Interview: Microsoft’s Kevin Collins on HD DVD

September 26, 2006

Kevin CollinsLast Wednesday I had the opportunity to sit down with Kevin Collins to discuss everything HD DVD, at least I think he was sitting; I was three time-zones away.

Kevin Collins is a director in the Microsoft Consumer Media Technology Group, focusing on Microsoft’s role in the DVD Forum around HD DVD and all aspects of “HDi”, the interactive language for the HD DVD-Video specification.

Kevin actively participated in the authoring of the DVD Forum’s HD DVD-Video specification and works closely with both movie studios and CE manufacturers on HDi implementation, in addition to duties promoting the virtues of HD DVD for the North American Promotional Group.

HTB: Kevin it’s good to talk to you. I really appreciate you taking the time to do this.

KC: Hey Bryan, happy to be talking with you.

To start, I’d like to give you a little background about myself. Like you I’m a huge home theater guy. I started back in ’94 when I got a Pioneer Elite rear-pro 51”. In ’99 I stepped up and got a Sony G70 and Stewart Filmscreen Studiotek-130 drop-down, 110” screen, Krell components and Revel speakers and that’s been my system up until now because until these formats came out, I haven’t seen anything that’s worthy of encroaching on the blacks that I get with my CRT, to go to a digital. But now with this Marantz 1080p projector that’s been out and this wonderful content that you get from HD DVD, I’m seeing that doing 720p on 8” guns isn’t quite up to par anymore.

If you get a chance you should check out the ‘HD DVD Mobile Experience,’ a touring 18-wheeler outfitted with the latest HD DVD products and state-of-the-art video and sound equipment with stops planned in 12 different locations across the US. You can see in there how they calibrated everything and I think someone like you would really appreciate the time that was spent producing an experience that can illustrate the [HD DVD] format at its best potential.

HTB: I was hoping that would come through Atlanta, I haven’t seen that on the tour yet.

KC: So far, there are stops planned in more than a dozen cities. We’ll be going to cities such as Orlando, Chicago, Philadelphia and Richmond and the latest information can be found at www.TheLookAndSoundOfPerfect.com.

So anyway, I just wanted to give you some background, I’m clearly an enthusiast at heart.

HTB: Absolutely, I got a lot of that from the Major Nelson podcast. It definitely came through.

KC: Oh, you listened to that?

HTB: Oh yeah.

KC: Good to know. Well, if you heard that you probably heard a lot of the things I’m going to talk about. I can’t remember exactly how much detail we went into.. I’ve been working on HD DVD at Microsoft for about 2 years and when I started out I was immediately working with the DVD Forum, helping author the HD DVD video specifications.

With that, I had the great opportunity to participate in a wide variety of groups and one of them was the AH0-10 which included among others participants, studios, Disney and Warner, Technicolor, an authoring house and replicator, Toshiba, and Microsoft from a software perspective. One of the unique things about this group was the studios came in and said right off the bat that they didn’t believe just having high definition video was going to be enough to compel consumers to ditch DVD and buy into a new format.

What they came up with were three things they really thought were necessary in order for consumer to switch formats and embrace HD DVD. One of them is obviously high definition video; the other one was high definition audio and the third one was an immersive interactive experience. On the audio side of things, what they wanted to do was mandate a superior audio experience to go with an HD video experience. You probably remember back with DVD one of the big things was AC-3, and we, saw one of the first AVR’s that could accept a SPDIF input and be able to decode AC-3 was when the Yamaha 3090 came out at CES. I remember my first experience of “wow this is what surround sound is supposed to be like – six discrete channels”.

So what the studios wanted to have out of the gate was to be able to deliver high definition . DVD delivered discrete surrounds of audio but it was not high resolution. So out of the box they wanted to have that kind of audio (Dolby Digital Plus or TrueHD) be immediately available for consumers. What they did to ensure this was to mandate that Dolby Digital Plus and Dolby TrueHD (which is MLP lossless from DVD-A) to be decoded on every HD DVD video player.

Since it is decoded on every HD DVD player there is an immediate option to output over the analog outputs of the HD DVD player. Because most of the AVR’s that have shipped for the last 3 to 5 years have had analog inputs, mainly there to cater to SACD and DVD audio owners, there is an immediate benefit of realizing this high definition sound without having to purchase a new AVR.

At CEDIA, there was a plethora of AVR’s and Pre-Pro’s that had HDMI support. The HD DVD player will output PCM after decoding the Dolby streams. Since the decoding is taking place on the player and it is outputting uncompressed PCM, there is no need for HDMI v1.3 and a for an advanced audio decoder to reside on the AVR/ Pre-pro. It just will work.

HTB: Right, I’ve banged my head against many a wall trying to explain that one, that HDMI 1.3 isn’t necessary for the advanced audio codec’s over HDMI, if the player can decode to PCM.

