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The XXX Factor

It''s a maxim in our business that when it comes to the technology of personal or home video, pornography is the decider. Like it or not, smut played a decisive role in the triumph of VHS over Betamax, the rise of video-on-demand and online streaming, and the development of all manner of Internet commerce for the lonely. There are many out there for whom the term JPEG still means something naughty, like etchings in the 19th century.

What, after all, laid the groundwork for YouTube and Google Video, or selling videos on iTunes? Ever peeked at racy clips or JPEGs one click away on popular sites like College Humor or Gorilla Mask? I guarantee you that most people were introduced to watching video on a computer by something other than CNN or New York Times video journalism.

So what might pornography have to teach us in handicapping Blu-ray vs. HD-DVD? Will it be the decider once again? A lot has been written about this already. About how major pornography suppliers have lined up behind Blu-ray. How they think Sony''s upcoming PlayStation 3 (PS3), which will play Blu-ray discs, will be their Trojan horse. Well, I don''t buy it.

Don''t get me wrong. I think Sony''s XDCAM HD, based on Blu-ray, is one of NAB''s big stories. It might as well be called Robust-cam. Sony promises 1,000 erase/write cycles for each professional disc, and some even predict ten times that amount. Disc and data integrity are checked on the fly, and when errors or improper thresholds are sensed, XDCAM HD blocks bad sectors or transfers data from questionable sectors to verified ones. Tape never had it this good.

Note that Sony wraps its XDCAM disc media in a protective cartridge with a mechanical shutter to seal it off from what Sony calls “dust, shock, and scratches.”

But read-only consumer versions of Blu-ray will be naked as Jenna Jameson on location. (If my reference is obscure, if you doubt pornography''s penetration into mass culture, see the mini biography of this popular “porntress” at IMDb.) HD-DVD will be stark naked too. No protective cartridge or jacket. Parading around in the raw like a DVD. So imagine the condition of a bare Blu-ray disc for PS3 after several months in the hands of an average 10-year-old boy. If you know a 10-year-old boy, you know what I mean.

But DVDs hold up OK, don''t they? Why should Blu-ray or HD-DVD be any different?

Well, for one thing, they hold a heck of a lot more data. A single-layer Blu-ray stores five times the data of a single-layer DVD and three times of an HD-DVD. The reason is simple: Compared to DVDs, Blu-ray discs and HD-DVDs use a thinner laser beam of shorter wave length to read smaller pits along finer tracks of narrower pitch. All of which spells tighter tolerances if not more delicate tracking.

As I pointed out in my October column, “More Eggs in One Basket,” Blu-ray and HD-DVD discs place their all-important data layer in different positions.

HD-DVD borrows the proven architecture of DVDs, sandwiching its data layer between two 0.6mm-thick polycarbonate substrates bonded together.

Blu-ray, to reduce laser scatter and achieve greater data density than HD-DVD, places its data layer on the outside of the polycarbonate disc, on the surface next to the blue-violet laser, where it is protected by a clear hard 0.1mm coating, about 2/3 the thickness of Saran wrap (developed by TDK, Sony, and others after early testing in 2003 made clear the need).

Remember that 10-year-old or his rattled parent, who knocks the high-definition disc to the floor by accident and dings the surface, which must protect underlying data of a density and tracking precision unprecedented in an optical disc?

On which format would you place your money to survive this real-world
challenge?

Speaking of money, the first HD-DVD players, from Toshiba, shipped in April, retailing for $800 and $500. The first prerecorded HD-DVD discs from Warner Home Video went on sale for $40. (I rounded all the “99s” to even dollar amounts. Why do marketers think we''re idiots?)

Meanwhile Samsung''s BD-1000 Blu-ray player, which retails for $1,000, has been delayed until late June, and Sony''s BDP-S1 Blu-ray player, also $1,000, until July—something to do with more testing.

TDK nevertheless has already introduced recordable Blu-ray discs, called BD-R for write-once and BD-RW for rewritable. Single-sided 25GB BD-R are $20, BD-RW are $25. Expected later this year are dual-layer discs capable of 50GB.

I don''t know the expected costs of HD-DVD R media, but even dual layer can be made using established DVD recordable media technology. Industry predictions are that, after volume production, costs of HD-DVD-R will be almost the same as current DVD-R.

So regarding the role of the pornography industry in throwing this race, don''t confuse hype with facts on the ground. Fact is there are many kinks to be worked out, and neither format has anything close to a real toe-hold yet. What''s more, perhaps HD will not smile on pornography this time. What can Blu-ray or HD-DVD offer pornography fans that a well-produced DVD doesn''t already?

What I do know is this: State-of-the-art compression like VC-1 (formerly WM9) and H.264 produce startlingly good HD from conventional DVDs. If Blu-ray and HD-DVD prices don''t drop fast, perhaps we''ll download compressed HD movies via the Internet and forego the next generation of discs altogether.

Hey, it happened to CDs.