What's in store for digital video

Say farewell to your videoes. DVD, a disk format capable of holding large amounts of data, is finally set to take off. Cliff Joseph reports
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Indy Lifestyle Online
After several years of dithering, DVD at last looks set to take off this year. Depending on whom you ask, DVD stands either for "digital video disk" or "digital versatile disk". The versatile bit refers to the disk's ability to store large amounts of video, audio and computer data. But it's the disk's video storage capabilities that are attracting most attention, prompting suggestions that DVD could replace videotape in the same way that CDs have replaced vinyl records.

The new disk format has been under development for years, but has been delayed by arguments over standards. Two formats were initially proposed, and it looked as though they might have to compete against each other, just as VHS and Betamax video did in the Eighties. However, Sony, Toshiba and Philips managed to agree a common format in 1995, and DVD is now supported by most of the big names in the consumer electronics industry.

The first DVD players went on sale in Japan and the US at the end of last year and they are now starting to appear in shops in the UK. DVDs look just like CDs and they work in the same way, using a laser to read information that is embedded on the surface of the disk. This means that a DVD player can also play your existing audio CDs. However, the system used to record information on to a DVD is more precise and gives it a much greater storage capacity.

A single-sided DVD can store more than four gigabytes of data. That's seven times the capacity of a normal CD, and the equivalent of two hours of broadcast-quality video. In addition to video, the disk can also carry 32 subtitle tracks and eight separate audio tracks that can be used for multiple language dialogue and surround-sound music and sound effects.

And, unlike a CD, DVDs can store information on both sides of the disk and each side can have two layers. The first layer is transparent, allowing the laser to pass through and read the information on the second layer. This means that a four-sided DVD can store 17 gigabytes of data, or around eight hours of video.

This enormous storage capacity allows DVD to provide new features that videotape can never hope to match. Most concerts and sports events that are released on videotape are edited together using footage shot from several different camera angles. DVD can store all these different camera angles on one disk, allowing you to "edit" your own programmes by switching between angles with the player's remote control.

Each scene in a film stored on DVD has its own classification so you can program the player to skip adult-rated scenes, or simply not play adult films at all. Some players can be programmed to accept a PIN number, similar to that used on a cash card, preventing your children from reprogramming the player without your permission.

Video, and its accompanying audio soundtrack, are stored on DVD using a compression technique called MPEG, and some people have argued that the audio and video quality of MPEG is not as good as VHS. It's true that some of the early demos of DVD weren't very good, but the titles that are now starting to come on to the market are much better.

Abbey Road Interactive, the multimedia division of Abbey Road Studios, has just finished Queen's Greatest Flix, the first DVD title to be produced in the UK. This was demonstrated at Abbey Road last week, and it certainly looked and sounded better than VHS. "It's lots better," confirms Sarah Bradley, digital video manager at Abbey Road. "It's sharper and the colours are truer to life."

One of the advantages of DVD's storage capacity is that it has room for a high-quality Dolby soundtrack in addition to the compressed MPEG soundtrack, so audio buffs get the best possible sound quality.

Market research by the trade magazine Screen Digest predicts that 19 million DVD-video players will be sold by the year 2000, along with more than 40 million in the computer market.

The first generation of players will be expensive - around pounds 600 for Panasonic's new player - and they won't have the ability to record. The first recordable players will appear early next year, but they will only be for use with DVD-Roms that store computer data. You'll have to wait until this time next year for recordable video players to reach the consumer market.

There may be other hurdles to overcome as well. The British Board of Film Classification is holding a special meeting this month to decide how to cope with a medium that can carry multiple versions of the same film, and there's bound to be an outcry about the regional coding that prevents people from buying titles from other parts of the world.

The writing's on the wall for videotape, though, and DVD looks like it's here to stay n

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