The Past, Present and Future of Blu-ray

With the dust settling on the hi-def format war, let's take a moment to study how the winner came to be, and where it's going.

Written by Francis Vale - For the past couple of years, the recent Hi Def DVD wars looked, on the surface at least, like a tired replay of the original DVD format bake off. But there was much more to this Blockbuster story, as we shall see in a bit.

Setting the Stage
On one Hi Def DVD side stood Sony and Blu-ray and its new format’s supporters, including Philips, Apple, Disney, Warner Brothers, among other heavy hitters. But, making Blu-ray discs requires an expensive new manufacturing process, driving costs up.

Enter the HD DVD crowd, lead by Toshiba, whose numbers included the likes of NEC, Paramount, Intel and Microsoft, along with a slew of others. The HD DVD group loudly touted the ability to make its new discs using a simpler manufacturing process, very similar to making current DVD’s, and keeping costs down.

The competing Blu-ray and HD DVD formats quickly became a major food fight, with the hapless consumer getting a big wet pie in the kisser. Sony quickly attacked, saying a major drawback was that an HD DVD’s capacity was much less than Blu-ray. A single layer HD DVD could hold 15 GB, and a dual layer disc 30 GB, with a theoretical maximum capacity of 90 GB. In contrast, a single layer Blu-ray disc can hold 25 GB, while a dual layer disc can hold 50 GB, or over 9 hours of high def content. By adding additional layers, one Blu-ray disc can hold up to 200 GB.

Toshiba ferociously fought back, asserting that a single HD DVD platter could also contain a movie in the current DVD format as well as in the new high-def format, thereby simplifying player design and also making HD DVD’s easier to stock in stores.

To get around compatibility issues while these two heavyweights slugged it out, some vendors began to sell players that could read Blu-ray and HD DVD discs, as well as standard DVD’s. Their task was made somewhat easier as both Blu-ray and HD DVD are capable of outputting 1080P, currently the maximum HDTV resolution, as well as offering Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio sound via HDMI 1.3. (A gotcha—Many first generation HDMI 1.3 players, e.g., Samsung’s, cannot pass either Dolby TrueHD or DTS-HD Master Audio to an HDMI 1.3 receiver over HDMI in its full resolution bit-stream form).

By way of background, know that this feuding between Sony and Toshiba is as time worn as the Hatfield’s and the McCoy’s. Way back when, when standard DVD’s were being born, it was again Sony vs. Toshiba. On one side was Warner/Toshiba with their SD (SuperDisc) format; and on the other were Philips/Sony and their MMCD (MultiMedia CD). The two feuding formats were both offering DVD storage of approximately 4 to 5 gigabytes per side. Both camps also proposed a dual layer technology that effectively doubled single side capacity. The two opposing factions finally joined forces to come up with a single format, which today we know as DVD. This not so loving marriage probably would never have come about were it not for the intervention of a powerful behind the scenes matchmaker, IBM.

IBM got the warring DVD parties to adopt Toshiba’s SD architecture, which consisted of two 0.6-millimeter discs bonded together, while the losing Sony/Philips MMCD design used a single 1.2-millimeter thick platter, just like a CD. Both DVD proposals used relatively long, 630 nm red wavelength lasers, but which today can go as high as 750 nm in some applications.

IBM preferred a 0.6 mm disc, because it believed the thinner SD platter would make it easier to adopt blue lasers when they finally became available at consumer electronics prices. It was believed that using thinner platters would result in less light scattering (signal attenuation) off the disc at the shorter blue wavelength. IBM knew, as did others in the industry, that blue lasers would one day bring tremendous increases in DVD storage capacity. So this is why today’s DVD’s are two thin disks glued together, and it’s also why Toshiba believed it held the winning manufacturing hand with its bonded HD DVD proposal.

