Roll Over CD-ROMs and VCRs, Here Comes DVD

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This columnn by Douglas Dixon was published in U.S. 1

Newspaper on April 21, 1999. All rights reserved.

MANIFEST TECHNOLOGY

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Roll Over CD-ROMs and VCRs, Here Comes DVD

by Douglas Dixon

Just when you might have been getting comfortable with

the idea of creating your own CD-ROMs to replace floppy disks ("Record

Your Own CDs," U.S. 1, March 17), along comes the next great new

technology which makes even CD-ROM look puny by comparison. DVD (Digital

Versatile Disc) is more than a bigger disc, it is the great industry

hope for the next new breakthrough consumer electronics gizmo. You

may have noticed DVD video players for sale at the local Best Buy,

or movies on DVD discs starting to appear at your local video rental

store, or new computers with DVD drives instead of CD-ROMs. What’s

this all about?

DVD combines the benefits of cool new digital video and audio technology

with the marketing desire to have a whole new generation of consumer

products to sell. DVDs are certainly versatile: They promise to replace

VCR videotapes, and audio CDs, and also computer CD-ROMs. However,

this promise is diluted by infighting among major companies in the

consumer electronics industry who are trying to define and own the

fundamental standards.

The technical benefit of DVD is huge: Even though DVD discs are the

same physical size as regular CDs, new technology permits them to

hold seven times more data per disc. That’s 4.7 gigabytes (billion

characters) on one DVD, compared to a puny 650 megabytes (million

characters) on a CD. In addition, the size can be doubled by simply

by using both sides of the disc, and then almost doubled again by

actually recording data on a second semitransparent layer, to provide

up to a total of 17 Gigabytes per disc. Even better, you can still

use your old CDs in a new DVD drive.

The second technical breakthrough with video DVDs is that the video

is stored digitally. Even though we’re familiar with digital audio

on CDs, we’re still playing analog videotapes on our VCRs. The resolution

of analog tapes is less than regular TV, and the quality suffers further

as the tape is played over and over again. With DVDs, the video and

the audio are digital, with higher resolution and the same original

high quality each time you play them. By applying advanced compression

techniques, an entire two-hour movie, plus other related material,

can be squeezed onto a single DVD disc.

DVDs also can be much more interactive than videotape. You can use

a contents menu to jump directly to a specific portion, and skip around

without a long wait for a tape to rewind. While you play a video,

you can choose between multiple audio tracks with different languages,

or different subtitles, especially for music videos. You also can

view a concert from different camera angles, or make a movie interactive

by seamlessly jumping between alternate versions of the story.

A Franklin Corner Road-based company, Front Porch Video (FPV), has

been in the forefront of the development of DVD technology. Front

Porch Video was launched in 1996 by Jay Yogeshwar and Dean Harris,

who had worked together at the Toshiba Advanced Television Technology

Center in Princeton, developing the first DVD pre-mastering system.

This system was installed at the Time-Warner California Video Center

in Los Angeles and was used to create many of the initial DVD discs

that came to market. Yogeshwar and Harris then leveraged their experience

to found Front Porch Video to provide consulting and custom software

development for digital video and DVD.

Yogeshwar, president, got his undergraduate education

in engineering in India and came to Rutgers to do graduate work in

signal processing and video compression. After receiving his doctorate

in electrical engineering, he went to work for Prism Interactive Corp.

in Chicago in 1990. "I got my job through the Internet," Yogeshwar

says, "by checking job postings in the newsgroups."

At Prism, Yogeshwar worked on video compression software and standardization.

But his experience in a small start-up environment was also useful:

"I learned how a start-up functions," he says, "How they

operate: cash flow, soliciting contracting work, hiring, and mistakes

not to make. And the need to be very inclusive to get a team working

together with you."

Harris is also an electrical engineer, although he "fell into"

the field based on a recommendation from his high school guidance

counselor since he was good at math. Earlier, he had thought about

a career in journalism or as a high school basketball coach. He graduated

from Drexel in 1978, and describes himself as "thrust into the

industry, riding the boom of the late ’70s and early ’80s." Harris

spent over a decade as a consultant at Bell Labs and then joined the

DVD project at Toshiba in "very early prototype stage" and

ended up working closely with Yogeshwar.

The closing of Toshiba’s DVD project was both a disappointment (Harris

experienced what he calls a "loss of energy") and an opportunity.

They realized that their skills had been underutilized on narrow projects,

but that as entrepreneur-pioneers, their talents could have, as Yogeshwar

says, a "broad scope, which could be applied to new software and

services."

Since Front Porch Video is self-funded, the founders have focused

on software development projects and strategic alliances to build

the company. Their first contracting customer was Microsoft, and they

have since done three major software development projects to provide

MPEG video compression tools for different Microsoft products, including

NetShow. They have also done several other software development projects

for major customers including Worldgate and FutureTel. Front Porch

Video also teamed up with a marketing representative in New York City

to develop clients. "It worked out pretty well," says Yogeshwar.

"We were able to establish a client stream, including video-on-demand

compression and DVD work."

The decision by Front Porch Video to focus on DVD technology was dependent

on the growth of the DVD market, which was hampered by industry struggles

to develop standards. There are four basic flavors of DVD technology

under development: DVD-Video for movies, DVD-Audio for music, DVD-ROM

for delivering computer applications and data, and DVD-R/DVD-RAM for

recordable computer mass storage. Even though versions of these are

being sold today, none of them has a fully settled standard. In today’s

market, technology moves so fast, and the marketing battles are so

heated, that standards are still under development even as the products

are fighting for market share.

