The likely format battle between HD-DVD and Blu-ray Disc is bad enough for those eagerly awaiting the availability of favorite movies on high definition video discs, but soon there could be another reason to switch off to the new formats: many current HDTVs might be restricted to showing the movies in standard definition.
An industry group is set to rule soon whether millions of HDTV homes will be able to use their existing TV sets or have to buy new sets to watch the movies in high definition. The potential problem is centered around the way that users will be connecting one of the new HD video disc players to their televisions -- or rather, the way that Hollywood wants them to connect, according to representatives of several consumer electronics companies interviewed at the Ceatec exhibition that began Tuesday in Chiba, Japan.
Content holders, such as movie studios and broadcasters, want the HDMI (High Definition Multimedia Interface) connection that is only now becoming a common feature on HDTVs. It's favored because the all-digital connection includes copy protection that makes it difficult to break into the video signal when it makes its way from the player to the TV set.
The problem is that millions of HDTV sets already in people's homes don't have HDMI sockets and make use of older analog methods to transfer video. Analog signals are much easier to tap into than digital signals and so pose a potential threat to studios because they could be used by movie pirates to copy the content. That would defeat several layers of antipiracy measures that have been built into both formats, HD-DVD and Blu-ray Disc.
A decision on whether to allow high-definition over analog connections is expected sometime in October or November and will be made by the group behind the AACS (Advanced Access Content System) content protection system. AACS founders include IBM, Intel, Microsoft, Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. Ltd. (Panasonic), Sony, Toshiba, The Walt Disney Co. and Warner Bros. Studios and the decision will be made with input from content providers.
AACS is used in both formats -- so the decision is likely to affect both HD-DVD and Blu-ray Disc.
Because it's digital, the HDMI connection should be able to deliver a better picture than the analog cables, but what but what about expensive, recently purchased, flat-screen HDTVs that's don't have that connection? Could viewers be limited to watching HD movies in standard quality unless you buy a new TV?
"There are severe negotiations going on with Hollywood," said Kazuhiko Nakane, manager of Mitsubishi Electric's disc format and DVD verification laboratory. A decision is expected this month or next month, he said, but it's been expected before and deadlines have been missed.
Users planning to watch movies over PCs aren't totally out of the woods either. The same issue might cause problems. Even though many monitors now connect to the PC through a digital DVI connection the link is typically absent of copy protection so here too users might be asked to buy a new monitor.
"All the PC monitors in the market except maybe one model don't have HDCP," said Ryoichi Hayatsu, chief manager of NEC's 1st storage products division, referring to the High-bandwidth Digital Content Protection system that's designed to be employed in HDMI and DVI connections. He said negotiations are currently under way on whether a grace period could be given that would allow transmission of HD disc content across the DVI interface until perhaps 2010 to give people time to upgrade their monitors.
In addition to a possible yes/no decision from the AACS group, there's also a possibility that the decision might be left up to content makers to set permission on a per-title basis. If that happens consumers could end up confused over which movies will play in high-definition on their televisions and which ones will be left playing in standard definition, consumer electronics company representatives at Ceatec said.