The State of Blu-ray At CES 2011

Posted Wed Jan 12, 2011 at 12:43 PM PST by Dick Ward

This year's CES was the first that didn't have Blu-ray players and Blu-ray discs featured as major releases. That's not necessarily a bad thing...

No matter how you got your CES - whether you read about it on High-Def Digest, watched snippets on TV, or went in person - you know that 3D was the big news of the show. Like it or not, it's what all of the major companies are pushing.

Some companies are making the 3D move more forcefully than others. Toshiba seems to be sitting on the fence between a few technologies, while Sony is putting everything it has into 3D, and 3D into everything it has.

With all the talk of 3D, it seems like Blu-ray got lost in the shuffle. There weren't any major Blu-ray player announcements and only one significant Blu-ray release was brought up at the show. You might even think of that as an ill-omen for the format, but it's exactly the opposite.

Before we talk about why Blu-ray didn't make the splash that it has in the last few years, I want to start with the big Blu-ray events of the show. The ones that were big enough to get picked up by mainstream sites and shows that don't specialize in Blu-ray coverage.

The biggest Blu-ray announcement at the show is something we already knew was in the works. Still, Panasonic held a bit of a ceremony to officially announce the upcoming release of the 'Star Wars' saga on Blu-ray disc.

This is huge. The original 'Star Wars' trilogy has been one of the most desired Blu-ray releases since the format was launched. Those three films are going to drive adoption of Blu-ray players to those who don't yet have them, make huge waves for Blu-ray sales numbers, and it's what's finally going to turn my dad into a Blu-ray fan.

You can criticize the release all you want, but even with the special editions of the original films and the inclusion of the second trilogy this is going to be one of the most successful Blu-ray sets of all time.

It's big news for fans and it's big news for the format. After all, now that Blu-ray has the biggest film trilogy ever made, there's not an obvious retort like "why would I buy a format that doesn't even have Star Wars?" It's a good get.

The second big Blu-ray event at the show was the Blu-ray director's panel, which I had the privilege of attending. It featured Baz Luhrmann, Michael Mann, and Oliver Stone talking about - you guessed it - Blu-ray.

It was a bit of a puff piece to be honest, but towards the end we started to get some really interesting insight into the way directors see the format. Opinions varied across the directors even though all three are fans of Blu-ray.

Oliver Stone, for example, said that he sees Blu-ray as the last bastion of movie preservation. It's possible that Blu-ray will be our final disc-based media format and that discs will one day be a thing of the past. For him, making a Blu-ray edition of his film is his chance to get the last word and finally close the book on his movies.

Baz Luhrmann is more optimistic about the future, but praises Blu-ray as the best way to reproduce video. For Baz, it's all about the colors that Blu-ray allows him to reproduce - something that DVD just couldn't do.

These were both significant events, and both made it to mainstream media, but neither made mention of Blu-ray players at all. Oliver Stone didn't sing the praises of a Panasonic player and Darth Vader - yes there was someone there in a Darth Vader costume - didn't plug any players either. It was all about movies.

The fact that no company felt the need to proselytize to the DVD crowd and sing the praises of the superior format seems strange considering the last few years, but it's a very good sign for Blu-ray.

Think of it in terms of 3D televisions. They're all the tech companies will talk about right now, and there's a reason for that. We're not buying them. Sure, 3D is selling, but it's not selling in the kinds of numbers that manufacturers want and the surefire way to improve that is to keep iterating, innovating and repeating the message.

The lack of huge Blu-ray player announcements and massive ad campaigns tells us more about Blu-ray adoption than any poll could. It shows that Blu-ray hasn't just been picked up by tech savvy consumers. The general public - the moms and dads of these tech savvy consumers - understand the benefit and are buying the players.

Think of the other technologies that were getting huge announcements in the last few years. LED backlit LCDs were shouted from the rooftops, but now they're a part of the HDTV environment just like 1080p, a 24Hz refresh rate for Blu-rays and even remote controls. We no longer have to decide if we support it or not - it's just there.

The other thing that I found incredibly telling about the lack of big Blu-ray player announcements was the lack of crazy new Blu-ray players. It seems like innovation has settled down for the format, and now the battle of cost efficiency and design has begun.

After all, you can pick up a Blu-ray player that handles 3D, streams Netflix with built-in WiFi and even plays back media files from your computer for under $200. What more could you want?

Sure, there were a few new things, like portable players, those with built-in glasses-free 3D screens and those packing Google TV. For the most part though, it seems like Blu-ray players have stabilized. Most of the new players on the market offer the same features in a different package, just like DVD players before them.

Every year since the release of the format has been hailed as "the year of Blu-ray," but really 2011 seems to be it. It's the year we finally stopped making a big deal out of the hardware, got everything right, and started talking about what matters most - the movies.

- Dick Ward

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Tags: Oliver Stone, Michael Mann, Baz Luhrmann, Industry Trends, High-Def Retailing, CES 2011, Blu-ray Players (all tags)