DVD-Video is available now, and it delivers significantly higher quality

digital video and audio with multiple tracks and interactive features

(http://www.dvdforum.com/). You can buy a DVD player for

under $300, with a profusion of analog and digital connectors for

hooking up to high-end televisions. You see the benefit for the manufacturers

with having these new products to sell, especially as VCR prices dip

under $99. Movies on DVD discs also are starting to appear in video

stores, also typically at higher prices than tapes.

Unfortunately, this nice common standard is confused

by an augmented format called Divx (Digital Video Express with its

own home page http://www.divx.com/). Divx is the brainchild

of Circuit City and — get this — a law firm! This could be

the future of electronic technology: products with technical limitations

imposed by retail stores and law firms in order to extract additional

value from the material. In the case of Divx, the idea is to sell

you a disc at a price like a rental, or about $4.50. You do not need

to return it to a rental store, but you must view it within two days

before it expires. You can also pay extra to buy the right to keep

watching it. However, you rights are controlled by your Divx DVD player,

which needs to be connected to a telephone to check your account and

grant you permission to watch your disc.

The benefit of Divx to Circuit City is clear: The store gets to sell

a higher-priced DVD player with additional Divx features, and also

can sell you Divx discs to watch at home (which is not good news for

your local video rental store). The law firm also gets a piece of

the action. Meanwhile, your viewing pleasure is recorded and authorized

by a central computer database. And you can watch a disc you "own"

only if the computer grants permission (and your teenager is not hogging

the telephone). And what if you want to watch it upstairs on a different

machine, or show it at a friend’s house, or give it to a friend, or,

heaven forbid, sell it at a yard sale? Tough luck.

Meanwhile, the DVD-Audio standard has lagged behind video and computer

applications of DVD. This February the DVD Forum industry consortium

finalized the standard, which promises higher quality audio, additional

features like liner notes, graphics and video, as well as the ability

to provide stereo sound and multi-channel mixes for playback in home

theater or automobile environments on the same DVD-Audio disc.

As a result of these technical complications in DVD formats, creating

your own DVD-Video disc is not a trivial undertaking. The audio and

video material need to be produced, compressed, and then combined

together, with various copyright protection mechanisms. Additional

material needs to be collected, including alternate video and audio

tracks and subtitles. The overall program must be organized into chapters

and scenes, with interactive menu selections. And finally, all the

material must be laid out and burned onto physical discs.

The complexity of DVD authoring creates opportunities for companies

like Front Porch Video, which can provide training, consultation,

and video compression services. Front Porch Video also has recently

diversified into providing a full DVD production facility. It has

done approximately 30 titles over the last eight months, including

a Panasonic disc on the Nagano Olympics. Yogeshwar is seeing more

local demand for DVD video, for entertainment and some corporate training.

With its consulting and services roles, Front Porch

Video also developed strategic alliances with vendors of authoring

products. FPV is one of only two national Authorized Expertise Centers

for the leading Scenarist line of DVD authoring tools from Daikin

Industries. It is also an authorized reseller of FutureTel video compression

equipment.

Yogeshwar sees a bright future for DVD: "DVD-Video is well entrenched,

and has a good specification which spells out every little detail."

But he sees the real potential and future focus for their company

in DVD-ROM; enhanced DVDs which combine applications with large amounts

of data. For FPV, it is a synthesis of their software and production

efforts. "DVD provides a huge benefit for international corporations"

says Yogeshwar, "They can create one DVD and use it world-wide,

with multiple languages, subtitles, and lots of interactivity. Users

can pick and choose what portion they want to see, so you can combine

all your different training materials all on one disc."

This DVD-ROM technology for delivering large computer applications

already has started replacing CD-ROM drives on new desktop and even

laptop computers. Some applications are starting to ship on DVD, especially

the multimedia encyclopedias and other large databases that require

multiple CDs. You can also play DVD-Video movies on your PC, but the

video and audio decompression requires significant processing power.

To really enjoy full-screen movies on your PC you need a DVD add-in

board with decompression hardware, like the PC DVD kit from Creative

for around $250.

Recordable "DVD-R" and rewritable "DVD-RAM" products

are also starting to become available for PCs, but there are several

different products and technical approaches still battling in the

market. These early approaches do not provide the full DVD storage

capacity, or compatibility with DVD-ROM, or the ability to make your

own DVD-Video movie discs. Recently, the key industry players have

agreed to get together and settle on a common format. Until then,

these products are mostly useful for large local backups.

Front Porch Video has grown slowly "from a group of freelancers

loosely tied in a company into a more cohesive group," says Yogeshwar.

The firm started in a home office and also had a small studio in New

York City. Earlier this month it moved into a 1,250 square foot facility

on Franklin Corner Road, where it has a staff of four full-time and

two part-time people. It is building visibility through participation

in international standards committees, talks at DVD conferences, and

by providing DVD seminars and training.

Yogeshwar says growing slowly with internal funding was the right

decision, especially with the difficulty in timing the development

of the DVD market. He credits "lots of perseverance" in getting

the company going, and notes "the bottom line is extra important"

with internal funding. Their strategy was to "do work for hire,

even low-level work, and forgo visibility, in order to build up a

track record" in the industry.

"Working as a small company is fun, and extremely challenging,"

says Harris, "but keeping the lights on comes first."

Front Porch Video Inc., 123 Franklin Corner Road,

Suite 206, Lawrenceville 08648, 609-895-1228; fax 609-895-1275. Jay

Yogeshwar, president. Dean Harris, director of software. Home page:

http://www.frpv.com.

Does your business have technology that is transforming

our personal or business lives? Send suggestions for this column to

U.S. 1 Newspaper, 12 Roszel Road, Princeton 08540, fax 609-452-0033,

or E-mail info@princetoninfo.com.


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