Hah Definition

Published Date
06 - Aug - 2007
| Last Updated
06 - Aug - 2007
 
Hah Definition
No doubt you're quite familiar with all the HD-oriented blathering we've done in the past few months. Now that you can ride the cutting edge of display technology for as little (?) as, and perhaps less than, Rs 40,000, the world of high-definition movies, gaming and television is your oyster. Just one problem, though.

Nothing's On
In a typical case of hardware overtaking software, there's a terrifying lack of content for us to watch on our shiny new HD screens. Worse, because the standard-definition content you're watching is lower than your HDTV's native resolution, it looks awful-much more so than on your old CRT TV. Before we even bother wondering about the future of HD, we must worry about the future of HD content. At the end of 2006, 8.5 million households in Japan were satisfying themselves with a daily dose of HD content. Together, American and Japanese households make up 91 per cent of the world's HDTV-enabled population.

Meanwhile, we must fester in our jealousy-apart from the minority that subscribes to Direct-to-home (DTH) and Conditional Access System (CAS) for television, nobody experiences digital TV; HD content is but a dream. If you consider the world outside the US and Japan, it's quite clear we're not alone in our deprivation, and we can take some comfort in that fact. But whither content?

When we spoke to IOL Broadband about... er... broadband earlier this year, we were treated to claims of HDTV services that will be available in "a few days." It's been quite a few days, and HDTV is still just an item under "Services" on their Web site. Not that they are to blame-nobody's making HD content for television! It's the chicken-and-egg story all over again...

We bitch aplenty now, but the transition to HD is as inevitable as the transition from black-and-white to colour television-slow and lumbering though it might be. And then, perhaps within the decade itself, HD will become passé.

Beyond Just HD
While we gush over the gorgeous resolution of 1920 x 1080 (1080p) that true HD offers, Japan's NHK (Nippon Hoso Kyokai, or the Japan Broadcasting Corporation) has been testing a new format called Super Hi-vision, or Ultra High Definition TV (UHDTV), which offers sixteen times the pixel resolution-an eye-popping 7680 x 4320 (4320p)!

Visually, there's little here in the way of enhanced experiences, though-it's effectively the same old HD, just really, really big. What does make a difference is the audio. Where we rejoice with 7.1 channels, viewers of UHD content will be treated to glorious 22.2-channel audio-24 speakers, arranged in three layers: ten at ear level, nine above and five below.

Even NHK admits that the technology is experimental and it'll most likely be a decade, perhaps longer, before we see such resolutions in auditoriums, and much longer for living rooms. Firstly, because... well, think about it: at 2000p, movies are crisp and impeccable on large movie screens, and even that's a novelty; it'll be a long while before HD becomes "boring old standard definition." Secondly, there's the matter of storage. Each minute of uncompressed UHD video takes up a 194 GB, so a two-hour movie will occupy a gargantuan 25 terabytes! Even the best compression will result in a movie that's a couple of terabytes in size; where are we going to put it all?

That, incidentally, is the question everyone's asking.

Blu-ray vs. HD-DVD vs. EVD vs. Who?
We all know of the infinitely nauseating Blu-ray vs. HD-DVD wars-while they've haunted our consciousness for so many years, they're still not mainstream, leaving ample time for people to come up with alternatives that may just take the lead from behind...

With growing support, it seems that
Blu-ray will hunt  our  living  rooms
in the coming years

Our underdog in this race is the Enhanced Versatile Disc (EVD)-developed and supported by an alliance of Chinese consumer electronics manufacturers, the EVD isn't a new disc format, per se-it's based on the same old red-laser technology used in today's DVD players. It just uses a new, proprietary compression method to squeeze two hours of high-definition video on to a 9 GB dual-layer DVD.

This, however, doesn't mean that EVDs will work on your old DVD drive or player, mind you-money will need to flow out of your pockets, but the amount won't be as daunting as the money you'd be shelling out for a Blu-ray or HD-DVD player. The format, however, is more of an attempt to escape paying patent royalties on DVD players, and hasn't received much support from the movie studios. Why would Sony Pictures-one of the largest movie production houses in the world-use any format but its own Blu-ray?

