Intermittent Issues:
HD and the Format Wars (2002-2005) Part 1

By Ben Gruchow

July 16, 2015

Days of BOP's Future Past.

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Part 1 of a 4-part series on the advent of HD cinema.

“People thought it would come down to pixel rate or refresh rate, and they’re pretty much the same. What it came down to was a combination between gamers and porn. Now, whichever format porno backs is usually the one that becomes the most successful. But, you know, Sony, every PlayStation 3 has a Blu-ray in it…”

“You talkin’ to me this whole time?”

--Tropic Thunder, 2008

Full disclosure: I was that guy throughout most of 2007 - the one who gave everyone around me a lesson in HD-DVD/Blu-ray comparisons and tech specs, whether they wanted one or not. The character’s logic has precedent, by the way; despite Betamax being a superior format to VHS on the A/V end, the adult-film industry did back the latter, and VHS did win the format war. Of course, the main reasons why the adult-film industry backed VHS are some of the same reasons why it might have won anyway: VHS tapes could hold longer recording times, and VCRs were far less expensive to own at the time.

That concerns the first major format war for home cinema, though. What we’re going to do here is take a look at the second major format war, between two different pieces of high-definition (HD) optical technology. This format war went on in public for about two years - from 2006 until early 2008 - but it started from a conflict that started brewing in 2002 and built up through 2005. This will be the first entry in a series concerning HD’s advent and its place in modern theaters and home setups, up to 2015. For those of you in the near or far future who happen to be reading this: your interest in history is much appreciated, and I hope this article is displaying appropriately on whatever wearable holographic technology you’re using to view it.


The HD Puzzle

In 2002, two different consortiums began to pave the way for a high-definition standard. HDTVs were a rarity at the time, but they wouldn’t be for long; unlike the initial experiments with high-definition broadcast technology in the 1970s and 1980s, which petered out after disputes between different lobbying firms and the underlying difficulty with broadcasting an HD signal, the new HDTV standards were fit for mass production; sets capable of high-definition images had been available on the consumer market for several years. With a set aspect ratio (16:9, influenced chiefly by the 1.85:1 spherical aspect ratio of theatrical films) and two different sets of “HD” resolution (1280 x 720 and 1920 x 1080), the stage was set for some kind of delivery format to be developed. On each consortium’s mind was the knowledge that’s arguably not too far out of mind for anyone in the technology industry: If we don’t do it, someone else will, soon.

Upping the challenge was the imperative not to go too far astray of what the market would accept for a physical delivery system. DVD’s introduction had gone off fairly smoothly, owing to a coordinated effort by the DVD Forum (one of the two consortiums covered here); however, memories of the VHS-Betamax format war were still fresh enough to inspire caution when it came to designing a new A/V format. In addition, the smoothness of the DVD launch, and the degree of its success, presented its own limitation: customers were familiar with the DVD’s size and appearance, which was physically very similar to the size and appearance of a CD. Form factor was relevant here; the LaserDisc was a technologically superior option to VHS at the time of its release, and arguably superior to DVD in its initial days (owing to no compression being needed for LaserDisc video). Expense did the LaserDisc format in, but it’s hard to imagine that the physical size of the discs - so large as to be unwieldy to transport over any decent stretch - didn’t play a role in the format’s demise, too.

Continued:       1       2       3       4       5



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