KC: So yeah, right out of the gate you can listen to “Phantom of the Opera” in multi-channel surround with Dolby TrueHD in the latest Toshiba firmware that they just released about a month ago over the network. I’ve enjoyed it at a Kevin Voeck’s house who lives down here in LA, he’s the director of Revel Technologies. I heard it first-hand and it was phenomenal. It was the first time I’d seen high definition video and high definition audio all in the same place and it was a dramatic experience for me and I’ve been enjoying this stuff for some time.

This dovetails into this third part I was getting at with interactivity – when you can decode on the player, one of the key features the studios came up with is being able to do picture in picture video, so you can have a “making-of” video run while the main video is playing you can have a little box with the video. I don’t know if you have had a chance to review the “The Dukes of Hazard”.

HTB: I have and uh, let’s just say I wish my first “In Movie Experience” had been with a different title, but yeah I did get to check it out. It was very clever.

[Laughter]

HTB: Looking forward to some different movies with it though.

KC: “Constantine” and ‘Troy’ have it, and there are other ones that are coming out soon. A great new title is “The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift”, that just scratches the surface of what potential there is around interactivity. But at any rate when you were watching “The Dukes of Hazard”, and you did the in movie experience and you saw the director and one of the actors were speaking and you immediately notice something, that there was audio mixing going on.

That can only occur if you can decode that audio stream and then mix it with that 2nd audio stream and the secondary video source and push it back out the audio outputs. The re-encode that goes on, that’s another reason why it’s unique to HD DVD that you have those audio codec’s mandated to be able to be decoded in the player and you only get that with HD DVD.

So another scenario – and we’ll send you this publicly available document – refer to the AH0-10 which is where the studios came up with 150 interactive scenarios. One of many scenarios is the ability to download a high definition trailer down to the player and then store it there in the player. When you put your hi-def movie in you get a new trailer every time.

HTB: That would be a big plus; I get sick of the same trailers. [laughs]

KC: Exactly. On DVD that’s one of the biggest pet peeves that I have. But with this there are some requirements associated to be able to pull that off. One, you have to have some form of storage on every player and; two, you have to have a network connection on every player. So, on those features that I’ve talked about, the PiP and this networking scenario, the consistent experience comes from being mandated on the players.

When we were doing AH0-10 meeting there was some push back from the consumer electronic companies saying, “Hey we think this is a great idea but if it’s optional we can’t code to it, because when there’s a step up player advertising these features, consumers won’t be able to see the difference because there’ll be players that don’t have these hardware features available in them.” Basically they said they needed to author to the lowest common denominator of features unless it was mandatory.

HTB: Not surprising

KC: So there was an agreement there which actually wound up in the HD DVD video specification that every player must have networking, every player must have a secondary video decoder, every player must have some form of storage on the device. Also, every player must be able to decode these new high-end, advanced audio codec’s.

Another thing you get with Dolby TrueHD is space savings. Just like Direct TV and DISH Network are going from MPEG2 to MPEG4 to get better video with less bandwidth, same thing with Dolby TrueHD versus uncompressed audio. Uncompressed audio is around a bit rate of 4.5 Mbps, if you look at ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ the Dolby TrueHD track is about 1.5 Mbps average bit rate per second.

HTB: Big space savings

KC: So you have a big savings and you still get the exact lossless version of the sound. By choosing what formats to have mandatory for audio, they picked out of the box a high end lossy format in Dolby Digital Plus which is substantially better even at the same bit rate than what you had with Dolby Digital. And if the studios have the time and resources and the superior audio track they can make it into the Dolby TrueHD (lossless) track just like you have on “The Phantom of the Opera”

So you have all those features, and you know they’re guaranteed there for every HD DVD player and that’s something that’s unique to HD DVD. You’ll only find those things guaranteed in HD DVD – they’re not optional interfaces that someone could do if a player decided to implement, they’re that way out of the box.

And you’ll see that when you watch “Tokyo Drift” – you’re going to really see the next level of interactivity appear. It’s another breakthrough but still we’re just scratching the surface of what can be done in terms of interactivity. This really goes to what the studios were saying – if these features are there we’re going to start authoring super-compelling content. Obviously you watched the IME experience on “Dukes of Hazzard”. I watched it over again and I had a whole different viewing of it than I did the first time I saw it, it was a compelling experience.

The only time I’ve watched interactivity before was on [the DVD version of] ‘The Matrix,’ where I followed the white rabbit, then it would stop and you’d go into the “daily’s” part of the film and it would show the making of it. Then, you’d hop back out, not nearly as compelling as you have with PiP. Again, that’s just one of the great benefits that you have with HD DVD.