Such novel and low-cost disc formats are likely to get squished into oblivion by the Big Bad Corporations, who seem to be leaning more and more towards Blu-ray. Blu-ray drives and players made it earlier to the market and the discs are capable of a greater capacity than HD-DVDs; with growing support, it seems that Blu-ray will haunt our living rooms in the coming years.

Then again, maybe it's not the big movie studios who'll invade our homes...
Look Ma, I'm On TV!
Programmed entertainment is so...

 
In another time and another world, the sight of a Hungarian fat guy bouncing to the sound of an obscure Moldovan dance number wouldn't have elicited little more than a giggle or two. Today, Gary Brolsma, to his own surprise and occasional dismay, is one of the Internet's biggest stars, and Numa Numa (the oddly catchy Dragosta din tei by O-zone) is an online anthem. Think about it-would you rather suffer the assault of miscellaneous saas-bahus, or watch an average-looking old bloke play Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody with nothing but his palms? (www.youtube.com/watch? v=IOyEw9bT8yQ, for those interested)

The Perfect Medium
Don't you wish you'd thought of YouTube? It's just such a simple idea-let users upload and share videos they've created with everyone, and see what happens. Plenty happened, clearly. Your friend uploaded a video, you went and lol-ed at it, figured out you might as well check out some of the other videos, liked them, got hooked, put up your own video, told a friend. The same thing happens to around 13 million users every month, and that all-powerful beast-the community-ensures that those that deserve it become Internet icons, and the mediocre get squished under its merciless feet.

In retrospect, it's easy to see why YouTube kicks hindquarter. We've all developed what can only be described as collective Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD)-we've always got multiple application and/or browser windows open and are chatting up a friend or two while we're at it. The thought of investing an hour and a half sitting in front of the PC watching a movie and not doing anything is, well, strange. YouTube-esque user videos are perfect. They're short enough so you won't get that itch to [Alt] [Tab] away to check your mail, and they're isolated units with no preceding or succeeding episodes, so there's none of that emotional investment that comes with watching your favourite serial-no aching for the next instalment. Most content lacks depth, so your grey cells aren't taxed much; it's just pure fun. If you feel like making your own, instant gratification awaits you around the corner. And finally, there's no schedule to be followed-all content is at your fingertips when you want it, and can be shooed away on a whim, to be viewed later. Beautiful.

So you're going to get plenty of entertainment online, but surely you can't subsist on home movies, no matter how cool. People are being paid good money to reel you in, and many of them have been successful in doing so-you can't give them up that easily, can you? Thankfully, you might not have to subject yourself to a TV or movie schedule despite that.

 

Meeting Half Way
If you were in the US, you could watch episodes of Heroes-the ridiculously popular new series-online. Free. Last year, the Central Broadcasting System (CBS) launched their own site called Innertube, which streamed a lot of the network's content-news reports, sports, and reruns of old shows. Innertube was a disaster-even CBS executives eventually nicknamed it "www.cbs.com/nobodycomeshere". That, however, is beside the point.

Consider this-when the VCD first came out, was your PC your first choice to watch it on? Most likely not. Programs go on computers, movies go on TV. Yet today, you have no qualms downloading the latest blockbuster (you scurvy pirating scallywag, you) and watching it on your PC, do you? Which brings us to the point we started earlier-even content providers have realised that we look at our PCs and the Internet as sources of entertainment, so they've decided to feed it to us that way.

Ultimately, with broadcasters moving online, we'll get the best of both worlds-the reeling-in, compelling content that we're used to on TV, but without being tied to a particular time or day of the week; want a show, watch it whenever you want.

The Dream
CBS's mistake with Innertube was trying to force people to come to their site for CBS content-the tactic works on classical TV, where you flip to a broadcaster's channel to view their content, but not so on the Internet. As consumers of online entertainment, we want just one single platform from whence we can watch all the movies, music videos and TV shows that we want. And it seems clear that platform is going to be Joost.

