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An Open Letter to the Studios and the Blu-ray Disc Association

Nov 12th, 2008
A solution to destructive load time and firmware issues

I’m confident that all Blu-ray Disc enthusiasts will welcome a new $25 million campaign to encourage mainstream consumers to adopt the high definition format (more about that soon). After all, the economic success of the format ensures our continuing enjoyment the best high definition home delivery system for film ever devised by man. But even though BD’s presentation is light-years beyond DVD’s, consumers used to the response times of DVD players may be disappointed or, worse, deterred by BD’s painfully slow load times and firmware issues.

The Threats To Mainstream Acceptance Of Blu-Ray Disc

There are several causes for load delays. When a BD first loads, there are housekeeping tasks that must be accomplished, such as establishing an HDMI dialog with a legitimate display device and security measures. Next is the BD-J code associated with elaborate interactive menus, including graphics and animation. And then there is the BD-J code associated with special features, like games or interactive supplements, including BD Live web-based content. The long-loading features are among those that the BDA and the studios’ BD proponents like to cite to differentiate BD from less capable DVD. But what if the long load times discourage the mainstream from accepting the BD format?

I tried unsuccessfully to find the original reference so I could cite it for you, but several years ago I distinctly recall reading the results of a consumer market survey that indicated only 30% of all DVD viewers care about and watch supplements. I suspect that enthusiasts, who are more likely to be early adopters, are also more likely to be interested in supplements. So the industry runs the risk of alienating perhaps over 70% of potential buyers (overwhelmingly mainstream consumers) with slow, annoying supplement load times; this puts at risk the acceptance of the format. And it’s not at all clear that elaborate animated menus add to the Blu-ray Disc experience, especially for those who are simply interested in the best film experience at home. And all viewers who simply want to rewatch a film on Blu-ray Disc, including those who’ve already watched the supplements, must suffer through long load times for the sake of fancy menus.

Then there’s the frustration of incompatible discs and the new firmware updates required to view them. I’ve updated my Sony BDP-S1 no fewer than seven times and I’m currently awaiting another update disc. Each update was made necessary by a Blu-ray Disc that either crashed the player or behaved improperly because of a BD-J issue. And since Sony does not have an email subscription service that automatically notifies player owners of newly offered firmware updates, I must go to the phone or the Web to discover that my player is a firmware generation behind. I must then call Sony and request a firmware update DVD, since my computer’s DVD burner is the wrong flavor for the BDP-S1. Five to ten days later, I’ll receive the disc. Only then can I watch the BD that caused the problem.

How do you think mainstream consumers who don’t have the technical means or expertise to burn their own firmware discs will react to such inconvenience and delay? Mainstream consumers are going to buy older Profile 1.0 and 1.1 players this holiday season, only to discover that they cannot play some of the new and very popular Blu-ray Discs. The James Bond films are the most recent examples that come to mind. They played on my Sony BDP-S550, but Sony tells me that firmware level 4.2 was released for my BDP-S1 to deal with them.

Frustration is not the way to win the hearts and minds of mainstream consumers, but there is a potential solution that will solve both the load delay problems and the frustrating firmware wait problem.

A Potential Solution

I wish I could take full credit for it, but I can’t. It was inspired by one of our readers, David, who lives on Oahu. (I’ve always said that a relaxing environment inspires creativity.) It’s one of those wonderful ideas obvious in hindsight, a hit-myself-on-the-forehead concept. He suggested BDs modeled after SuperBit DVDs, movie-only BDs that would maximize the quality of the presentation and eliminate the features that require slow-loading or buggy BD-J code. But since that would involve studio production of and dealer stocking of multiple versions of the same film, I took his suggestion and expanded on the concept, taking advantage of BD’s substantial storage space.

You’re all familiar with discs that offer major choices as part of the process of getting the film started. Journey to the Center of the Earth offers a choice of a 2-D presentation or a 3-D presentation. Hancock offers a choice of the theatrical version or an extended unrated cut. So it should be a very simple matter to give the viewer the choice between elaborate BD-J dependent features and user interface or a simpler user interface with static menus. BDs’ housekeeping code would have to be loaded as usual, but before any other BD-J code is loaded, the viewer would be presented with a static menu. One menu choice would be to load the disc’s elaborate, animated user interface and would access BD-J dependent features; the choice would include a warning about potentially long load delays. The other choice would be a simple, static user interface similar to the earliest BDs, which would load much faster; the choice would include a warning that certain special features may not be accessible. This concept is very similar to Microsoft Window’s offering a choice of starting in the Safe Mode, which doesn’t load potentially troubling device drivers.

