Sony/Blu-ray Disc VIP Event Report

IFA Consumer Electronics Show

SPHEDVD Times was invited to a VIP event hosted by Sony Electronics and Sony Pictures Home Entertainment at the IFA consumer electronics show in Berlin, to help promote the Blu-ray Disc format and allow members of the press (as well as bloggers) to discuss High Definition related issues with several people "in the know". Naturally, after helping to organise a similar event related to HD DVD in December of last year, I jumped at the chance to speak to the Blu-ray Disc Association and get their take on the HD disc situation. Not as if getting to visit Berlin and going to the IFA show didn't help my decision, of course.

Prior to the VIP event, a collection of journalists and bloggers from across Europe were shown around the BDA (Blu-ray Disc Association) stand, where a Sony product designer demonstrated the company's two new Blu-ray Disc Players, the BDP-S300 and BDP-S500, as well as their 24p compatibility for judder-free movie watching on the company's new BRAVIA TVs (both the D3000 and W3000 series BRAVIAs were shown – although, if they don't mind me saying so, were upstaged a little by the nearby 103" Panasonic Plasma).

The VIP event was held a few hours later, in the Red Lounge just beside the Messe-Berlin conference centre (home to the IFA show), which was an elevated, terraced building with two floors. After finally finding it – and if you've ever visited IFA, you'll know how incredibly easy it is to get lost - I noticed on the way in that Sony Deutschland had in fact been holding a meeting earlier on the lower floor, as evidenced by the data projector and elegant X-Series BRAVIA TV behind the glass doors. Upstairs was Room C, where I arrived to find a man altering the video settings on a recently turned-on Sony KDL-46W2000 LCD, taking the TV out of the retina-scorching "Vivid" pre-sets, and making it much more watchable, as it was there to showcase a Blu-ray Disc promotional loop. When you're hoping the people you'll meet will be clued-in when it comes to video matters, that's not exactly a bad first impression.

I didn't have to worry, because this man turned out to be someone who's knowledge of video and compression will certainly dwarf my own - Don Eklund, Executive Vice President of the Advanced Technologies division at Sony Pictures. More simply put, Don is (amongst, I presume, other things), in charge of video compression on Sony Pictures Home Entertainment (SPHE) Blu-ray Discs. Me and Don discussed the good as well as the bad in terms of picture quality on both HD formats. Certainly, as has also been the case with HD DVD, there have been both excellent and disappointing releases. "We've learned a lot," Don told me, and cited the example of The Fifth Element, an early SPHE release which gathered mainly negative reviews before being re-released in remastered form. People who bought the original disc, says Don, can mail it back to SPHE and have it replaced with the improved release.

I also let Don know my own opinions when it comes to image quality on High Def discs. I told him that for me, image detail is the most important factor, and I'll happily forgive a compression artefact here and there if the definition is as it should be (but would obviously prefer to see none at all). To illustrate my point, we discussed SPHE's American Blu-ray release of Silent Hill, which was rightly criticised by some reviewers for exhibiting some visible compression artefacts, but nevertheless was grossly under-rated as many failed to point out that for the most part, it has an astonishing level of detail visible (barring some more complex shots which appear to have been blurred to decrease compression complexity).

Above: Don Eklund stands in front of a KDL-46W2000, replaying 1080p video from Sony's new Blu-ray Disc players.

In response to the compression artefacts issue, Don – a noted supporter of the older MPEG-2 compression - told me that a lot of people forget that some of these artefacts can actually be in the source received by SPHE, which surprised me a little. After being transferred from film, movies are sometimes stored on D5 master video tapes before being sent for encoding, and these D5 cassettes can introduce blocking artefacts of their own. Don did go on to say, however, that only around 18% (if my own memory serves) of masters were delivered in this way, with the new MPEG-4 based HDCAM-SR tapes being favoured instead.

