East 44th Street, 9th Floor, New York, NY 10017; 212/741-9100;
Fax 212/983-9869; http://www.zumadigital.com