Switched On: Net-enabled movies pit a blue ray versus a true way

Ross Rubin
R. Rubin|07.24.08

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Switched On: Net-enabled movies pit a blue ray versus a true way
Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about technology, multimedia, and digital entertainment.

The oldest of the "three screens" -- television – is generally far from the wisest. Sure, an endless array of set-top boxes and AV components packed with processors have appeared in the last few decades to use its screen as a surrogate, and now a high-definition, display for video games, PC content, Web pages, multimedia, videoconferencing and other entertainment. But while much television programming -- especially news and sports programs – has become cluttered with contextual trivia and tickers, the core TV viewing experience has remained stubbornly passive. Now, though, with backers citing the need to reclaim appeal from PCs and cell phones -- especially among multitasking kids, teens and young adults -- the first screen is fighting back.

Correctly recognizing that upconverting DVDs posed a serious challenge to high-definition discs, the backers of HD-DVD focused on the mandatory Internet connectivity of its players and support of it in some of its late content (the movie 300 was one of the best showcases). In HD-DVD's defeat, the Blu-ray camp has picked up the cause via BD-Live, part of the Blu-ray 2.0 specification. A forthcoming title that will take advantage of the Internet connectivity is Disney's 50th anniversary platinum release of its classic Sleeping Beauty. And it is not your wicked stepmother's princess.

Provided the disc is in the player, consumers will be able to chat during scenes, send messages to and from cell phones (for no extra charges as SMS is not used), and even have video messages played over certain scenes as a video greeting. Playing simple games, such as trivia contests based on the film, will allow consumers to collect loyalty program points that can be redeemed for a range of things, for example, priority access to a parade at one of Disney's theme parks. Of course, an animated title such as Sleeping Beauty will have appeal to a young demographic. Disney notes that a Hannah Montana concert disc would have a different experience for its older target demographic.

So, for consumers who want more pop-up in their video, BD-Live sets titles apart from earlier high-definition discs as well as DVDs. But will it also represent an experience that sets Blu-ray titles apart from high-definition video on demand delivered by cable companies? To the contrary, say cable executives, such functionality is right at the heart of what their industry is supporting in Tru2Way, the latest name of an initiative aimed at creating an open platform for set-top box applications and allowing consumer electronics companies to tap into them. Samsung, Panasonic and, more recently, Sony have all agreed to support Tru2Way. Time will tell if the experience measures up, but at least the cable companies will not need to find a way to get Ethernet or Wi-Fi into the living room. And what happens if a BD-Live player includes Tru2Way capabilities? The answer can only be the convergence apocalypse.

Paradoxically, in their quest to position themselves as a legitimate alternative for traditional video to lean-back cable and discs, companies delivering broadband movies to PCs and TVs (including Apple, Microsoft, CinemaNow and now Sony) don't seem focused on taking additional advantage of the very pipe they're using to distribute their content for embedded interactivity. Arguably there is less incentive to do this, as the PC -- which is the home turf for many of these video delivery services -- already provides the best environment for features such as chat and messaging. All of these companies support playback in a window that enables multitasking using any combination of programs that the consumer uses. It could also simply be that they all believe consumers simply don't want these capabilities.

But what if they do? I've argued previously that these competitors should band together for at least the purpose of promoting awareness and the benefits of broadband video distribution, but such a group could also work -- as the disc coalitions did -- to develop interactivity standards that the studios could support. Otherwise, for Internet-enabled movies, the second screen could soon be playing second fiddle.

Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On are his own.
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