We also briefly discussed the "format war" – ("it's like life and death to some people", he said, while I mentioned some of the particularly rabid format-based fan sites), as well as matters relating to image quality – which, after all, is the selling point of the new disc formats. As usual, I asked about one of my most hated video processing "features", filtering, whereby video is subtly (or sometimes not-so-subtly) blurred to decrease compression complexity. Although I've seen BDs from Sony that do seem to exhibit some filtering (Resident Evil: Apocalypse has slight ringing above and below the active picture area, which suggests use of the technique despite the transfer looking very good overall), Don assured me that they prefer not to use this feature, which put my mind at rest.

I also asked Don how the compression on SPHE Blu-ray titles is achieved – through a PC software program running on a standard computer, or by some other method? Don told me that SPHE use one of their two hardware MPEG-2 or MPEG-4 AVC encoders for the job. He seemed to indicate that encoding speed is an issue for Sony, and mentioned that typically, an average movie destined for Blu-ray Disc would take about one day to go through the hardware encoder.

Afterwards, I talked to Akira Shimazu, who's the Senior General Manager of the BD Strategy Office. After reading his name badge, I asked him, "Is the BD Strategy Office kind of like the Blu-ray equivalent to the HD DVD Promotion Group? Promoting the format and trying to get studios adopting it?" to which I believe the answer was something along the lines of "somewhat". We ended up talking about the differences between Blu-ray in Japan – where the BDA states that it dominates the market with a 90% share – and in the West, where the situation isn't as clear cut. The most striking feature between the two markets is the fact that in Japan, Player/Recorder combinations are the norm for any format, Blu-ray included. We discussed how Blu-ray had in fact been launched in Japan for use as a recording format nearer the start of this decade, in a version where the disc was housed in a protective cartridge, before it was introduced to the West as a means of watching pre-recorded movies. (Trivia for you: since they're recorders as well as players, the Blu-ray machines sold in Japan need to have a slightly different disc loading system, which accepts both standard ‘bare' discs, as well as discs housed in cartridges. Bare discs are much simpler for Sony's players to use, so it appears that never introducing the cartridge-confined discs to the West was a good move for the company).

Above: Complete with hand gestures, I explain my view on regional lockouts to Rich.

A little later, I was introduced to Rich Marty, a friendly guy who's the Vice President of New Business Development at Sony. Clearly a person who takes his role seriously, Rich's reaction when I told him that I'd bought an HD DVD player before getting a Blu-ray one was a uniquely American mix of jokingly pained and friendly-competitive. We sat down to talk to some bloggers from various other European countries (Germany and Spain, I believe), and, surrounded by Europeans from all over the continent, poor Rich became the recipient of a polite grilling regarding the subject of regional coding. I reminded Rich that for Europeans, and especially European early adopters, regional coding is a much bigger issue than it is in the USA, where movies tend to be released earlier. Rich correctly pointed out that the majority of SPHE discs are actually flagged for all regions (with some exceptions), and that the purpose of the system is to allow studios to follow their international release schedules. An actor can't be in one place at more than one time to promote their latest film, Rich pointed out. Personally, while region coding remains in place and I have to stick exclusively with one territory, I'll stick with the Americans and enjoy the treatment they get with my US player and US discs.

Later, Claude Borna, Director of European Business Development, sat beside us, and showed us his Walkman phone, which prompted me to rant for a short while about my thoughts on the Apple iPod (sorry, iPod owners), which I think surprised everyone. The two hours really flew by, and we discussed Playstation 3, HD DVD's lower hardware prices (which Claude thought were a bad idea from the point-of-view of tempting other consumer electronics companies to release HD DVD players), before all going our separate ways.

For me, the event was the highlight of my entire IFA visit. I always appreciate being able to talk to people closely involved with HD video. Also, being able to map human faces to names from the ominous-sounding BDA will certainly be beneficial to journalists like us, as well as to Sony and the BDA themselves, who, in the online community, seem to have retained the reputation of the force to be wary of (which I suppose is a side-effect of being the opposing side to any underdog). As a lover of HD movies, no matter what sort of optical disc they're pressed onto, I really appreciated the insight gained and once again have to thank Sony for their hospitality in organising our visit.

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