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What's New with NUON? Still "Coming Soon"

by Lauren Wiley

When it hit the market this spring, NUON was heralded as the first step toward DVD's future, blending the format's high-quality sound and video with interactivity and 3-D gaming. Several months later, despite the technology's support among authoring houses and system providers, the advanced mediaprocessor has failed to generate excitement in the entertainment industry so far.

VM Labs developed NUON to take the place of the MPEG decoder chips in DVD players as well as digital satellite receivers and set-top boxes. Samsung was the first DVD player manufacturer out of the gate with the $349 DVD-N2000 Extiva, and Toshiba entered the market this fall with the $299 SD-2300.

Zuma Digital has been working closely with VM Labs for the past year, initially in early development efforts and most recently in producing one of the first NUON discs for the Samsung player. "I could sum up my experiences in three categories," says Blaine Graboyes Zuma's chief operating officer and creative director. "One, excitement in a new TV-based platform that supports Web DVD--what I believe to be one of the most exciting developments ever. Two, eagerness for a manufacturer to actually mass release a Web DVD set-top player already, as all NUON devices will not initially ship with Internet connectivity. Three, curiosity, enjoyment, excitement, confusion, and delight in building some of the first applications on what may very well become one of the most important new technologies of the disc revolution."

Zuma's pack-in disc for the Samsung player contains a standard DVD-Video portion with information and videos about NUON, NUON game samples, and some information about ZUMA. "From Zuma's side, one of the interesting facets was that we placed a media advertisement to cross promote the new Scream Trilogy box set, which we contributed to for Miramax," Graboyes says. "When used on a NUON player, the disc contains mostly the same content but now becomes truly interactive. There are dynamic menus and links to real game samples, something not possible on a standard DVD Video player."

Zuma's developers are now working on new NUON projects: two for clients and one for themselves, building one of their business products, LibraryDVD, for use on NUON players. "We see the VMLabs technology as a middle-ground between the TV and PC, a platform that plays great media, but also provides true programmatic control," Graboyes explains.

Despite the company's enthusiasm for NUON, it does not recommend the technology to a client unless it seems "desperately right" for the project, Graboyes says. "DVD is still very new and complex to anyone, and to add another layer at this point is generally more than one needs," he says. "We have had a few entertainment clients ask about NUON, but the problem there is installed base."

"We find that most movie distributors are not out to be visionary with driving new consumer electronics markets," he continues. "They want to distribute their product to the most people, in the best quality, and with the most benefits for both their viewers and themselves. A new technology like NUON will not meet these criteria. It will be costly and time-consuming, for an industry that generally eschews any added costs, and it will only reach a limited market--at least today."

On the authoring system side, NUON has engendered a slow response time as well. Spruce Technologies' customers have not asked for NUON, but a few have expressed some interest, according to Pete Challinger, a marketing consultant for Spruce. "At this point there hasn't been a critical mass supporting it, " he says. "It's like DVD-Audio--its seems like it's been `Coming Soon' for a long time."

Mark Ely, vice president of business development at Sonic Solutions has experienced much of the same with NUON-that is, not much of anything. "So far very few, if any, customers have expressed interest in NUON." He adds that supporting NUON development won't change things much if at all for authoring system vendors. Since it's primarily a value-add for DVD player manufacturers, he says, there is nothing unique that authoring houses need to do when working with the technology. "The most interesting feature that I have seen has been the zoom feature and the multi-angle thumbnail feature--neither of which require any changes on the authoring side," Ely says.

Marin Digital has evaluated the NUON technology, and president Chris Armbrust says he sees "some great possibilities--the base feature set is really cool." A possible project for Marin could be the enhancement of DVD titles to take advantage of NUON's interactivity, such as the ability to zoom and change picture colors. NUON means more options for DVD title developers, but also more work. "When you are designing menus for DVD, you can do such creative things, but there are some hoops you have to jump through." Armbrust says. No Marin clients have asked about NUON, Armbrust says. "I think it's lost in the noise of Playstation2, Nintendo, and Sega. A slugfest is going on in the game machines. VM Labs needs to close some deals to get the technology out there and accepted," he adds.

As of this fall, there were still only six NUON games available with 10 more about to hit the market, and VM Labs appears to be focusing more on the Internet capabilities of the technology. All NUON players have proprietary ports similar to USB or FireWire, and the company planned to sell compatible modem kits, bundled with Planetweb's Internet software, in the fourth quarter of this year. Future NUON players are expected to include built-in modems.

VM Labs has claimed to be in negotiations with several hardware manufacturers, which will introduce new NUON-enhanced DVD players at the start of next year. "As a WebDVD player, it is the killer application," declares Graboyes. "These types of devices--NUON, Playstation2, X-box, iDVD, etc.--are going to test some notions about interactive media, like does anybody even want this stuff at all? I think, yes, obviously, but I have always been frustrated by starting with that assumption, considering it has never been experimented with on a large scale. I want to see 20 million people watching interactive TV on a NUON device, with the ability to get more information, order stuff, click on anything, and control the plot. After a few years of that, we may start to have a good idea about what direction to move in next."

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