HTB: The first thing that came to mind when I saw the ‘In Movie Experience’ was, this is such a new way to do things that it will probably take some-time for the content creators to even dig out all the possibilities and really find something that, you know that killer-app or whatever you want to call it. Because what I saw was interesting and above and beyond the normal DVD extras, but my mind immediately started wandering into, well you know they could do this, they could do that, etc.

KC: Another area that they haven’t really scratched yet is the whole networking thing and downloads. I know they’re testing stuff and setting up backend infrastructure but if you look at how it went, the first title that came out “The Last Samurai” – which by the way at 154 minutes is the longest title on either format that easily fit on a 30GB disc without any problems and includes all the bonus features that were on the DVD. Those [initial titles] didn’t have a lot of interactivity but within about three months you had “Constantine” with more interactivity.

Then they stepped it up with a lot more graphics that you see in “Dukes of Hazzard” and “Batman Begins”. Tokyo Drift brought it up to whole other level of interactivity, particularly for Universal which you know basically just had ‘Bourne Supremacy’ and some other titles that just had PiP going – the ‘Tokyo Drift’ disc will blow your socks off.

And what’s also interesting with the networking just to point out is how these titles live-on. Once you add a network connection into this experience you can continue to update those menus systems you can continue to update the movie and what the experience is like. So “Last Samurai’ may be optimized but down the road they’ll be able to, via networking, conceivably add new menus, new features and add new languages through the persistent storage and networking.

HTB: Yeah that’s definitely something we’ve never seen before, in the past once the disc was burnt, that was it forever.

KC: You know things like adding additional audio tracks, like a German audio track in Dolby Digital Plus could be downloaded to persistent storage in the player and then because of HDi it’s all based off web-based standards – ECMAScript, XML and Smile. For example, when you do a bookmark you can hit the “B” key for all the Warner titles and you can go right back to that space even though you’ve switched, it saves that bookmark into persistent storage.

Also for updates where you update the menu system it’s done in persistent storage so when the disc’s put in, it will immediately look to that discs unique directory in the persistent storage and say hey, is there a new menu system there? And if there is, bingo, that’s what the consumer sees when they start playing the movie, so then all the sudden there’s a selection for, say a German Dolby Digital Plus soundtrack.

So the possibilities are pretty endless. Think about how the internet interacts with the PC, you have those same kind of capabilities now being able to download and update content and update your player, you that’s a third benefit that we never saw with networking. You’ve probably seen your Toshiba player has the ability to be updated over the network.

You know the guys over at AVS Forum are all pretty nuts about being able to update; there have been four updates that have helped with HDMI, issues with other displays, the Dolby TrueHD multi-channel fix so there’s been a lot of stuff you’ve been able to get with networking and that’s only mandatory on HD DVD. I was on the CEDIA floor and I walked around and took pictures of eight different BD players and none of them, that I saw had networking connections [According to Pioneer, the BDP-HD1 “does not support direct connection to the Internet or the retrieval of content through the Internet”]

And then you look at the reviews on the web just looking at very basic interactivity titles, like “Rumor Has It” from Warner where they did it on both formats and the reviewers are stating [for the Blu-ray titles] “Hey, how come there’s no bookmarks?” Because there’s no persistent storage. How come I can’t zoom? Where’s my title time-line? You know just basic features that are missing and it really goes to show that if you have optional features, it’s indicative of what the studios and CE companies were saying – that they’re only going to author to the lowest common denominator.

HTB: Which is unfortunate because the lowest common denominator in this case is pretty low, at least with regard to those features.

KC: Right, and that’s just one of those key things which is unique that the studios and the AH0-10 and the HD DVD specification had as mandatory baseline features so that they could do all this stuff and continue to build on it. So I just kind of wanted to give you an insider’s history, I’ve been on the DVD Forum for almost two years now and I’ve helped author the HD DVD video spec.

HTB: Well you know one of the things that’s really interesting, I know there’s a huge difference between what’s in the spec, what’s feasible, what’s not feasible and what really boils down to manufacturer decisions with the players themselves. And I think that’s an area where a lot of people are getting confused, because if I’m not mistaken DTS wasn’t even in the original DVD spec or at least the early players didn’t support it.

KC: That’s right.

HTB: Lo-and-behold here we are 9, 10 years later and you can’t find a player that doesn’t support DTS so I know a lot of people are getting hung up on ‘the spec’, its kind of strange and hard to deal with at the same time.

KC: Right, and a lot of that goes to, on the DTS issue as you know there was a big outcry and you and I probably looked at it on the DVD side of things, there was a perception that DTS had a better soundstage, better bass and better separation. Now I don’t think that’s as much of an issue anymore as both DTS and Dolby have lossless codec’s, lossless is lossless so… I don’t know if the same holds true as much anymore, now there are some unique advantage to DTS in terms that its one audio stream and it can be have and added stream to get you to a lossless format.

