Next-gen HDTVs may hide first-gen HD DVD limits, says Microsoft

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Next-gen HDTVs may hide first-gen HD DVD limits, says Microsoft

Redmond (WA) – As Toshiba continues its multi-city promotional tour of North America for HD DVD, demonstrating its capabilities for patrons of Fry’s Electronics and other stores from which they cannot yet purchase HD DVD players until at least April, one of the key remaining points of contention among would-be early adopters has been news that the first generation of HD DVD players, including Toshiba’s HD-A1 and HD-XA1 models, are not capable of producing the best possible resolution for today’s HDTV displays.

On Wednesday, a representative of the AACS Licensing Administrator body responsible for the principal copy protection mechanism for both HD DVD and Blu-ray players – who is also a Microsoft senior manager – told TG Daily that the fact that first-generation HD DVD players will only produce 1080 vertical lines of interlaced resolution (1080i) as opposed to progressive resolution (1080p) is immaterial, since owners of high-definition displays capable of rendering 1080 lines at 72 frames per second will be able to digitally reconstruct the 1080p image from the 1080i signal.

Richard Doherty, Microsoft’s senior programming manager for media entertainment and technical convergence, as well as an official AACS LA spokesperson, told TG Daily that the distinctions between 1080i and 1080p are not rooted in the format specifications for either Blu-ray or HD DVD. Both formats should have the theoretical capability of translating moving images at the highest available resolution for digital film, which is currently 1080p at 24 frames per second (1080p/24). Further, Doherty believes that movie studios will prefer to encode their movies for both formats at 1080p/24 resolution, since 24 fps is the frame rate (analogous to the “refresh rate” for PC monitors) for film motion pictures. So if Toshiba’s or others’ HD DVD players only translate 1080i, the reasons concern the player, not the format; moreover, they may be temporary, as Doherty believes the translation issue could conceivably be solved in the near future with firmware upgrades to the player.

[Editor’s note: In recent press stories on the topic of high-def video, you’ll find a Richard Doherty of Microsoft and a Richard Doherty of AACS LA. These are the same person. However, you’ll also find a Richard Doherty who happens to be a video industry analyst with the Envisioneering Group, and who has provided information to TG Daily and Tom’s Hardware Guide in the past. That is a different Mr. Doherty, who coincidentally has the same name.]

Microsoft’s Doherty conceded that manufacturers will see cost differences between implementing 1080p and 1080i signaling, both for the analog connection and the HDMI digital connection, and that those costs may have played a factor in Toshiba’s initial design choice. “The vast majority of all HDTVs delivered so far do not know how to communicate at 1080p,” said Doherty, “so Toshiba in their very first players has made a design decision that can be changed in the future, and in fact, could likely be changed on existing players…by a firmware update to support communication over 1080p.”

But another way that consumers could solve the dilemma of how to get the optimal picture quality from a first-generation HD DVD player, Doherty said, is for them to purchase a modern HDTV display that can reproduce a 1080p image. Because the high-def signal is digital to begin with, he said, “you can in fact reconstruct completely the original frames, no matter how you communicate. So in fact, the difference over the digital connection is meaningless, and we’re getting into a lot of areas of 1080p versus 1080i that, in fact, have no consumer difference whatsoever.

“Because [the signal] originally came from a progressive source – 1080p/24 on the disc – and was communicated in a digital form,” Doherty reiterated, “it can be completely reconstructed in its native, original form.”

In response to statements from Blu-ray proponents that its first-wave support of 1080p places it automatically ahead of HD DVD in the format war, Doherty classified their argument as “a big red herring.” The current, new generation of so-called “smart displays” for HDTV, he said, whose maximum output is 1080p/60, should be capable of re-compositing the signal most appropriate for displaying film or video encoding from any high-definition disc. “So a very smart display,” he said, “could take a connection in any format – whether that be 1080p/24, 1080i/30, or 1080p/60 – and reconstruct the appropriate and best-looking display for the display that you’re looking at.”

Yet even the top-of-the-line HDTV might not present consumers with the optimum scenario. The model for “smarts” in digital monitors these days, Doherty believes, is the PC display. “The PC has always been very good for a number of reasons, at changing resolutions, at scaling images, at changing frame rates of images, and generally with general-purpose software installed, going from any resolution in any temporal frame rate to any other…The only place where a consumer, at this point, can see the native format [of a high-def disc] is on a PC display.”

