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Blu-ray vs. HD DVD: The Blu-ray Perspective, Part 2

Pioneer's Andy Parsons speaks for the Blu-ray camp By Charlie White

In Part 2 of this extensive four-part interview, Consumer Electronics Net talks with Andy Parsons, Senior Vice President of Product Development for Pioneer USA and the Chair of the Blu-ray Disc Association's US Promotion Committee. In this second part, Parsons talks about compression formats used for Blu-ray content, and details what Pioneer is doing to improve performance of its Blu-ray player before it reaches the marketplace. He also explains why the Blu-ray players were beaten to market by their rival HD DVD format, and why the marketplace would prefer having just one high-definition disc format rather than dual-format players.

CEN: Can you tell us how the initial releases were compressed? Were they using H.264, VC-1, or were they using MPEG2? Were they actually in 1080p?

Parsons: As I understand it, the initial titles that have been shipped are using MPEG2, which is fine. An MPEG2 stream can look absolutely spectacular. It's a question of how many bits per second you're using to achieve that. As far as I know, they're mastered in 1080p, so you're starting out with the best, and then you work your way down if necessary. If your display can only handle, for example, 720p, then you would scale it down. Your TV typically does that. It can still look very, very good.

I notice that there has been a lot of discussion about the MPEG2 codec. There are people making assertions that MPEG2 is inherently old, or it's not capable of delivering as good a picture as the other codecs. But when you're thinking about what you're trying to do with compression technology, if you're releasing content in a format like DVD or Blu-ray, one of the things you want to do is say, "Here's my quality benchmark. This is what I expect as far as the quality level at which I'm willing to release this particular title." Then you start looking at codecs: "I have three codecs available to me right now, one of which is MPEG-2, one of which is VC-1, and the other is MPEG4 AVC. Which of those allows me to do my compression in an efficient way, not just in terms of bits per second, but also how long does it take to do the actual encode session itself?" So being able to do a real time MPEG-2 compression pass may be very, very appealing to me if I'm trying to maximize efficiency of my operation. If I have to do, say, a 4-to-1 or 6-to-1 asymmetry on my encoding, meaning that it could take, say, eight hours to encode a two-hour movie on each pass, that starts to create a potential bottleneck for me if I'm trying to do a whole bunch of titles all at once. So the main advantage of using the advanced codecs really has to do with being able to reduce the number of bits per second and still maintain my benchmark quality standard. That's not to say that one of these codecs is better than the other with respect to video quality. They all have their own unique characteristics and advantages and disadvantages. So, the people I've talked to in the title community are saying, "Look, we're not religiously committed to one codec or another. It's just a question to what we can make work for us in terms of getting the quality we want, and being able to get the efficiency we want on the production side."

CEN: So you're saying a given Blu-ray disc release can hold 50GB but that's not necessarily going to be automatically filled up with video? They'll just pick whatever codec is the most cost-effective for them to use? In this case, I guess it's MPEG2.

Parsons: Well, cost-effectiveness is one factor, but quality is always the number one factor. They want to be able to achieve equality that they know the people who are buying the title are expecting. So that's usually the top consideration, at least among the people who I know in the community who are doing this work. They're not saying, "Hey, how can we make this video look kind of mediocre but save us money?" That's not at all what they're trying to do. They're saying, "How do we achieve the quality we want but at the same time maximize our production efficiency so we don't have to spend so much time doing the encoding, if we can achieve the quality we want?"

So that means more bits per second, for example, in MPEG-2 than it would mean for a VC-1 or MPEG4 AVC encode, and even that's not always a given. I've certainly heard some tales from people who said that they've looked at some of the other advanced codecs and found that if they up to the bit rate to a level that's equivalent to what they're using with MPEG2, then they can get similar results. They're saying, "Well, why should I do that, then? Why would I go through all that trouble if the bit rate is actually comparable to the MPEG2 side?"

We think most consumers shouldn't care about which codec it is, frankly. What they should care about is, is the quality of the title acceptable to them? Does it wow them? Does it make them get excited? Which codec was used shouldn't really matter. It shouldn't be something people should have to worry about. 

CEN: So do you think the quality issues that people had so far had to do with the testing methods and not necessarily with the compression or the system itself?

Parsons: If the source material, the film itself was shot in low light, if it has a lot of grain that the director wanted for that shot, or if you have a low-light, high-grain type of scene, you might find that the amount of detail that's actually present in the original picture itself is limited. A lot of people may think, "Gosh, I'm looking at this in high def, and I expected it to just completely knock my socks off." But if it's a scene that was shot that way, for artistic considerations, then people might say, "Well gee, I thought it should look like something that would just punch up the screen." In many cases, that will absolutely be the case. For example, if you look at some of the Warner titles that came out yesterday, some of them look just gorgeous. But that's the way they were shot, and the kind of camera that was used, the lighting that was used. So there are many factors, many considerations, and I think a good thing to do would be to have apples to apples, and look at a title that's been encoded in both formats to see how they compare. Personally, I think that if the folks that are making the titles are doing their job well, the consumer should look at it and say, "Wow. That's great. Look at that, it's much better than a DVD." If they can get that kind of reaction, then all the other stuff, to me, is a part of the magic that brings it to the screen; it's not something that most people care about.

CEN: I agree with you, Andy. I don't think our readers or consumers really care that much about which codec is being used, and many don't even know what that is anyway, or care how it's compressed. I think they are more concerned about the user experience. Now tell me a little about that. I've evaluated the Toshiba HD DVD player and noticed that it's really slow. Its response is nothing like a DVD player. It's more like a very slow computer. Will people see the same kind of user experience with the Pioneer Blu-ray player, or with other Blu-ray hardware units that are forthcoming?

Parsons: Blu-ray is a much more complex technology than DVD is, and certainly one of our challenges is to make sure that the user experience is as close to what people expect from a DVD player as we can possibly deliver. So we're spending a lot of time right now trying to optimize, for example, the spin-up time, so that people don't have to wait for such a long time to get this thing going.

CEN: How long is it going to take to spin up, from when you push the power button to when you see the first video?

Parsons: Every time I see it, it looks faster. I haven't really checked lately; that's why I'd hate to give you a specific time, but it is something that we're paying close attention to. We're trying to make this thing work as quickly and efficiently as we think consumers expect.

CEN: Well, it is a minute? Is it 10 seconds?

Parsons: Oh, no, no, it's not a minute. But again, I'd hate to throw out a specific time, because everything I've seen so far is preliminary, so I'm not going to give you a specific time. We want to get as close to a DVD experience as we can. Let's put it that way. That's our target. 

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Related Keywords:part 2, interview, Andy Parsons, Senior Vice President of Product Development for Pioneer USA, Chair of the Blu-ray Disc Associations US Promotion Committee, compression formats, Blu-ray content, Pioneer, performance, Blu-ray player, marketplace, beaten to market, HD DVD format, high-definition disc format, dual-format players

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