HTB: Well, really where I was going with that example was not so much as DTS itself but as an example of something that didn’t exist in the initial spec but obviously became commonplace later on, the whole 24p argument with people harping on the current players don’t do 24p its “not in the spec”. This is where I’m drawing the example back to DTS which obviously didn’t exist in the original DVD spec, or at least wasn’t present in the original players.

KC: Right, I understand you on that, the thing I’d add for thought on that also is that the 24 frame per-second output on both formats the discs are stored as 1080p24, so they’re authored in their original format [for both formats], so having a player manufacturer say they’re going to do it, even though the vast majority of displays out there today can’t handle it, is a bonus feature.

Whereas things that cost additional money like networking, secondary video decoders and persistent storage having them be there in the specification as a mandatory feature is something that’s going to allow the studios to, which they’ve already shown, to author to because they know that’s the lowest common denominator.

HTB: Ok moving on from there, basically five months have passed since HD DVD’s launch, could you give us a brief synopsis of the progress the formats made to date and then maybe even some things coming up that might surprise us.

KC: To answer that question what I’d like to start off with is there were a lot of promises made from HD DVD that have immediately been filled out of the gate, one of them dual-layer 30GB disc and titles shipped on that [format]. There were promises of doing the combo discs, those have shipped for day and date titles, “Tokyo Drift” is another one of those, “Tokyo Drift” will be one of the first ones that will be HD DVD30/DVD9.

And there’s been a lot of titles, probably ten so far that have had lossless audio, Dolby TrueHD, all of the titles have used the advanced audio codec, Dolby Digital Plus to provide a superior sound over what they had on DVD and the level of interactivity has increased substantially from the first titles from “Dukes of Hazard” to “Tokyo Drift” to things that are even going to be better in the future, when they start taking advantage of networking.

The other part that I’d like to highlight is just the momentum around the format, there were a lot of titles promised. I know in my experience I go to Best Buy now and buy the titles in person because I want to get the consumer experience, before I used to buy them on-line and I’ve purchased 70 HD DVD titles and we also get check-discs, not review discs that they send out to reviewers but actual check-discs from the studios. I have 40 of those so there’s a huge pipeline of titles and everything they’ve talked about delivering is in the pipeline or has come out. And also there have been a lot of blockbuster titles; “The Last Samurai” was a top end title, now we’ve got “Batman Begins” coming out…

HTB: Yeah October and November are going to be crazy.

KC: Yeah, they’re really delivering on titles, there’s a lot of momentum around that. And then there’s the hardware part of it at CEDIA Toshiba already announced their second-generation players, they’ve announced their step-up player will support HDMI 1.3, 1080p output and then you know there’s the big announcements that have come around the Xbox360 and the add-on drive today in the press, you might have seen the Japanese press release where Microsoft announced the add-on drive in Japan.

HTB: Yes I did.

KC: Offered at the Japanese equivalent of $170 USD, they haven’t announced anything yet for the rest of the world but I believe they’re going to be doing that pretty soon.

HTB: Is it safe to assume that yen to dollar conversion will hold true there?

KC: We’ll see, I can’t say what they’re going to come out with for U.S. pricing but I can only imagine its going to be equally competitive. And the thing you get with the HD DVD add-on drive from a studio perspective everyone that buys that drive – which the studios can track sales of – they know there’s an attach rate, there’s a guarantee that if a person bought that drive they’re buying an HD DVD movie.

HTB: At least one [laughs]

KC: Yeah, or there’s no reason to buy it. So it gives the consumer a choice, if they want to be a gamer or they want to be a gamer and view high definition HD DVD movies, so there’s a lot of benefit in that, and there’s momentum there in terms with what Toshiba’s been announced, Microsoft doing add-on drives, etc. Publicly you can see on the DVDForum.org the steering committee which I also participate in, we’ve been actively engaged with the Chinese

HTB: Yeah I was going to ask about that.

KC: Just two weeks ago, there was a sub-committee off the steering committee that’s gone to Beijing and talked to the Chinese government and working with them on the HD DVD format, there’s also been lots of discussions, and announcements early on at CES about Chinese manufacturers supporting HD DVD. At CEDIA Lite-On announced support that they were going to be producing HD DVD drives, so there’s this huge momentum around the format, and there’s lots of other stuff in the pipeline,

There’s lots of people engaging with really esoteric, high-end manufacturers to do HD DVD players, so there’s a lot of momentum around there both from the high-end the middle-tier and the low-end, that the DVD Forum and the HD DVD Promotional Group are really trying to move forward and show strong consumer support from a variety of things people can purchase at a variety of price-points depending on what they want to get out of it. But the key thing is across all of it they have top quality picture and top quality features, those three things the studios said were necessary to compel consumers to move over, is being delivered on.

Continue Reading Part Two – Interview: Microsoft’s Kevin Collins on HD DVD



Posted by Bryan Greenway | | Filed Under HD-DVD


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