Already, multi-sync monitors can project images at 72 frames per second, which is exactly three times the refresh rate of film. The math becomes simple, then, to have the movie playback software show each 24 fps frame of film three times. “When you have a six-bladed shutter in front of film emulsion,” Doherty said, “that’s the ideal looking image. PCs can actually do that, but no display that we’re aware of can do that yet, but I do think they’re coming in the future.”

The problem that current non-PC video displays have, Doherty explained, is that they’re derived not from computing but from television, whose standards are all based on broadcasting. As a result, their math is different: North American television broadcast standards are based on 60 Hz refresh rates. As a result, when current DVDs decode film signals for TVs, they perform a kind of mathematical translation called 3:2 pulldown, which the viewer has actually been seeing and putting up with all this time, just without realizing it. These residual artifacts have been dubbed judder by video engineers, and the viewer only becomes more aware of it after having viewed full HDTV in all its glory for any significant length of time.

Part of the whole principle of clearer video in HDTV isn’t just the higher lines of resolution, but the fact that newer digital video components can decode in sync with the quality of image you expect to see on the big silver screen. “Only now do we see any kind of displays at all trying to match what you see in the theater, [since] everything has been attuned so far for broadcast,” said Doherty.

Who is the manager of “managed copy?”

Microsoft is a member of the HD DVD Promotions Group, having joined it last September along with Intel for a handful of reasons, the company said. Among those reasons, given in a public list of grievances, was that the two companies wanted to take a stand in favor of the consumer’s right to be able to make backup copies of legitimately obtained, licensed movies and other content.

The software component that enables a consumer to make such copies is a part of Advanced Access Copy System (AACS) copy protection, whose final specifications would be just about ready, were it not for continued debate on this issue. AACS will be the copy protection system for HD DVD, and part of a “triple-threat” system for Blu-ray. So however AACS decides to implement mandatory managed copy (MMC), that decision will affect both Blu-ray and HD DVD manufacturers – as well as, of course, companies like LG Electronics who are building hybrid players.

But now that the format debate has become so prolonged, Microsoft’s Richard Doherty now admits that the issue of MMC transcends formats altogether. “It’s not a format thing at all,” he told TG Daily. “Managed copy comes from AACS, so it will apply to both formats equally. The decision of how to implement the menu that does it, and the [copying] transactions, [is made by] the studio who’s authoring the title.”

Over the last several months, nearly all sides in the dispute have said they are in favor of “managed copy” or “mandatory managed copy,” but then got caught up in a quagmire over just what the “mandatory” part refers so. “The idea of mandatory managed copy, and specifically the word ‘mandatory,'” explained Doherty, “relates to the ability of the user to make a copy of all the media, with very rare exceptions. So a managed copy – without the word ‘mandatory’ – means the ability to make a copy of the disc, or essentially a legal rip, into another content protection system onto your hard drive, or onto your portable player, under the control. The ‘mandatory’ part is specifically put there to mean, studios can’t arbitrarily turn it off – that you have the expectation as a consumer that you can rip every disc.”

Doherty’s explanation carries weight, not only because it represents Microsoft’s take on the issue of MMC, but AACS’ as well, and MMC is a crucial part of AACS. Anyone interpreting MMC differently, from AACS’ perspective, is misinterpreting it. Still, the misinterpretations continue, which have led to the main reason why a complete AACS 1.0 specification has not yet been drawn up. The so-called “interim agreement,” version 0.91, which Toshiba, Sony, and other high-def manufacturers have agreed to, enables them to produce high-def players for the time being, since both formats mandate the inclusion of AACS.

“By far, the biggest part of the interim-ness of that agreement,” remarked Doherty, “is the fact that managed copy has not yet been completed. Under the interim agreement, the managed copy infrastructure has not been completed and is not ready to go, so managed copies are not actually authorized, or certainly not mandatory, in the interim period. The specifications are nearly complete – in fact, the AACS published specifications as part of the interim agreement have all the technical detail of how you make managed copies. But the infrastructure, all the details of the mandatory obligation are not in place in the interim.”

By signing the interim agreement, Doherty told us, manufacturers agree to be bound to whatever provisions for MMC that the group as a whole agrees upon later. But for now, without the MMC provisions having been completed, there is no managed copy in the first generation of either HD DVD or Blu-ray players, although conceivably it could be added later by means of a firmware upgrade. “The reason we did that,” Doherty stated, “was to make sure there was no legacy problem with discs; that even the discs published today under the interim agreement can be fully copy-able under machines that can make managed copies in the final agreement.”

Furthermore, Doherty noted, content publishers and studios who choose to utilize AACS’ provision for watermarking content, under the interim agreement, must also agree to be bound by whatever MMC provisions are fully agreed upon by all members.

