HD DVD Insider's Tour Report
I'm always going to remember Wednesday December 20th, 2006 by two things. First, a ridiculous amount of fog delaying all flights to and from London and the surrounding area, and second, the first HD DVD Insider's Tour taking place outside the US, which I almost didn't make it to thanks to the aforementioned weather. Fortunately enough though, things worked out, and the 10-hour delay in Gatwick Airport was conveniently placed before my flight home, meaning I could actually make it to the event that I'd had a very small part in organising.
You see, Microsoft's Amir Majidimehr and Kevin Collins, two HD DVD insiders, travel the United States and demonstrate HD DVD content to eager home theatre fans, and give them the chance to ask questions about the format and what they can expect from it in the future. America's AVSForum.com is home to discussion threads about these events, and in one of them, I joined the many hopefuls with a throwaway comment suggesting (with 50% seriousness) that Amir and Kevin should come to the UK and do the same thing here, for the benefit of AV Forums members. Obviously, I was a little surprised when Amir gave the idea the thumbs-up and that things came together so that an HD DVD Insider's Tour would take place in Guildford!
A few months later, my delayed flight landed at Gatwick Airport, and I jumped on the train to Guildford, home of the long-established PJ Hi-Fi, where the event was taking place. When I saw the size of PJ Hi-Fi's shop front, I was a little surprised, but after entering, I found that the store branched out to reveal another room – where Amir and Kevin were already talking with people who'd attended the earlier 4pm appointment – leading on to the home theatre set-up tucked away at the back of the shop.
As I (nosily) stood around, listening to what conversation was going on, I instantly picked up on a familiar voice and soon realised that the man I was standing behind was none other than Amir himself – quite the honour, I'm sure you'll agree. Amir is the Corporate Vice President of Microsoft's Consumer Media Technology Group, who are now probably most famous for the VC-1 video codec that's become the de facto standard for HD DVD titles in the West. (Japan's HD DVD releases are predominantly in the MPEG-4 AVC format, and the results have, to date, been more variable than the VC-1 titles).
With him from the same Microsoft division was Kevin Collins, who worked with the DVD Forum in setting the HD DVD video specifications, as well as helping develop the HDi system, which is the language used to control interactive elements of HD DVD discs. If you've ever used an HD DVD menu, you'll appreciate how much smoother and easy to use it is than standard DVD ones (which are effectively video tracks with occasional overlaid graphics and simple links to other areas of the disc). Well, HD DVD menus, which pop up over the film as it plays, are made possible via the HDi system. HDi also allows for neat features like Bookmarks and in the future, is sure to be used for set-top games.
As 7pm was approaching fast, PJ Hi-Fi's Elliot got things moving and the 15 or so attendees who'd managed to make it to the store through the London fog made their way into the demo room, which is arguably the best of its kind in the entire country. Although every part of it was impressive, video is my biggest interest when it comes to home theatre, so for me, the cornerstone of this impressive backroom was the Sony QUALIA 004 projector. If this particular piece of equipment doesn't ring any bells, don't expect to look for it at your nearest Curry's – the price is around the £27,000 mark!
With everyone seated, Amir kicked things off by introducing himself, his past jobs, and how he got into his current one. He explained how he became involved with video codecs and how VC-1 itself managed to see the light of day, which was an incredibly interesting story, revealing just how political the entire process of getting a video codec approved for use with a home video format actually is. This discussion lasted a fair amount of time, but as the bulk of it related to consumer electronics politics, it's probably best to leave it in the room and not repeat it here.
It was then Kevin's turn to speak to us about Interactivity and HDi, which he mentioned was actually developed by Microsoft in co-operation with Disney. Looking at Disney's current Standard Definition DVDs, which attempt to use DVD's limited menu functions to create basic set-top games, it's evident that interactivity is something they take seriously for their family orientated releases. As they're currently Blu-ray exclusive, Disney, then, won't be happy to know that Blu-ray's limited interactive facilities are in fact provided by Sun Microsystems' Java. Currently, however, there have been no significant interactive features available on Blu-ray disc nine months after the format's launch.
Kevin had brought with him what could well be the most wanted disc wallet in the entire world: a large sized organiser that contains every single HD DVD ever released (he had, in fact, made the most of HD DVD's region free status, and had added UK versions of Serenity and the currently UK exclusive Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire after buying them from a nearby HMV a few hours earlier), as well as some check-discs of films that have been mastered and are ready to go, but haven't as of yet been released. From this wallet we were shown some brilliant demonstrations of some of the very best looking titles on the format – scenes from Harry Potter as well as Casablanca.
Continuing his interactivity theme, he also demonstrated the "U-Control" features of The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift. U-Control is Universal's answer to the "In Movie Experience" that Warner Home Video has already given us, and lets the viewer quickly and easily enable and disable optional features that are overlaid over the film itself, as it plays. For example, Tokyo Drift allows us to turn on Picture-in-Picture video windows showing Storyboards, a Directory's Commentary (with visible director), GPS maps of the actual area in Tokyo where the demonstrated scene was shot, and even a "damage estimates" window which showed the cost of the knocks and scrapes being collected by the cars, as they happened. The user can have any combination of these features that they want, and turn them all on or off on-the-fly by bringing up the small U-Control menu which appears over the film. It makes Standard Definition DVD look incredibly clunky by comparison, and I'm curious to see what else studios can do with HDi.
With the presentation over, we headed back into PJ Hi-Fi's middle room where we were given food and drink, and also the chance to mingle with Amir and Kevin and ask questions. We discussed HD DVD vs Blu-ray disc pressing, the non-existance of an Xbox 360 HDMI cable (which is far more necessary in Europe where TV manufacturers are still only giving us one set of Component video inputs), and film grain. For the latter, Amir explained that in the digital era, adding fake grain to digitally-shot films has become a profession in itself (case in point: Miami Vice), as studies have shown that the human eye expects to see movement of some sort and favours this over a sterile, digital look.
I came away from the night with a huge smile on my face, not just because I got to meet people as important to HD as I just had, but from knowing how much the VC-1 team cared about video quality and presentation. For most of us, I'd imagine that HD DVD is primarily about picture quality, and it's thanks to the high standards of Amir and his team that the results are so enjoyable. He explained to me that previously, his team have gone back and assisted studios in correcting video problems on VC-1 compressed titles before they hit shelves. It's certainly a different approach and entirely different mindset to the less finely-tuned "encode, author, and press" mentality of other content providers with their mixed results. I'm incredibly glad that the Microsoft VC-1 team do what they do, and if you're into video, I think you should be as well!
All in all, the first non-American HD DVD Insider's Tour was well worth the trip down to London and the 10-hour airport delay on the way home. Amir and Kevin obviously deserve tremendous thanks for coming all the way over here, as does Elliot and the rest of the PJ Hi-Fi team for their hospitality. Here's hoping that nights like this one are the first of many, and that the weather for the next time is a little better!
-- David Mackenzie
DVD Times Hardware ReviewerFor more from Amir, Kevin, and others who attended the event, listen to the Christmas 2006 edition of the AV Forums Hardware Podcast.