Interview: Microsoft’s Kevin Collins on HD DVD (Part 2)

September 26, 2006

Continuation of our interview with Microsoft’s Kevin Collins on HD DVD. Read part one of the interview.

HTB: From there something maybe a little bit more somber, not quite as happy on all fronts but I do know a lot of my readers are interested in pre-recorded high definition content, without question. The problem is obviously the two competing formats. My question directly is, what is HD DVD doing possibly even behind the scenes, to nail this down in their favor?

KC: Like you said there are challenges in a format war, there’s a confusion that goes on and what the HD DVD Promotional Group is doing is a variety of things to help address that problem. Back at the VSDA [Video Software Dealers Association] conference they announced a $150 million promotional campaign and part of that is the HD DVD Mobile Experience, which is this truck that’s going around to show people what the full format capabilities are by having a really high-end system, by showing a living room system, support on PCs and support on the Xbox 360.

The other thing we’re working on from the HD DVD promotion standpoint is helping out in the retail channels and educating retailers and consumers. We’re going out and talking to people like yourself to help clear up any misconceptions there might be about the format, just so everyone knows the facts. We feel if the facts are out there, then the well educated consumer can make an educated choice in what the best format is for them to purchase.

HTB: You just hit on two things I’d like to address a bit more. The truck tour, that’s great for everybody that gets a chance to see it but could we expect more television ad’s later on in the year?

KC: Well if you look on ESPN there was just an HD DVD ad for “Tokyo Drift” and there is definitely more in store.

HTB: Right, right.

HTB: Going back for a second to the retailer education. I don’t know if you’ve heard some of the stories from people coming back from the bigger chains, where they’ve been given total disinformation about the format, I don’t want to use the ugly word for that but incorrect information would be the polite way to describe it.

KC: And I agree with you, that’s why I purchased all of the 70 HD DVD titles myself, at retail outlets because I wanted to see what the experience is. What we’re doing around that is putting together materials in a variety of ways to help consumers, on-line training for the people on the floor to help provide them factual information so that this misinformation or just general confusion isn’t as rampant as it is now.

HTB: That’s definitely good news for the format.

KC: It’s just confusion across the board and we’re really working well with the retailers on this, we want to really engage them and so far they’ve been really receptive to work with us on that.

HTB: Well hopefully the A2 and XA2 alone will help address some of those concerns and issues.

KC: Yeah the whole 1080i versus 1080p thing and so on and how with a digital display that doesn’t make any difference in picture quality.

HTB: Another DVD Forum question and again maybe not something you’re able to speak to but I’m going to give it a shot. As you’ve mentioned, you address the DVD Forum regularly and by and large the majority of the results from those meetings are made public through the website. Going through some of those results its quite interesting to see how some of the core Blu-ray companies vote, or don’t vote for that matter by way of abstention.

I did however notice an interesting trend with Disney, they don’t abstain nearly as often as some of the core Blu-ray companies on HD DVD matters, as a matter of fact I can see one vote in particular where they voted yes in favor a HD DVD-R motion. Can we, rather should we read anything into some of these votes from Disney?

KC: How I’d like to address the question is to say that the support that Disney has provided, Disney was one of the two studios in the AH0-10, it was Warner and Disney, if you look at the AH0-10 and look through those 150 scenarios you will easily see which ones that Disney came up with. Disney had a huge hand in what is now called HDi technology, they actually co-partnered with Microsoft on this and as you stated they are directly, still involved to this day in every DVD Forum meeting all the way up from the working group one that I participated in, that did the HD video specifications to the TCG to the steering committees.

HTB: Ok then, that answers that. From there the only other DVD Forum question I have and you’ve already touched on it a bit is the Chinese HD DVD spec, I understand that they’re going to use a different video codec and the players in question are really only for internal consumption, is it too big of a stretch of the imagination though, that because they’re already working with a variant of the HD DVD spec, blue lasers etc could that alone work out to some kind of an advantage, with us seeing cheaper players, maybe players specifically for export that adhere to the traditional HD DVD spec?

KC: Well that’s definitely some of the things we’re talking to various Chinese manufacturers about, that is supporting HD DVD outside of China and that’s one of the points I was trying to make in terms of momentum from a low-end cost perspective of having the Chinese produce players not only for the Chinese HD DVD format but for our consumption over here in the United States. That’s something that’s definitely actively being talked about and pursued and that’s one of the things that we think can really turn the table. You brought up a lot of questions about alliances but at the end of the day people need to make money.