As we reported on Wednesday, although it’s likely that the MMC process will require an Internet connection in order for consumers to acquire permission from movie studios’ so-called Clearing Houses to copy discs, and perhaps pay to do so, neither Blu-ray nor HD DVD players will be required by AACS to have an Internet connection. More specifically, they will not be required to have a dedicated or exclusive wired Internet connection, as earlier AACS documents indicated, and as multiple sources had told TG Daily and Tom’s Hardware Guide in the past.

While conceivably, a kind of managed copy process is technically possible by means of an automated system launched by the interactive layer of a high-def disc, Doherty noted, the culmination of such a system into active service is very unlikely. Instead, he believes, high-def players will use Internet transactions to appropriate managed copies of licensed material. However, there is no mandate, and will never be one, he said, for high-def players to feature Internet connectivity. Players without Internet connections, he explained, will simply not be able to make copies either.

For the first time, however, Doherty did concede that there will be some mandate that applies to the studios. “The terms of the copy are under the studio control,” he told TG Daily. “So if they want to charge money, and how much money to charge, are [matters] completely under their purview.”

However, we also learned, those terms are not to be embedded on discs, but instead provided by Clearing Houses by means of the Internet connection. As Doherty explained, players themselves will eventually (under the AACS 1.0 specification, once that’s completed) contain the full program necessary to initiate and complete the managed copy transaction, as well as execute the copy process. While the option for making managed copies may be made available through a movie’s menu, if the studio leaves out that provision, the player itself can manage the entire process without the disc’s intervention.

“It is the clear intent of the AACS specification,” stated Doherty, “that if a content author does nothing in regards to managed copy, that disc will still be copy-able, presumably from a menu that comes from the player itself. This is meant to be a very positive thing, in the sense that we don’t want to burden authors – especially small content producers – with having to worry about how to do the managed copy in their menus. If they don’t have the time or bandwidth, the process can just happen behind the scenes with no work on the authoring side.”

Doherty’s statement contradicts reports that first-generation high-definition discs may not be able to be copied, by virtue of the AACS 1.0 specification not having being completed in time for their publication. Even first-gen discs, Doherty assured us, should have managed copy capability under the new system, once it’s implemented.

The fact that AACS will not require dedicated Internet connections, changes the entire flavor of the dispute over how the Clearing Houses are managed. If dedicated connections would have been required, the argument over who controls the ISPs that manage those dedicated connections, would not have been moot. Now, it’s clear that you can use your own LAN for the connection.

But that wouldn’t conceivably preclude some crafty CE manufacturer from coming up with a kind of home entertainment powerhouse device, Doherty perceived, that could include a high-def disc player, and that could also use a dedicated Internet connection for its own purposes. AACS would never require it, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen anyway. “It is certainly possible,” he surmised, “for someone to build a device that integrates a number of different services into it, that are unrelated to AACS and unrelated to next-generation optical. For example, they could build in not just an optical playback, but then also a set-top box which is communicating through a special service, or a set-top box which is doing VoD [video on-demand] download to their hard drive.”

One new class of device could be a combination VoD player and DV-R, using HD DVD or Blu-ray as the recording mechanism. A dedicated ISP connection could be used to enable the consumer to dial up whatever content she wanted, download it to the console, and burn it to the player. AACS might be involved in governing the playback of that content once burned to the HD DVD-R or BD-R, he said, but it would not be protecting the VoD transaction – that’s outside the AACS scope. In such an instance, Doherty conceded, “it depends on the interpretation of the rules which are still to be determined in the final agreement, as to if you made a recordable disc like that from some kind of special service, how managed copy would work.”

In his keynote address to the Mix ’06 conference last Tuesday, Microsoft chairman Bill Gates advised attendees to enjoy the format war while it lasts, he said, because it’ll be the last one. From here on out, he said, “it’s all bits.” We asked Richard Doherty what he thought Gates meant by that comment. “It does feel to Microsoft that optical discs are very much a legacy format,” he responded. “It’s really just a carrier for bits, just a carrier for information. Until we get our broadband infrastructure up, and other infrastructures up in the world to deliver bits, this has been a relatively efficient way to deliver a large number of bits. At the same time, it’s inconvenient for a number of reasons. You have to go to the store to pick up the discs, or you have to wait for your NetFlix discs to arrive in your mailbox. Other kinds of services coming down the line, where you pick your movies and they’re downloaded directly to your hard drive, or you stream them across the Internet – all of these other methods for communicating content, we think, are ultimately quite superior to packaged media. So we do see that as the future, and this is perhaps the last kind of packaged media that we’re going to see.”