Sony (UK) Blu-ray Media Briefing

On Monday 23rd October in London Sony (UK) held a Blu-ray media briefing for which I was in attendance on behalf of DVDTimes. Hosted by Don Eklund (Executive VP, Advanced Technologies at SPHE) the briefing consisted of a general overview of the format and what it offers, and of most interest to me, several demonstrations of the format in action.

Using two 50” Sony 1080P LCD screens connected to a Samsung BDP-1000 Blu-ray Disc Player (with the firmware update) and a high-end Sony HD Master tape player we viewed 3 demos which broke down like so:

1) Click Trailer – Contained on one of the HD Master tapes were three versions of the Click Theatrical Trailer, the first a split-screen comparison showing DVD resolution on one half of the screen, and Blu-ray HD resolution on the other. The second comparison was BD to the original Master copy, and the third was just the Master copy.

The differences were interesting, with the split-screen SD/HD comparison highlighting the obvious increase in resolution (both colour and screen) and detail when freeze-framed. In movement it was much less pronounced though I did find my eyes naturally focused on the HD side, so when I consciously looked at the SD side the difference in clarity, colour resolution and detail was still quite visible on long and short-range shots. A question was posed suggesting the SD half of the image could have been made to look worse than a good upscaling player would be capable of (don’t forget we were viewing on 1080P 50” screens so SD would never be all that favourable on them) but we were assured the up-conversion performed on the image was done by an expensive (and presumably very good) Panasonic encoder.

Taking it a step further, a Click R1 DVD was on hand so an ad-hoc demonstration was setup with the Samsung BDP-1000 upscaling the R1 DVD to 1080P on one screen, as we viewed the Blu-ray encode on the other screen via the HD Master tape. This wasn’t an entirely fair comparison, as we couldn’t compare specific frames (one screen was showing the trailer, the other the movie), though it showed a considerable, if not quite as large difference as the pre-arranged split-screen demonstration.

Looking at the BD/HD Master comparison showed an indistinguishable image to my eyes. The quality here was good though I’m not sure Click is the best demo material, as it’s a fairly bland looking film so beyond the obvious improvements doesn’t really do anything to stand out.

2) Black Hawk Down – On hand and playing as everyone arrived was the final 50GB test disc complete with the final MPEG2 encode and extra content. For the demonstration we also had the final Master copy playing side-by-side on the 2nd 50” 1080P panel.

To begin with we saw some of the menu features new to the HD formats, such as multi-page menus (no need to wait for language/extra screens to load, the screen just wipes and they appear, much like moving through menus in any modern video game) and Sony’s Blu-Wizard feature which makes its debut on Black Hawk Down. To be honest though I found the former to be quite slow and jerky in its execution (potentially a player issue) and the latter was incredibly simplistic, essentially boiling down to a programmable chapter feature allowing you to watch the extras in an order of your choice separately from the movie, or within the movie (whereby the disc will cut from the film and jump to the extras you’ve chosen at a point when they are relevant to the on-screen action).

The actual disc looked very good, and we saw it compared to the HD Master and spotting the difference was not easy, though I’d argue colour definition wasn’t quite as rich on the Blu-ray Disc encode (this was a very minor, almost insignificant difference which I picked up on in the opening scene which uses lots of blue hues in amongst heavy film grain) though I should stress that both looked quite superb. The opening scene maintained its range of coloured hues and film grain with ease on the Blu-ray encode while the depth of detail on character faces and backgrounds was very impressive, and to my relatively forgiving eyes showed no signs of artefacting in the complex action sequences which are filled with tricky elements such as smoke and fire.

3) Open Season – On a Blu-ray Sampler disc Don rounded out the event with the theatrical trailer for Open Season.

Computer animated films are always great demonstration material and this was no exception, with the bright colour scheme and detail present in the furry onscreen characters shown in astonishing clarity by the BD encode.

In all of the demonstrations, particularly the latter two which we saw running directly on the Samsung Blu-ray Disc player, I was impressed by the video quality though my jaw never once-dropped. Sadly I have no direct experience with HD DVD so cannot say how the formats compare, though I suspect my reaction has been dulled somewhat by my exposure to the HD material available online (such as the trailers from Apple, which although not as well compressed can still look staggering - The Fountain for example offers a clarity which impresses no end). Certainly with regards to the MPEG2 argument I saw none of the problems associated with it thus far on Black Hawk Down. The same was true of the trailers for Click (probably the least impressive of the material shown) and Open Season, though using them as reference material is slightly unfair as they’re just short trailers encoded specifically for demo purposes and not representative of the final product you’ll put down money for. I do however still feel that using MPEG2 is a backwards step, as Sony are squandering the obvious capacity benefit they have on space that could be used for so much more content if they went with either VC-1 or AVC. One of the points Don made during his briefing was how MPEG2 and AVC encodes can be produced in just one or two days with very little user intervention using one of their own Sony branded encoders, whereas “word from their partners in the industry” put VC-1 encoding at more like 2 weeks. It’s a shame it didn’t occur to me to pick up on this point in the time we had, as surely spending 1-2 weeks and obtaining a premium quality encode at a smaller hit to your disc capacity is better than 1-2 days and obtaining a merely good encode (or average or poor depending on the reviews) at a larger hit? The cynic in me leans towards the time equals money argument, and how MPEG2 is more attractive for that purpose.

Many other points were covered during the briefing, most are likely to be well known but some stood out as more feature worthy than others. For example, Sony expects to have their first BD-J enabled titles in stores next summer, and showed a few screenshot examples of games in development but as yet unreleased. These looked very basic to me, like the early mobile phone games which Sony mentioned developers with experience on will find the transition to BD-J very easy. They were however infinitely better than what little interaction DVD can offer, so will no doubt appeal to parents who yearn for a disc of their kids’ favourite movie to keep them occupied longer than DVD releases currently do.

Whilst covering the menu features and networking/internet connectivity we learned how for example Blu-ray is compatible with text-based subtitles, meaning studios could offer downloadable subtitle streams for languages not directly supported by the disc. This could be a very interesting feature, particularly if a method were found to add your own subtitles to discs not available in your region (though I’m sure this is not what they intend the idea for!).

The internet connectivity extends to new bonus features and the like, with one example being that of having no set fixed trailers on the disc, but instead the player will download the latest trailers from the studio and play them, preventing the “Coming Soon” content from ever going out of date. Taking this further it will apparently be possible with future players to connect local storage (or they might well come with onboard storage) to store content such as this.

Discussion of the content protection schemes also confirmed that Sony have no plans to implement the ICT flag (which restricts the resolution available over the analogue outputs of the hardware players).

All throughout the event questions were posed, and most of the answers have been covered in the write-up thus far. Areas that I queried were mostly related to the differences between the discs from studios like Paramount and Warner, who are supporting both formats and are now coming out with simultaneous releases. One such example is M:I:III, a film that will boast a Picture-in-Picture commentary on the HD DVD release which is not present on the Blu-ray Disc alternative, which is as I was told simply down to the fact that the hardware does not currently support this feature. I suspected the same would be true for the lack of Dolby TrueHD on Warner’s Blu-ray Disc release of The Phantom of the Opera, though Don said he was unaware of Warner’s specific reasoning for this but did concede that the current players again do not support the feature (though pointed out the Playstation 3 will).

And finally pricing for Sony catalogue (£17.99) and new release (£24.99) titles was confirmed for the UK market.

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