by Michael S. Palmer
As High-Def Digest's Blu-Con 2010 coverage nears its conclusion -- only one more article, I promise -- it's time to turn to one of Blu-ray's most touted abilities, BD-Live and internet connectivity. This panel not only featured executives from Panasonic, D&M Holdings (as in Denon & Marantz), Sony, and Universal, but also HDD's own Josh Zyber as moderator.
I got out most of the questions I wanted to ask. The tone of the conference as a whole was, “Rah rah! Blu-ray is the greatest thing ever!” It wasn’t my place or the purpose of the panel to upset that. And frankly, I do love Blu-ray, and find great potential in its interactive abilities – even if that potential hasn’t really been tapped yet. So, yeah, I tossed out some softball questions. But I also managed to get in some pointed questions about whether BD-Live is being used appropriately, and whether its direction needs to be re-thought.
From my ever so safe hiding-in-the-dark position, Josh did a commendable job. I personally know how nervous he was, but the hundreds of other people sitting around me waiting for him to be brilliant couldn't tell. He also managed to ask some real questions in a respectful manner. Sadly, the studio reps in this particular panel were less open to discussing problems or issues. Let's recap, shall we.
The studios seem genuinely excited about BD-Live and the ability to directly communicate with their customers. Universal touted 15 million streamed trailers via their BD-Live enabled trailer pre-roll as well as 300K Pocket Blu app downloads. Also, 'The Office: Season 6 owners can use BD-Live to watch Season 7 episodes the day after they broadcast. Sony touted MovieIQ and was surprised by the sheer number of trailers downloaded from their BD-Live portal.
In one of the panel's funnier moments, Josh asked why the studios develop competing technologies like Sony's MovieIQ vs. Fox's LiveLookup when it would be easier for the consumers to have one. The studio execs each joked that their technologies are available to every other studio…but not for free.
Studio reps Tracey Garvin (Sony) and Robert Read (Universal) went on to talk about how BD-Live benefits them as producers in terms of technical and timing issues. If special features don't make the Blu-ray authoring deadline, BD-Live connection allows them to add featurettes any time they want. Universal in particular loves that their trailer pre-roll (aka forced trailers) is always evolving. Unlike every other studio with forced trailers, anyone watching a five year old Universal Blu-ray will get ads for new movies, rather than five year old ads. Then there's Fox's 'Avatar' or Sony's 'The DaVinci Code' who added features like previews of the 'Extended Collectors Edition' or footage 'Angels & Demons' premier, respectfully.
Studios love BD-Live because they're always getting a chance to keep physical media, which has traditionally been locked and stagnant, active and updated. Unfortunately, there's no official timeline for how long these features will be hosted and/or supported. Josh pointed out that Digital Copy expires so quickly, and we all remember what it was like to have DVD-ROM content from ten years ago. How many of those sites are active today? In response to Josh's Digital Copy question, the studios said that their technology affiliates don't want to be on the hook forever, which makes sense I suppose (Digital Copy specifically, they said, is meant to drive sales. A limited time offer). Software companies like Microsoft and Apple don't support their operating systems forever, but at the same time, the timelines for Blu-ray support seem short.
Josh tried to bring up issues like 'Predators' not working properly thanks to BD-Live and the need for firmware updates. It was an awkward moment because they didn't seem to care or notice that Josh wasn't speaking for himself, but for all of his readers who may not have three different Blu-ray players as a back up for when one isn't working with a particular title. Granted, Fox, the studio behind 'Predators', wasn't on this panel, but there seemed to be no accountability or acknowledgment of general problems. The tech companies said they wait for customers to tell them when there are issues, in essence blaming the studios. And the studios claimed they do quality control during the authoring process. If so, those in charge of checking these titles need to do a more thorough job.
Jeff Cove (Panasonic) and Jeff Cowan (D&M) spoke about the needs for firmware updates and the practicalities behind internet connections. Amazon customers may be calling out for more built-in WiFi, but both D&M Holdings and Panasonic are wary of WiFi for everything, especially AV Receivers. A wired Ethernet connection is more stable and reliable; if a WiFi signal drops out mid-firmware update, the hardware could end up "bricked" (non operational) because part of the firmware process involves deleting the old firmware, or operating system.
The hardware companies and movie studios went on to say updating and upgrading are ubiquitous, citing Apple as a prime example. They don't want to be swayed by customer resistance. This seems smart; the world is always going to be evolving and progressing whether people want it or not, but it was an odd declarative especially for D&M who is (at least partly) resisting the inevitable change from wired to wireless internet. Jeff Cove was smart to say that the problem isn't the updating itself, but the need to do a better job making the process easier for the customer. Similarly, D&M hopes to build in automatic firmware updates because all of their Internet compatible devices automatically check in with the D&M server. These automatic updates wouldn't actually be performed without customer permission; the automatic portion would function more as a notice that updates are available.
Overall, the theme for this panel seemed to be Evolution. With every BD-Live release, the studios are learning which features work well, and which ones their consumers like or dislike. BD-Live may not be the most exciting advancement in the world, but it seems to fit in well with Blu-ray as a gateway experience (meaning, you start with a Blu-ray Disc or Blu-ray player, and then you're streaming additional or completely separate content from the web). There may be troubles within the fast pace of evolution, but the last thing any company actively wants to do is turn away customers. The hard part, for us right now, is that it often feels a bit like work or beta testing.
What do you think, dear readers? Do you like BD-Live? Have you even used it? What's your favorite application? And what would you like to see available in the realm of internet connectivity? Hit up the forums and let us know.
Next and last up, we'll be talking about Blu-ray and Music.