There’s a bunch of players out there right now, you have the price point advantage with the Toshiba player at $499, I took a friend of mine to Best Buy and he’s asking me well, what’s the difference between the Samsung and the Toshiba?

HTB: [laughs]

KC: And I said well, I’m a little biased but there’s more hardware and mandatory features in the Toshiba player. He said well is the picture any better? I go, no, you saw it, and he’s like well, I can buy a lot of titles…

HTB: For the $500 difference.

KC: And you look at that, and that speaks volumes to studio support – studios need to go to where the money is and if there are titles being purchased for a format, you know eventually they’re going to produce for that format because they’re too much money on the table.

So when we see a big influx of players, which I think, the Chinese are going to be one group who contributes, and obviously the next-gen Toshiba’s and Xbox add-on are going to help contribute as well. I think naturally when the tide starts turning and when the studios have to look at replication costs, its much cheaper to make HD DVD because it comes off of a DVD line and its much cheaper for costs and materials, and you have all the promise of next-gen HD content delivered even now on an inexpensive HD DVD30.

So you look at (a) what consumers are going to have out there for players (b) the actual cost to make the product, then it really starts becoming a business decision on what format to support, in addition you have all those base, mandatory features guaranteed for the players.

HTB: That’s definitely along the lines of what I was thinking, either directly or indirectly, there has to be some benefit to producing on that scale. Ok next question, again something you’ve already touched on but I wanted to get a little bit more detail.

You mentioned that “The Last Samurai” was the longest encode you’re aware of, at least one that’s commercially available at 154 minutes but I wanted to try and get a feel for what was the longest movie encoded that we might not have seen yet. As we all know the Blu-ray camp originally knocked on the HD DVD30s indicating they wouldn’t be big enough for the largest movies, even though oddly enough up until now, they’ve only shipped BD25s. I know “King Kong” clocks in at over 3 hours, or thereabouts, have you seen anything longer than that? Maybe one of those check discs you alluded to earlier?

KC: Personally I haven’t, but there’s nothing to limit any movie to anything other than HD30, the compression with VC-1 has continually gone down in average bit-rate yet maintained that pristine quality of the original. When “Batman Begins” comes out on October 10th you’ll see a very low bit-rate for that, compared to the early titles.

So when they talk about HD DVD30 being a limitation I just don’t see it at all, you know the format supports the advance codec’s for audio, like I talked about just the difference from uncompressed to TrueHD being a 4:1 ratio, the use of advanced codec’s like VC-1 for video where your getting to levels of average bit-rate that are encroaching on the DVD territory of compression ratios, so you know I just don’t see an issue at all.

HTB: I recently heard a podcast from AVForums in the UK, where a European Toshiba representative stated they haven’t even had any requests from the studios, for the 45GB discs.

KC: I haven’t heard of the studios asking for anything more than HD DVD30; in addition to this you have these HD DVD30 discs like ‘Tokyo Drift’ and there’s a ton of features, there has not been one HD DVD title that has shipped without at least the same bonus features that the DVD title had, and I know because I have ‘The Fifth Element’ that’s not the case on Blu-ray, so there’s seems to be limitations there and 5GB isn’t the thing that makes up the limitation. The use of the advanced codec’s that are mandatory in HD DVD are what allows for this and by using advanced codec’s over time, they just get more and more efficient.

MPEG-2’s been maxed out, that’s why DirecTV and DISH Network have moved to MPEG-4, there’s a reason; they want lower bit-rates and better video quality. There’s no difference here on this format, HD DVD30 has more than enough room and it’s been proven with movies like “The Last Samurai” and when ‘King Kong’ comes out, very long movies that easily fit, with compelling, interactive features and advanced audio tracks.

HTB: Given that, can we assume even though we’ve heard reports the 45GB discs have been tested and scheduled to be put into the spec sometime next year, should we necessarily even assume those would be used for movies?

KC: You know, I don’t know, I work primarily on the WG1 group, the one that does the HD DVD video specifications, there’s another working group (nine total) that deals with the disc formats. I’m not in the working group that deals with what’s been reported as the 45GB disc but to answer that question, there just hasn’t been a need from a studio perspective to have it, so I couldn’t really, directly answer that except to say that everything’s being met today with HD DVD30.

HTB: There’s been a little bit of confusion on the amount of players sold, I’ve heard everything from as low as 20k to as high as 70k units.