Even content providers have realised
that we look at our PCs and the internet
as source of entertainment

In technology terms, Joost is an online video service that uses peer-to-peer (P2P) technology to deliver content to users. In lay terms, it's perhaps the boldest idea in online entertainment we've ever seen. If its vision comes true, Joost will be that one-stop shop you go to for all your digital entertainment. Think of it as YouTube meets Windows Media Center meets TV. Select your channel, the show, and the episode you want to watch, sit back, and watch as your request is streamed to you via your (hopefully) fast broadband connection. You'll have to endure 30 seconds of targeted advertisements (they have to make their money, after all), but it'll be worth it.

Joost is still in Beta, while they iron out technical issues as well as copyright issues with the broadcasters, and the potential is tantalising. Some content has already made it to Joost-episodes of Fifth Gear, a popular British auto show, short animations by Aardman Studios (the guys behind Wallace And Gromit and Chicken Run), music videos, and so on-nothing particularly remarkable at this stage, though we should see CBS's content finally make it to Joost soon. Even Viacom has agreed to let it show content from MTV and Nickelodeon, though this isn't applicable for India. More broadcasters will follow, and Joost, unlike so many good ideas, will happen. We're even going to take a leap of faith and say that Joost may eventually feature a user-submitted video channel, or even integrate with YouTube to become the ultimate entertainment platform. Joost's beta program is invitation-only, so you'll have to find a friend who's already using it and sock him/her with an unexpected complement or two.

Get Indian broadcasters on board with Joost,
and in two years, we'll be wondering what
we ever did without it.

Get Indian broadcasters on board with Joost, or create our very own Indian version, and in two years, we'll be wondering what we ever did without it.

Beyond
But we're a mobile generation, aren't we? The act of plonking a bunch of MP3s on our phones or PMPs before we set out in the morning is second nature to us. Now picture a world where we get 4G broadband on our cell phones, and combine that with a Joost-ed future. Everything that is wonderful about Joost on your desktop will move to your laptop, to your cell phone, your Internet tablet (should you be using one at the time), everything.

Concepts like TiVO or Personal Video Recording (PVR) will cease to exist in the context that they do today (viz. pausing live TV). You won't even need to record programs for later viewing, simply because they'll always be there.

There's been lots of talk about India forgoing 3G and going 4G, but given the way we're getting on with 2.5G mobile networks, you can't be blamed for viewing the above as a pipe dream. There is considerable hope in WiMAX, working models of which have already been demonstrated by service providers such as Sify. For more, read about the future of communications elsewhere in this issue.

This vision depends not only on the availability of a good connection, but also on the availability of restriction-free content...
Between Rights And Wrongs

Will we be doomed to a DRM-ed future?


We in India are still quite insulated from it, but soon enough, we'll be touched by the icy hand of Digital Rights Management (DRM) too, and 'twill be a black day for us all. For a while after its introduction, record companies strongly claimed that DRM was in the interests of the artists; now it's taken for granted, and even admitted that DRM is a way to get more money out of consumers.

Rays Of Hope
In his now famous Thoughts On Music, Steve Jobs started a chain of thought that no one expected him to-what if the big four record companies were to start selling DRM-free music through iTunes?



Knowing that you've purchased music that doesn't impinge on your fair use rights, and will continue to work even after you've gone through seven PC upgrades, five new portable media players, and three different music management programs-it's like the wanton file-sharing we indulge in now, only legal! EMI tested the waters soon after, announcing that select tracks will be available on iTunes sans DRM and at a superior encoding rate, for an additional $0.40 (Rs 18), taking the price of a DRM-free song to $1.29 (Rs 58). The EMI deal isn't exclusive to iTunes, either-in April, Microsoft announced that it will also begin selling DRM-free music on the Zune Marketplace as well. Amazon's also coming up with it's own DRM-free music store-featuring, obviously, only EMI music. The proposed price is still pretty high for a song, but that will change if the remaining big three-Sony BMG, Universal and Warner decide to go the DRM-free way too. But will that solve the problem?

