HD picture to come into focus

The fuzzy picture surrounding the launch of two competing high-definition video-disc formats should come into focus this week as supporters of both systems show their latest prototypes and disclose further launch plans at the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas.

At present few specific details are known regarding the launch of players and content supporting the HD-DVD and Blu-ray Disc formats. Most of what is known was disclosed at last year's CES show. In January 2005, companies backing HD-DVD promised to have players and content available in shops by the end of the year, while the backers of Blu-ray Disc gave a vague 2006 time frame for the format's launch.

The 2005 launch plans of the HD-DVD camp slipped twice: once with a delay of the U.S. launch until 2006 and then, in the final weeks of the year, with the announcement that players wouldn't be reaching Japanese retail shelves until 2006. The format's supporters blamed the delay on the inability of a group working on a copy-protection system to complete its tasks on time.

The group behind the AACS (Advanced Access Content System) copy-protection technology has now largely completed its work, and details of its decisions are expected at CES. The group's work affects both the HD-DVD and Blu-ray Disc formats, since AACS has been adopted by both camps.

The Blu-ray Disc group is also expected to announce plans to begin licensing its format to player makers ahead of a launch later in the first half of the year.

With licensing in place, the stage will be set for a launch of both formats. How fast that will happen, in what markets, with what content and at what price will be key pieces of information that could come at CES.

On the issue of price, little is known beyond the "sub-US$1,000" price point for players mentioned by some consumer electronics companies. Hollywood studios haven't yet disclosed the expected price of discs, although some have said they'll be more expensive than existing DVDs.

CES could also bring news of recently developed versions of each format that stand to significantly cut the cost of getting into high-definition video -- if they are commercialized.

Both formats were originally based only on blue-laser technology that enables storage on a 12-centimeter disc of at least 3 times as much data as a DVD allows. Such robust storage media is required because of the greater amount of data used in high-definition video, but blue-laser technology is still relatively new and expensive to implement.

With a format battle brewing, the ability to produce low-cost players and secure market share is also important, and so both the HD-DVD and Blu-ray Disc camps have developed variants of their formats that work with conventional DVDs. The systems use a more efficient compression system that can cram an entire HD movie into the more limited space available on a DVD.

However, while the DVD-based variants have been developed, their place in launch plans remains unknown.

That and much more should become clearer this week and give consumers a better idea of how near they are to the future of high-definition video discs.

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Martyn Williams

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