KC: It’s more than 25k in U.S households, that’s what was announced at CEDIA, This is Toshiba’s numbers, this is their player that we’re talking about and then at IFA they announced more than 50k worldwide. So you can imagine since those announcements, in the weeks that have come, those numbers have expanded.

HTB: And do those numbers include the RCA units?

KC: I’m not sure. Those are Toshiba’s numbers that they’re talking about, so they’re pretty safe numbers they don’t come out unless they’re going to be on the button.

HTB: Kevin you alluded to this earlier and I’m sure you guy’s have heard this, given the fact that many consumers won’t feel compelled to move away from DVD with the price points of current HD DVD players at $500 plus, we feel that price point is going to play a huge part in this. Getting those players down into the price range of the everyday player ($200-250) is going to be crucial, any speculation when we might see the players drop into that range?

KC: I can’t speak for the other manufacturers but I do know that if you look at the differences between the first generation Toshiba players versus the second generation, its gone much more away from higher cost components to lower cost components. Look at the price point Toshiba came in at, $499 for an early adopter platform – that’s an incredible price point.

I can only imagine the prices coming down and then you can look at the price for the Xbox 360 HD DVD add-on drive, well I don’t know exactly what the price is going to be for the U.S. but it has to similar to the price you have for Japan. So that’s the kind of price point your talking about and there are nearly 6 million Xbox360’s, per the last Microsoft shareholder meeting, that was in June so I’m sure there are a lot more of them out there now. That’s a lot of people that can enjoy something, let’s assume it’s the same price point as announced in Japan or around that and get something really affordable and have a great experience.

So then if you throw in what the Chinese are going to be doing, I think it could be a short period of time to see the economy of scale kick-in and start seeing people buy more and you’re seeing streamlined components, so what you’re talking about is definitely conceivable but I don’t have any knowledge from any manufacturers on price point [reductions].

HTB: Well that’s a good indication as to where things are going, as you mentioned with the more cost effective components in the second generation Toshiba’s. While obvious to many of us, it’s important to the average consumer that the price of admission will continue to decline.

KC: What you’re seeing there is just more streamlined, you know, the bundling of some of those chipsets.

HTB: So we’ve ruled out announcing the U.S. price of the Xbox360, HD DVD add-on here at hometheaterblog.com?

KC:, HTB: [Laughter]

HTB: Hey, I had to give it a shot. [laughs] You know I was reading over at avsforum.com that Amir Majidimehr (also with Microsoft) is beta testing one of the 360 add-ons; he indicates that it actually loads quicker than the first-gen Toshiba players.

KC: Yeah well you know it’s built using a next generation HD DVD drive, which was done from TSST (Toshiba Samsung Storage Technology Corporation). The best example is the Toshiba Qosmio notebook; you’ll see there that the load times are substantially faster than the NEC drive that’s used in the first generation Toshiba players.

And that just goes to your point more and more about the economy of scale, you know you have a slimmer drive that loads faster, there’s been more time spent on the development of the product as everything becomes evolutionary, better. I have a Toshiba Qosmio right here in front of me and it loads up, you know, I can put a disc in and in about 5-6 seconds I have the disc read and loaded.

HTB: Quick follow up on the Xbox360 HD DVD add-on, Dolby TrueHD and or DTS-HD possible from that player?

KC: Well, in order to get a HD DVD logo on the player, you have to be able to decode Dolby Digital Plus and Dolby TrueHD.

HTB: Ok, any plans to do any promotions or bundles around the add-on? Software titles perhaps?

KC: That’s getting into the Xbox territory and I think that in the coming weeks, month we’ll be able to give you that information via the Xbox team. That’s a market thing and they’ll probably do it differently with each market roll-out

HTB: Kevin I don’t know if you’ve had a chance to read the latest Wide Screen Review. (Issue 113 October 2006)

KC: Yes I have…

HTB: [laughs] Any comments? Or would you rather me give some specifics, there were some pretty outlandish claims in the interview.

KC: And that’s part of, it’s not directly related, but that’s part of the reason why the HD DVD Promotional Group is going out and educating people. There was a lot of unfortunate, misinformation that was described there particularly around the audio codec’s and I think that I’ve described it to you, why HD DVD having things as mandatory. You know you can look at the sites from both Dolby and DTS and there are many of the advanced audio codec’s that are optional on Blu-ray, so it’s no secret there and then the proofs in the pudding for the other stuff, like interactivity.

It all gets around to, is a format capable of doing something, yes or no? Well yeah but will people do it if it’s optional? And that’s what the crux of the matter gets to. It’s not a matter of if something’s capable of doing it – is it mandatory or is it optional?

