New Specs for Next-Generation Blu-ray Players

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Reports that your newly purchased Blu-ray Disc player will be obsolete by October are greatly exaggerated.

While it is true that the Blu-ray Disc Association recently set new minimum specifications for players produced after October 31--as we first outlined in our "High-Def Video Superguide"--those specifications only expand on the capabilities already present in existing players.

I spoke with Andy Parsons, chair of the U.S. promotion committee for the Blu-ray Disc Association, to clarify some of the common misconceptions.

All current Blu-ray Disc players support the BD-Java spec. (BD-Java is the programming language used to design the menus and present interactive content on a Blu-ray Disc.) In fact, says Parsons, this was a requirement from the get-go: "All players introduced since day one must support BD-Java."

Already, movie titles like Chicken Little and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen are taking advantage of BD-Java's capabilities; in both of those cases, the movie discs offer interactive games.

If BD-Java is shipping today, why the confusion? "This fall," explains Parsons, "is the end of a grace period. Any new Blu-ray Disc player model introduced after October 31 must now fully comply with the full range of existing Blu-ray Disc player specifications."

Blu-ray's New Specs

The new specification requirements will enable many cool, long-promised Blu-ray Disc features that will boost Blu-ray's competitiveness in the interactivity realm with archrival HD DVD on players produced after the October 31 deadline.

These features include mandatory minimum storage requirements of 256MB for stand-alone players and 1GB for BD Live-connected players. (BD Live players can download additional entertainment content from the Internet, and will also require an ethernet connection.) All players will also need to support on-demand picture-in-picture via a secondary video stream (which could be accomplished via one video decoder or two, depending on how the real-time video is encoded); in addition, the players must support secondary audio mixing for mixing sound effects generated within the player with the soundtrack of the film.

"What's caused the confusion is that BD-Java will be utilized to implement these new capabilities. It's not that this is a new version of Java, it's just the code that will be used to run these features," Parsons says.

HD DVD's Requirements

In contrast, HD DVD already has a minimum storage requirement of 128MB of memory, an ethernet connection for connected interactivity, and a secondary video stream for on-demand picture-in-picture video. The memory requirement enables HD DVD players and titles to support persistent bookmarks that can stay in your player's memory, even after you eject the disc. And some titles, such as Mission: Impossible III, already have picture-in-picture director commentaries that you can activate at any time during the playback of the movie.

Parsons notes that these new capabilities "are not make-or-break features. Picture-in-picture is nice for on-screen directory commentaries and the like. But the fundamental functions of a Blu-ray player are already available in existing players.

"And," he stresses, "your existing Blu-ray player will continue to play future titles as it does today."

What Current Players Won't Do

Current Blu-ray players won't be able to play an on-demand picture-in-picture commentary, for example, that may come on a disc a year from now. Nor will they be able to connect to the Internet for future interactive functions that may be incorporated into the disc. But when that happens, Hollywood studio technologists have explained to me, they will likely program the disc in such a way that--if your player can't support the new feature--the option won't even show as available during playback.

The one possible exception to this among the currently shipping players: Sony's PlayStation 3, which ranked fourth in our recent high-definition player roundup. For one thing, the PS3 meets the technical requirements for BD Live Internet connectivity. According to Sony, the company is investigating and evaluating the implementation of BD Live, but it has not yet made any announcements of adopting and supporting BD Live.

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