With the simpler interface, all the non-BD-J dependent supplements would still be accessible. But all menus would be static, similar to those found on the earliest BDs. Elaborate menu animation, BD-J games, BD-J dependent supplements, and BD Live components would not be accessible. Static menus could still be superimposed and operable during the film just like they were on early BDs that didn’t have elaborately animated menu systems. So with a very modest addition to content that would require a small bit budget, BD load cycles could be greatly minimized, enhancing the perception of performance and reducing frustrations.

Another advantage of selecting the simpler user interface would be the ability to restart a BD at the point when it was stopped, something that used to be accommodated but cannot be done with BD-J dependent content.

And yet another advantage would be the ability to bypass BD-J compatibility issues if a viewer wants to watch a film from a disc that requires a firmware update. By selecting the simpler interface the viewer can watch the film immediately. When the player manufacturer eventually provides the firmware DVD, the viewer can update the player and reload the film disc to watch the supplements. This is a non-issue for Profile 2.0 players, which have the ability to download updates, but since not all mainstream consumers are going to establish an Internet connection to their BD player, the issue might remain.

What Is Being Done For Blu-Ray Disc

With the holidays nearly upon us, the Digital Entertainment Group has initiated an ad campaign valued at over $25 million to appeal to mainstream consumers to buy into the Blu-ray Disc format. The campaign is known as “Tru Blu” and is supported by a number of major studios, including Lionsgate, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment, Universal Studios Home Entertainment, Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment, and Warner Home Video. Leading consumer electronics manufacturers such as Panasonic and Sony Electronics are also supporting Tru Blu. Ad time will be bought on broadcasts and cablecasts, ads will be purchased online and in motion picture theaters, all highlighting Blu-ray’s superior picture, superior sound quality, and the blockbuster titles available on the format.

Market research firm DisplaySearch estimates that U.S. consumers will purchase nearly 2.4 million stand alone Blu-ray players in 2008, more than three times the number sold in 2007, bringing the total installed base of Blu-ray devices in the U.S. to more than eight million. Blu-ray Discs currently average more than 10 percent of disc sales for major new home entertainment releases. This campaign is designed to solidify the format and motivate mainstream consumers’ purchases.

The campaign primarily targets consumers between 25 and 44 years of age who are now HDTV owners or intend to purchase an HDTV. The campaign has a significant educational component at retail with a full package of in-store support elements designed to reinforce the campaign’s message and help customers navigate the purchase decision process. The ad campaign will drive consumers to a dedicated website where they’ll be able to find demonstrations of Blu-ray’s features through news, trailers, and exclusive content. Expect an emphasis on the format’s high definition picture and sound qualities, Bonus View, and BD Live.

Alas, I don’t think this is enough to ensure mainstream acceptance. There must be studio sensitivity to viewers’ perceptions, particularly among those who are not technically oriented.

Parting Thoughts

This writer sincerely believes that load delays and firmware issues represent a potential impediment to mainstream consumer acceptance of Blu-ray Disc. Having become used to the snappy load times of DVD menus, BD load delays might be perceived by non-enthusiasts as a step backward. And disc incompatibilities that require significant owner participation to resolve firmware issues will cause unwelcome aggravation at best, and confusion and frustration at worst. I’d like to think that the concept David inspired might solve these problems until such time as dedicated players become so powerful that load delays are a non-issue and Profile 2.0 (or higher) players dominate and overwhelmingly are connected to the Internet (or BD-J issues are all resolved, just like DVD playback glitches eventually went away). I can only hope that the studios and the BDA consider this suggested solution as a positive strategy that will help grow the Blu-ray Disc format. I, for one, very much want the Blu-ray Disc format to become a rousing financial success so I can continue to enjoy film from the very best high definition delivery system ever offered.