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IRMA: Hi-Def Discs a Hot Topic

26 Sep, 2002 By: David Ward

Even as DVD continues to bolster the home video industry, battle lines are being drawn for the next generation of optical technology, as companies used the International Recording Media Association Technology and Manufacturing Conference to outline what may end up being a contentious fight to bring high-definition to movies and other disc-based content.

The IRMA conference in Las Vegas last week found the replication industry in an interesting position -- profits are up, largely thanks to DVD, yet many manufacturers are walking a tightrope as they continue the slow transition out of videotape while at the same time face increasing competition from other replicators of disc-based media.

In his opening speech, IRMA President Charles Van Horn said more than 10.5 billion CDs and DVDs were replicated last year in North America up 2 percent from the year before, adding, “CD-Audio and CD-ROM units were down but they were offset by growth in DVD and video-CD. In fact, revenue to replicators increased 5.4 percent in North America as DVDs' higher replication prices offset declines in the CD industry.”

Van Horn said DVD-video replication was expected to rise from 636 million units in 2001 to 960 million this year and should reach 1.225 billion by 2003. “DVD is definitely the star player for (replication) plants, now and in the future.” But despite mass consumer migration to DVD, Van Horn did note that VHS recorder sales remain strong, adding that 250,000 VHS machines are still being sold each week on average.

During a session on new technology, Jacques Heemskerk, program manager for Philips, reassured the audience that the new Blu-ray Disc technology for high-definition DVD playback would also contain red laser as well, meaning they would be backward compatible for existing DVD discs. “It's obvious that any blue ray disk drive must read DVD to be successful in the market, we all know that,” he said.

Blu-ray uses the same size disc as currently used for DVD-Video, but with far greater capacity -- a single-sided disc will be able to hold up to 25GB while double-sided discs could hold up to as much as 54 GB, Heemskerk said.

Blu-ray, which is backed by consortium of nine companies including Philips, Sony, Thomson and Matsushita, is facing competition from new technology proposed by Toshiba and NEC that also uses a blue-ray laser but is incompatible with the Blu-ray system.

Toshiba/NEC technology has slightly smaller capacity (20 GB for single-layer disc), but companies claim it will be more cost effective for disc replicators since it uses the same 0.6 mm bonded-layers technology that is used in DVD manufacturing and therefore would not require entirely new equipment. The companies have also said they will soon propose a 40 GB single-sided, dual-layer read-and-write disc to the DVD Forum.

The wild card in next-generation home video technology is the Warner Bros./Warner Home Video proposal for red-laser HD-DVD 9. During the same session, Alan Bell, Warner Bros. SVP for technical operations, said the move to HD quality home video was the next logical step, but added the move could be done through improved compression such as MPEG-4, rather than increasing capacity of discs.

One major advantage of HD-DVD 9 would be in retail inventory. Warner has suggested that single discs could be viewed in standard definition by current generation DVD players, yet also be seen in high-definition by consumers who had new players. The DVD Forum is still in the process of determining what compression technology will be used for HD DVD 9, but Bell, who is participating in those discussions, indicated that MPEG-4 is the favorite.

While he carefully refrained from siding with the blue-ray technology from either the nine-company Blu-ray consortium or Toshiba/NEC, Bell did question claims made by both sides that replication costs for new media would be comparable to current DVD discs. “Nobody really knows what the costs are,” he said. “Both say they'll be similar to current manufacturing and I know that's not true.”

Bell also warned that the consumer electronics industry could be heading for yet another competing technology spat that could delay introduction of high-definition disc-based players. “It's d?j? vu all over again,” he said, adding, “Two formats is one format too many.”

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