And while the BD specs aren’t public, unlike HD DVD where the specifications are public, it’s private so it’s difficult to get that. But just from the information I know of from the industry, it shows they’re optional and then to back that claim you can look at every BD title and there’s not one, that has Digital Plus or Dolby TrueHD, not one that uses any form of book marking or any form of persistent storage, there’s not one title even from Warner which ships on both formats, those titles are mysteriously not showing up with picture in picture, there’s not one player that has networking.

HTB: The thing that struck me the most, and the Pioneer rep just came out and said it, BD-Live which is the full BD profile, won’t appear in any player released this year. I found that a little frightening for people that may unknowingly invest 1k in the player, thinking they offer everything the format is capable of.

(Wide Screen Review: Issue 113 October 2006)

Danny Richelieu, WSR:
And is the Pioneer player going to be a BD Live player?

Chris Walker, Pioneer Electronics:
No, BD Live full-profile players, you probably won’t see until next year. We do have network connectivity, but it’s not used for that purpose. But we do fully support
Java applications. We have a lot of the interactive features that you have seen in
demonstrations at press events; all that stuff…

KC: The other thing I would follow up with on that is, granted there’s a BD-Live profile, they’ve talked about this, the thing that’s never talked about is – is it always optional? Or, does it ever become mandatory for a player?

HTB: That’s worth finding out, especially before dropping 1k on a first-generation player.

KC: Yeah it is.

HTB: Well Kevin, thank you very much for this, I really appreciate your time.

KC: No problem – I enjoyed the conversation.



Posted by Bryan Greenway | | Filed Under HD-DVD


Comments

  • B.Greenway

    Hi Westcott,

    Batman Begins and King Kong (two of the highest grossing movies of 2005) are coming to HD DVD, on the true classic end ‘The Adventures of Robin Hood’ and ‘Spartacus’ are due in few weeks. I just can’t see the studios regressing from there, on into 2007. They’ve already had day and date releases and I’m told to expect more.

    The impression I got talking to Kevin is the ‘analog hole’ isn’t so much a grand scheme by the studios, as much as just a few hold-out directors that did the exact same thing with DVD’s launch. Just about every title that was promised has made it to the encoding process and is “in the pipeline”.

  • B.Greenway

    Hi Westcott,

    Batman Begins and King Kong (two of the highest grossing movies of 2005) are coming to HD DVD, on the true classic end ‘The Adventures of Robin Hood’ and ‘Spartacus’ are due in few weeks. I just can’t see the studios regressing from there, on into 2007. They’ve already had day and date releases and I’m told to expect more.

    The impression I got talking to Kevin is the ‘analog hole’ isn’t so much a grand scheme by the studios, as much as just a few hold-out directors that did the exact same thing with DVD’s launch. Just about every title that was promised has made it to the encoding process and is “in the pipeline”.

  • westcott

    I was hoping that you would have gotten into the “analog hole” topic. I see this as one of the last issues that prevent mass purchases by the educated public.

    My theory is that we will not see any titles of classic stature until HDCP and ICT are implemented. Was there any discussion on this, on or off the record?

  • westcott

    I was hoping that you would have gotten into the “analog hole” topic. I see this as one of the last issues that prevent mass purchases by the educated public.

    My theory is that we will not see any titles of classic stature until HDCP and ICT are implemented. Was there any discussion on this, on or off the record?

  • B.Greenway

    Hi Hoyt, admittedly I’m no Xbox360 hardware expert but if I had to guess, I’d say the TrueHD and DTS-HD streams will be down-mixed and transmitted out through the 360’s optical output.

  • B.Greenway

    Hi Hoyt, admittedly I’m no Xbox360 hardware expert but if I had to guess, I’d say the TrueHD and DTS-HD streams will be down-mixed and transmitted out through the 360’s optical output.

  • Hoyty

    The Xbox 360 TrueHD and DTS-HD question is one I have yet to see answered well. I believe multichannel PCM can’t be sent over SPDIF due to limitations so taht leaves analog. I haven’t seen (yet at least) a Xbox output cable that includes 6 analog cables. I am just curious how these new formats will get to AVR.

  • Hoyty

    The Xbox 360 TrueHD and DTS-HD question is one I have yet to see answered well. I believe multichannel PCM can’t be sent over SPDIF due to limitations so taht leaves analog. I haven’t seen (yet at least) a Xbox output cable that includes 6 analog cables. I am just curious how these new formats will get to AVR.