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Disney goes BD Live

Jun 18th, 2008
Demos Sleeping Beauty for press impressive

When I heard that Disney and Panasonic would be co-hosting a demonstration in Washington D.C. of Disney’s upcoming Sleeping Beauty Blu-ray Disc release to showcase its BD Live bonus features, I jumped at the chance to attend. For those of you not very familiar with the Washington D.C. area, the Willard Hotel is always a pleasure to visit for any reason, and how often does one get invited to enjoy the cutting edge of home theater technology in a plush Victorian ballroom?

At this point in the market acceptance of high definition disc media, we’ve got a mix of veterans from the HD DVD/Blu-ray Disc format war, new blu converts, and even larger crowd of spectators on the fence that are waiting for hardware prices to drop before they take the plunge. And for this reason there’s probably a wide disparity in the understanding of many of the new technical terms and features that apply to HD media and Blu-ray Disc in particular. So let’s take a moment to set the stage before getting into the details of the show.

So what’s BD Live?

BD Live is a feature of Blu-ray Disc's Profile 2.0 specification, which also requires requisite Internet connectivity. It refers to the Blu-ray Disc format’s recent introduction of web-based bonus features that, in fairness to the HD DVD format and those who embraced it, HD DVD had going from the very beginning. While Toshiba ensured that all HD DVD hardware would be fully compliant with web-based HD DVD bonus content from the moment of the format’s launch, the Blu-ray camp was forced to bring product to market that had not been fully developed. Blu-ray hardware manufacturers were encouraged to introduce Profile 1.0 players that didn’t meet the format’s full specifications; this prevented HD DVD from becoming a de facto standard, a strategy that paid off. There was an intermediate extension to Profile 1.1 and a product introduction deadline was imposed. Profile 1.1 provided a limited addition to the full BD spec, Bonus View, a picture-in-picture feature that HD DVD also offered from the start. Interestingly, going forward the BD Group has placed no requirement on hardware manufacturers for full compliance with BD Live/Profile 2.0 Internet-accessed bonus content. To be clear, all BD players must be able to play BD Live discs, not necessarily display BD Live bonus materials.

But without straying too far into a critique of the Blu-ray Disc camp’s management of specification compliance, the lack of required compatibility will become irrelevant as demand for BD Live grows and chipset manufactures reduce the costs of fully compliant hardware (see this article). Keep in mind that the DVD format never required that players recognize the DTS bit stream, yet virtually all DVD hardware today is fully compatible with DTS. Profile 2.0 will likely have a similar acceptance arc.

So what does this have to do with Disney’s Sleeping Beauty? Well, up until this point the only consumer Blu-ray Disc player that was able to access and play web-based BD Live bonus features has been the Sony PS3 (with the appropriate firmware update applied). However, in a few short weeks Panasonic will be releasing its first BD Live/Profile 2.0 compliant standalone player [as will Sony - Ed.]. So Disney has been working closely with Panasonic and other manufacturers to ensure that with the October release of Sleeping Beauty, their first BD-Live enabled Blu-ray Disc, there will be plenty of hardware on the market capable of accessing the Internet feature-set of Blu-ray Disc.

Does this mean that if you already own a Blu-ray Disc player that you’ll need to buy another player with BD Live capability if you want to have access to these new web-based bonus items? The simple answer is yes, unless you have the Sony PS3, which already has network connectivity and is firmware upgradable. Progress marches on, and early adopters always pay a price for the privilege of enjoying bleeding edge technology… right? Well, whether you agree or not, technology is marching on and Disney is a content leader.

