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This columnn by Douglas Dixon was published in U.S. 1
Newspaper on April 21, 1999. All rights reserved.
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
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
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
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."
Suite 206, Lawrenceville 08648, 609-895-1228; fax 609-895-1275. Jay
Yogeshwar, president. Dean Harris, director of software. Home page:
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