Even in a DRM-less world, it's doubtful that music sharing over the Internet will ever cease-not because of the natural tendency to gravitate towards "free" music, not even out of the desire to "stick it to the man," but because of the sheer variety of music you have access to. Go down to your local music store and ask them for Cockney Rebel's last album. Do write in if the salespeople don't goggle at you like you have some strange speech impediment. The shelves of music stores are stocked only with the CDs that sell, as will be the virtual shelves of all the music stores you'll visit. So if you want to get your hands on a classic, or the music of an obscure flash-in-the-pan band, your only hope is the file-sharing network, regardless of the existence of DRM. There's your excuse for the year-you pirate, simply because nobody else is giving you what you want-even when you're ready to pay for it!

Common Good

In the spirit of shunning DRM and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), independent bands are now choosing Creative Commons (CC) licensing system. CC allows for varying degrees of freedom with content-right from fully-exploitable public domain material to personal-use-only copyrighted material. However, unlike the record companies who assume the worst, CC uses a deeper protection system-faith. CC licenses make no restrictions on personal use, and they assume that you'll respect the terms of the license, rather than enforce it on you through clunky DRM schemes. New artists have realised that the best way to get noticed is to become a viral phenomenon on the Web, and for that, the music files need to flow freely.

And they do-the albums included in this month's DVD, for instance, are licensed under the CC-Attribution-ShareAlike or Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike licences, meaning that you're free to do whatever you want with the work-remixing included-as long as you give credit to the original artist, don't try to make money off that work (only in the latter case) and share the work under a similar license. The social Web will then kick in, and stars will be born. These indie heroes don't need to work for no bread, either (the CC licenses are mostly applicable to free content)-once they've got the exposure, they can make money off commercial uses of their work: playing it on a radio station, live shows, remixing and redistribution rights, and so on. Every waiver of a license condition can come with its own monetary reward. Money will be made, and everyone will live happily ever after.

Power To The People
EMI's decision to offer DRM-free music is testament to how powerful the public voice can be. In the beginning, we perceived no chance that any of the big corporations would forego the opportunity to squeeze more money out of people every time they tried to make a fifth or sixth copy of their music, or tried to burn it to a CD, or wanted to listen to it one time too many; but it happened. The people expressed a desire, screamed themselves hoarse, and were finally heard. DRM-free music opens up a whole new world for you-your fair use rights are left intact, and finally, if you ever get sick of that iPod, you can invest in a different brand and not worry about your music not working any more. Bliss. If only.

DRM is going to be around for a good bit longer.
If anything, restrictions will only vanish up to a
point where nobody's complaining any more

The Reluctant Crowd
Apple has been pressurising the remaining three record companies to go the way of EMI, but they don't seem to be relenting-not for Apple, and not for Amazon's upcoming DRM-free music store. It's quite apparent that even movie studios aren't too interested in letting their cash cow go that easy-what with Blu-ray and HD-DVD movies coming with DRM and copy-protection built into them. The Sony-Toshiba-IBM Cell processor, which you'll find in the PlayStation 3, also sports an architecture that will theoretically support uncrackable, hardware-level DRM. Free world indeed.

DRM is going to be around for a bit longer. If anything, restrictions will only vanish up to a point where nobody's complaining any more.

Apple's FairPlay DRM, for instance, is quite... well... fair, when you think about it. You can copy your music to an infinite number of iPods, and authorise three PCs to play your iTunes movies and music. For the few who have hit these limits, even FairPlay is restrictive, but the majority isn't complaining. You don't see Apple planting rootkits on their customers' computers, now, do you? The only drawback is that you're stuck to your iTunes and iPod till you decide to break away from Apple and crack the DRM to play your music on your new media player. In many ways, this equilibrium seems acceptable-the record companies will finally shut up, and you won't be subjected to the million inconveniences that come with other DRM schemes.
Undesirable, yes. Get used to it.


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