But the future is never what you expect. As it turned out, both HD DVD and Blu-ray were to use not a blue laser, which is typically 473 nm in wavelength, but a much shorter 405 nm blue-violet laser. Sony also persisted with its single thick platter notion. It’s engineers were finally able to solve the light scattering problems that can cause signal attenuation and its resulting errors. A Blu-ray disc consists of a 0.1 mm optical transmittance protection layer sitting on top of a 1.1 mm substrate.

And so here we are today. Sony has won, and Toshiba is all sadly black and Blu.

Naturally, Hollywood had to get its licks into the Hi Def DVD brouhaha, because it wanted to protect high def movies from being wantonly copied and distributed by all you at-home pirates. Initially, to get true high def from either of these new DVD formats you were supposed to use the player’s HDMI interface. Otherwise the signal would be downgraded to 480P when you used component video for connecting the player. This downgrade in picture quality was due to ICT, or Image Constraint Token. After much consumer hue and cry, ICT was shelved, at least for now, and you can get full high def signals off either HDMI or component outputs.

There is also now HDMI 1.3 support on various high def DVD players. But both your player and HDTV have to be 1.3 compliant to get all the A/V goodies. In HDMI 1.3 both picture and audio are significantly improved. However, even if both devices sport a 1.3 spec, an HDMI DVD player and a HDMI DTV still may not recognize each other. The result is no picture. Of course, they had to start a special consortium to fix all this consumer confusion. It’s called “Simplay”. If you want to know who currently gets along with whom, go to to see a list of verified HDMI compatible manufacturers.

Coming… Soon?
But now that the Hi Def DVD war is over, what does the Blu-sky future look like? First, there is a new Profile 2.0 spec for Blu-ray, which adds networking capability, as well as picture-in-picture capabilities. In addition, the new 2.0 profile requires two secondary decoders as well at least 1GB of disc storage for updates and content. (Ironic that the losing HD DVD spec had Internet connection and persistent storage capabilities from the get go, and some players also featured PIP.) Next, expect Sun’s JavaFX Script to play an important role in providing gee-whiz graphical user interfaces for Rich Internet Applications running on 2.0 Blu-ray devices. Mix together and bingo, you have a feature and component rich, standalone Web box with a very slick graphical user interface. The current plan is supposedly to have “BD-Live” logos on Blu-ray jewel cases so you know that you need a 2.0 compliant player to get all the goodies.

When you finally attach a Profile 2.0 Blu-ray player with its JavaFX-enabled apps to your broadband Internet provider, you may suddenly start wondering why you need a separate PC, home media server, or a DVR like a Tivo.

And if, by chance, you could even attach to a Profile 2.0 Blu-ray player a 3rd party unit with a powerful 3-D game processor that could be easily upgraded, might that possibly replace your Xbox or PS3?

Of course, Sony has its own ideas about how to hammerlock the consumer market using Profile 2.0. The company thinks the new Blu-ray 2.0 spec will totally cement its Playstation 3 market position. Of the 3.5 million or so Blu-ray players out there in the market, 3 million of them are estimated to be inside a PS3. And guess what? The PS3 is already Profile 2.0 compatible with its network connection, upgradeable hard drive, and its still mostly underutilized graphic processing power. Just plug and chug. You could soon have games, movies, a media server, a DVR, and who knows what else all working off your PS3.

And what about those other half million or so Profile 1.0 and 1.1 Blu-ray players already bought by early adopters? Hello eBay, or right into the dumpster.

So know you know why Sony saw the Hi Def DVD war as being way more vital to its global business than the Betamax/VHS battles of several decades ago. For Sony, Blu-ray is the key to the big enchilada—Owning the consumer market for the fully interactive, multimedia networked home.

And now you also understand why Intel and Microsoft were so firmly entrenched in the opposing HD DVD camp. Sony has become their worst graphical nightmare come to interactive life.

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Right now, the most future-proof BD player is the PS3. Let's look at its software upgrade history:

DVD upscaling? Added (and with a recent upgrade, looks better than most standalone players).

1080p/24 output? Added.

Profile 1.1? Added.

Profile 2.0? Added.

DTS HD MA? [finally] Added.


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