Disney’s Angle

So far there have been a handful of BD titles that provide a few simple web-based features via BD Live, but Disney is about to take the supplements in a whole new direction. They have set up a network infrastructure intended to support millions of Blu-ray Disc consumers around the globe, and they are committed to making every Disney-branded Blu-ray Disc fully compliant with BD Live beginning with Sleeping Beauty when it’s released in October. Disney knows that quality conscious consumers like you are primarily interested in pristine 1080p picture quality and lossless sound fidelity. But they also want Blu-ray Disc to be something that families can buy for their kids to enjoy. They are convinced that pushing the envelope with real-time interactivity with other users via the web is a good way to distinguish Blu-ray Disc from standard DVD. It will help high definition media to gain traction with a consumer base that otherwise might be slow to replace its existing DVD collection with Blu-Ray Discs. I think they’re right. And the beauty of Blu-ray Disc is that is has the space and bandwidth to support such bonus content without any compromise to the audio and video qualities of the disc’s feature film.

The Event

As my partner and I approached the event, it was instantly recognizable; closed French doors shimmered with a purple glow. Once inside we were greeted by some promotional staff from Disney and several representatives from Panasonic. Looking around the room, it was very clear that this was as much a Panasonic demonstration as it was a showcase for Sleeping Beauty and BD Live. We were surrounded by impressively large and perfectly calibrated Panasonic flatscreen displays ablaze with 1080p Blu-ray images that seem right at home amidst the stone-castle props and medieval decorations. We were walked through a presentation about Disney’s plans for BD Live and the features that will be appearing on the Sleeping Beauty Blu-ray Disc this fall. As all press events like this tend to be, the slant was heavily tilted in a sales direction, although all of the technical points were accurate. Even an ardent technophile had to be impressed with the presentation. Once this ten-minute introduction was over, we passed through a castle gate replete with velvet curtains to enter a second room where we were able to experiment hands-on with each of the BD Live bonus features that will premiere on Sleeping Beauty.

Panasonic’s Profile 2.0 player: the DMP-BD50

Panasonic’s soon to be released BD Live/Profile 2.0 player, the DMP-BD50, was featured in most of the booths; a Sony PS3 occupied one of them. We had the pleasure of playing real BD Live features from Blu-ray Discs that were connecting in real-time to the Disney BD Live network. So although the Sleeping Beauty Blu-ray Discs aren’t ready for replication, we were playing real BD-Live featured discs on production Panasonic BD50 players and a Sony PS3 all connected to the web and Disney’s BD Live network. This was not a PowerPoint presentation; it was an actual BD Live event. The Panasonic BD50 is smooth as silk in its responsiveness and it produced a stunning 1080p picture (more on that picture in a moment). The BD Live features fell into three categories: what Disney calls Movie Chat, Movie Mail, and Movie Challenge. For each of these features, as I describe their particular implementation on Sleeping Beauty, I encourage you to keep your skepticism at bay and instead think outside the box about the possibilities for how these features can evolve over time.

BD Live Features

Movie Chat refers to Disney’s instant messaging feature that allows users to type text to one another using a (cumbersome) onscreen menu or (more likely) via any PDA device such as a PC, laptop, cell phone, blackberry, iPhone, etc. Why would you type text messages during a movie? Keep in mind that Disney’s target audience for a feature like this is primarily a kid or tween age group, which, if you know kids, already text message each other during movies. This takes it to a new level by letting everyone keep their eyes on the screen while they do it and allows the chat to go beyond just two people. Why would anyone older than 14 want to do this? Well, one cool thing that this feature does it that it synchronizes the movie-play of the group members, so this gives you the ability to watch the movie at precisely the same time as someone who’s not with you in your home theater. The two of you can sit down with synchronized play and then, when you get to a part of the film when there might be something you want to tell them about, you can send a quick note saying “here’s the scene with the character that reminds me of your grandmother” or “will you marry me” or whatever other compelling message you might want to send. Those of you who’ve attempted synchronized viewing with friends or family to share the occasional anecdotal moment can now do so without consuming cell phone or long distance minutes. This could be a way-cool feature for film school students. Imagine using this feature to watch season four of LOST on Blu-ray with your buddies around the globe to point out various hints or clues as you discover them. Think outside the box.

