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Untangling Web-DVD Playback

Philip De Lancie

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 approach–even 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 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 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 says–client 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 $1 million."

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 and JavaScript code, and "testing, testing, testing. WebDVD 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 application–direct sales from an already-purchased DVD–problematic. "What if a DVD included an advanced WebDVD catalog allowing direct purchase of new product? There's an obvious benefit to the consumer–direct purchase, full-screen previews, advanced functions–but 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.

MULTIPLE APPROACHES

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 content."

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 and http://msdn.microsoft.com/library/psdk/ba/ref/script/msvidwebdvd.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 2001.

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 environment is built on standard HTML with JavaScript commands 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 as well."

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 Mac–while 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 remains inaccessible."

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 DVD."

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 promotional information."

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 goal–what 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

Spinware Incorporated
1340 S De Anza Boulevard; San Jose, CA; 408/996-7390; 408/343-1021; http://www.spinware.net

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

ZUMA Digital
222 East 44th Street, 9th Floor, New York, NY 10017; 212/741-9100; Fax 212/983-9869; http://www.zumadigital.com

Philip De Lancie (pdel@compuserve.com) is a freelance writer on media production and formats and co-author of the book DVD Production from Focal Press.

Comments? Email us at letters@onlineinc.com.


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