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OSTA Specifies MultiPlay

Hugh Bennett

February 14, 2021 | DVD devices of every description must read CD-R discs. It's been more than five years since I first delivered that simple message. The consumer electronics industry, however, has yet to take it to heart. Not a week goes by that I don't get email from some poor soul or other who purchased a set-top DVD Video player only to discover that the unit can't read CD-R discs. Better late than never, the Optical Storage Technology Association (OSTA) has at last championed the set-top and mobile CD-R compatibility cause with a MultiPlay specification raising the prospect that the problem might be overcome before another five years goes by.

As it stands today, consumer DVD player compatibility with CD-R and CD-RW discs is nothing short of a disaster. While almost all units read prerecorded (molded) CDs, only a fraction have the correct dual laser (650nm/780nm) optical pickups necessary to play CD-R media. Even more maddening from a consumer perspective is the utter failure of manufacturers to communicate the deficiency. Nor is there any rhyme or reason as to which units do and which do not read recordable CDs. It's infuriating that consumers must unwittingly play roulette when buying something as straightforward as a piece of home electronics.

In stark contrast to set-top DVD devices, all DVD-ROM and DVD-RAM drives currently anks to the rapid transition that saw CD-R compatibility appear years ago in all second-generation DVD-ROM and first-generation DVD-RAM drives. While OSTA takes credit for establishing this universal level of compatibility through their MultiRead specification, hardware manufacturers adhered to it because it would be suicidal to sell products that didn't read CD-R discs. The consumer electronics industry, however, is another story altogether. This is where OSTA's MultiPlay comes in.

Although MultiPlay in addition encapsulates consumer CD products reading CD-R (a given) and CD-RW (inconsequential) discs, the specification's main attraction lies in the parts that relate to DVD. Specifically, MultiPlay requires compliant consumer DVD devices that play CD-DA, CD-Text, and VideoCD formats contained on prerecorded media to do the same when embodied in CD-R and CD-RW discs. In addition, MultiPlay introduces a new logo intended to help consumers identify products compatible with CD-R and CD-RW media. Realistically, however, the logo will probably prove insufficient in assisting identification in much the same way that the MultiRead badge has been ignored. MultiPlay will only succeed if OSTA sufficiently evangelizes the feature and promotes compliance among equipment manufacturers.

We know that a popular use for CD-R discs is to store compressed audio files (MP3, WMA, etc.) and that an ever-increasing number of set-top and mobile CD and DVD devices now play these formats. In an attempt to standardize how compressed audio files reside on CD-R and CD-RW discs, OSTA now plans to incorporate into MultiPlay a new logical file format called Compressed Digital Audio (CDA). An excellent idea! CDA will finally provide users with a viable and consistent method for navigating among audio files, determining play order, and even reducing hardware initialization time so that discs are ready to go quickly after being inserted into players.

The MultiPlay specification is not yet perfect, however. There are a number of omissions that OSTA should address. The most obvious deficiency is in dealing with digital pictures in a realistic fashion. Although MultiPlay supports still-picture display in devices that work with the VideoCD format, it seems odd that consumers are required to reformat digital pictures which they have already created themselves or have received from photofinishers as industry-standard JPEG files. As MultiPlay defines the CDA logical format for compressed audio files, so also should it delineate a "Compressed Digital Picture (CDP)" format for dealing with compressed images.

Another important oversight in MultiPlay is its lack of support for playing DVD-Video content (MPEG-2) written onto CD-R discs. Although capacity may be nothing to write home about, CD-R is still sufficient for many kiosk, sales presentation, and educational tools and for the ever-expanding hobbyist and enthusiast markets. CD-R provides an economically attractive way for just about anyone to create short-length video discs. And support for video on CD-R discs need not stop there. MultiPlay, by establishing a "Compressed Digital Video (CDV)" format, could lead the way in anticipating market opportunities for new streaming video technologies (MPEG-4, DivX, etc.) which are already capable of fitting a full-length movie onto a single CD-R (the video equivalent of MP3 audio on the Internet).

Although there should be little doubt that promoting consumer DVD device compatibility with CD-R discs (and to an extremely lesser extent CD-RW) is important to consumers today there is also no reason to limit the scope of MultiPlay to just these disc formats in the future. For example, now that DVD-R is pushing into a broader market (thanks to new sub-$1000 recorders and $10 blank discs) its likely that consumers will want to store more than two days of compressed music on a single DVD-R disc for playing on a car or set-top DVD device. The same should apply to rewritable DVD products. Looking forward then, it's important that any logical file formats defined in MultiPlay, be they compressed audio, picture or video, be made media-independent so as to not limit potential applications.

OSTA should be congratulated for this first step and for striving to improve set-top and mobile DVD device compatibility with CD-R and CD-RW discs. Hopefully it won't be long before consumers start benefiting from this initial effort to tame the unruly aspects of the DVD frontier.

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