Movie Mail is similar, but it’s not real-time communication. In this case, Disney allows users to upload a video clip of themselves to the Disney Network and address it to a particular BD Live member (you will have to do a one-time registration with the service to gain access) and you can request that it be displayed inside a particular scene of a particular film. The next time that the other user turns on his or her Blu-ray Player to play that title, he or she is notified that there’s a new message to open and view. Doing so will play the movie clip with the message imbedded in picture-in-picture style. It’s probably not hard to imagine how this feature could be easily used when giving Blu-ray Discs as gifts; when your friend or family member finally goes to play the disc, they’re prompted with a welcome message with you and your friends singing happy birthday right there on their high definition TV screen. For families separated by distance, such personalized messages could become a highly demanded feature. Think outside the box.

The last web feature Disney showcased was Movie Challenge, which very simply takes a question & answer game like we have already using Bonus View (the Enchanted Blu-ray Disc has a great trivia game), and it connects your game and score count to the games and score counts with other users playing at the same time while connected to the network; this allows you to compete with them. For kids who watch DVDs for electronic babysitting, games like this have a lot of potential. Think outside the box.

Oh Yeah, so how did that Sleeping Beauty Blu-ray Disc actually look?

Wow. Folks, the pathetic-quality trailer that you’ve seen on Disney Blu-ray Discs with its blurry out-of-focus images and annoying fluctuations from dark-to-light is gone. Apparently, that trailer was prepared from older elements before Disney had the new digital files from this all-new transfer properly restored. What we saw from the clips of Sleeping Beauty in this demonstration was nothing short of awe inspiring. The 1080p picture was razor sharp, not a hint of edge halos, colors were rich, saturated, and rock-solid, and there was no noise and no contrast fluctuations whatsoever. Detail was incredible, and black levels were spot on. It looked like perfection and was like staring at painted animation cels right in front you. It reminded me of the Cinderella DVD, which also has a stable and noise-free picture, but with the wealth of added detail and color dimension of high definition. The new Blu-ray Disc images look nothing like the compromised and edge halo ridden picture of the existing standard definition Sleeping Beauty DVD, and DTS Digital Images (formerly Lowry Images) has worked their magic to clean each frame to the point of revealing every detail of the original hand-painted artwork without anything in the way. Stunning!

Oh yes, and that 2.55:1 aspect ratio you may have heard about... I received assurances that this aspect ratio is in fact the native aspect ratio of the original photographed negatives and was not achieved by cropping any picture content. For those of you wondering why I’m making a point of this, there’s a bit of controversy among Sleeping Beauty aficionados about this 2.55:1 choice for the Blu-ray Disc since the original theatrical aspect ratio was actually narrower given 70 mm and 35 mm projection at the time. Disney’s choice to go with 2.55:1 may be controversial with regard to original theatrical aspect ratio, but it’s not controversial with regard to the original filmed aspect ratio. Once we can get our hands on some real image captures to compare among the various incarnations we’ll confirm (our review of the Blu-ray Disc in the fall will try to clarify issues related to aspect ratio).

I also did my part to let the Disney representatives know how important it is for fans to be provided with the original soundtrack mix presented in lossless fidelity on Blu-ray Disc. This is important because Disney’s trend is to provide new mixes that are optimized (a debatable term) for home theater, although Disney is generally very good about providing the original sound mix in addition to any new mix on a disc. Alas, there have been some painful exceptions, The Little Mermaid being one. Let’s hope that our desires for both new and original mixes to be provided in lossless fidelity is taken seriously when Disney begins to release their classic library on Blu-ray Disc. In the case of Sleeping Beauty, Disney recently discovered original source recordings in Germany that were used for the historic multi-channel mix, so I’m optimistic for some spectacular sound (the demonstration venue didn’t provide an adequate way to judge sound quality or to compare alternate mixes).

Parting Thoughts

Good things come to those who wait, and considering BD Live features and Blu-ray Disc, we’ve been waiting for a while. But attending a demonstration like this hosted by Disney and Panasonic makes it clear that major studios and manufacturers are poised to take the capabilities of Blu-ray Disc to the max. Keep an open mind. And think outside the box.

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