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Archives for : hdtv

Beauty and the Box

Yesterday, I took my 5-year-old daughter, Quinn, to the Beauty and the Beast sing-a-long event. Quick summary: would have worked better with more people (we only had about 20, and most were shy), but helped to be in front of some theatre girls who knew the songs by heart and were into it. Still, one of my favorite movies, one I’ve surely seen 20 or 30 times. But let’s get back to digital media…

The event was meant to promote Tuesday’s re-release of Beauty and the Beast on home video, this time in its first HD edition. I’ve already owned B&tB on VHS and DVD (the 2003 edition cleverly contained the “work in progress” film circuit version, the original version, and the IMAX re-release that added an unneeded song). So I found myself wondering if I would be buying this release. Probably not, since I don’t own a Blu-Ray player and now that we’re many years into the Blu-Ray era, I don’t see that changing anytime soon. We don’t do a lot of movie watching anymore, as most of what we watch is DVR’ed off the DirecTV, and I didn’t fall for the “PlayStation 3 as Blu-Ray trojan horse” due to the PS3’s absurd unaffordability. And I don’t feel like we’ve missed it.

Then I thought: “wait, Blu-Ray isn’t the only form of HD.” There’s also on-demand from DirecTV, and what about iTunes? A little search there shows that yes indeed, the B&tB platinum edition will also be available on iTunes: $14.99 for SD, $19.99 for HD.

Of course, these Disney classics are usually only available for a short time before they “go back in the vault”, to enhance demand for the next re-release. So if I felt I did need to grab an HD version before it went away, which would I get?

Thinking about it, I think I’m more likely to buy an AppleTV — or at least rig a Mac Mini to a TV — before I get a Blu-Ray player. As it is, I could play the HD .m4p on a bunch of the devices I currently own (computers, iPhone, iPad), and the only thing that’s missing is connectivity to the TV. In fact, various video out cables allow for iOS devices to serve as a sort of “poor man’s” first-gen AppleTV, depending on your available connections, how many videos you’ve loaded on your iPod, and your tolerance for SD. A Blu-Ray disc would be locked to the TV the player is connected to, and wouldn’t be rippable for the iDevices (though this particular bundle may come with a digital copy… haven’t checked).

Still, I’m surprised to find that I’ve blundered into exactly what Steve Jobs purportedly told a customer in one of those alleged off-the-cuff e-mails: Blu-Ray is coming up short, and will eventually be replaced by digital downloads, just as CD successors were beaten by downloads (anybody spun up an SACD lately?).

BTW, Apple’s resolute anti-Blu stance is made all the more interesting by the fact that Apple is a board member of the Blu-Ray Disc Association.

Another note about the AppleTV: teardowns and other spelunking reevel that the new device runs iOS and has 8GB of storage, which would be suitable for apps, should Apple ever choose to deliver a third-party SDK. Clearly the UI would be different — perhaps it exists not as an “AppKit” or “UIKit” but rather a “TVKit” atop Foundation and the rest of the usual Apple stack — but there would be all sorts of interesting opportunities.

One of the most obvious would be for all the existing iOS streaming media apps to connect to the TV. This includes the sports apps — everyone knows about the MLB app, but look further and you’ll find apps for major events like the PGA Championship and Ryder Cup also have their own apps with live video available via in-app purchase, DirecTV’s “NFL Sunday Ticket” streams to phones, etc. There are also specialized video apps for all manner of niches. For example, as an anime fan, I use Crunchyroll’s streaming app, and might someday sign up for Anime Network Mobile. I imagine every other little video fetish has its own streaming app, or soon will.

(By the way, none of these apps can use the standard def video out cables like Apple’s iPod or Videos apps can. When you connect the composite video cable and do [UIScreen screens], you only see one screen, so these streaming apps can’t access the video out and put their player UI over there. rdar://8063058 )

By Apple fiat, essentially all of these apps need to use HTTP Live Streaming, and an AppleTV that permitted third-party apps would presumably drive even more content providers to this standard. I had previously wondered aloud about doing an HTTP Live Streaming book, but if we get an AppleTV SDK, it would make perfect sense for the HLS material to become one or two chapters of a book on AppleTV programming, along the lines of “if you’re programming for this platform, you’re almost certainly going to be streaming video to it, so here’s how the client side works, and here’s how to set up your server.”

Apple TVii

Daniel posted a blog a few months back making the case for opening up the Apple TV via a public SDK, similar to the iPhone SDK. I like the argument, but as I think about it, I wonder about another option:

What if the next Apple TV were to be an iPhoneOS-powered device?

Imagine this. Start with the current Apple TV, but replace the OS with the iPhone’s touch interface, and then use a motion-sensitive pointing device like the Wii remote:

Apple TV+Wiimote

Then, just as you point at Wii UI items like channels and buttons today, you’d drive the Apple TV UI more or less like you use today’s iPhone. The accuracy of the Wiimote is about as good as the touch screen, and certainly quicker than the pedestrian up-down-left-right remote used today. Moving through lists of TV shows or podcasts would be far more pleasant with a flick of the wrist to fling the menu, just like a finger-flick on the iPhone.

Multi-touch wouldn’t be practical, of course, but you probably wouldn’t need the major multi-touch action — pinch to zoom — on a big HDTV screen, and the remote could incorporate some equivalent functionality, like a slider for zooming for example.

Big picture: open up the Apple TV to all the apps that are being written for the iPhone SDK (minus apps whose functionality is meaningless in a non-mobile setting, of course), broaden the reach of the iPhone SDK to developers, get more Apple TV boxes into houses and further the reach of the Apple-centric standards like H.264 and enhanced-for-iTunes podcasts.

Apple Insider reported on Apple filing a patent for a Wiimote-like controller, and speculated it might be for an Apple TV. Point it at a Cocoa Touch interface on an HDTV, and the result could be all kinds of awesome.

“One More Thing” for WWDC? A little doubtful after the redo that Apple TV got just a couple months ago, but if it’s the right product, why not?

Apple TV and iPod vs. HD-DVD and Blu-Ray

So, while I was at Anime Weekend Atlanta, I went by the Funimation booth, where they had some Apple TV’s demoing the anime shows they’ve put on iTunes. I’d bought Rumbling Hearts that way, and was pleased with it on the iPod. But with the Apple TV showing their stuff on 19″ LCD HDTV’s, the shows didn’t look very good, and I imagine they’re worse on big HDTV’s.

And that’s not too surprising, I guess. The episodes I bought were encoded at 1045 Kbps. By comparison, the MPEG-LA used to boast that H.264 could achieve broadcast quality at 1.5 Mbps, i.e., 1500 Kbps. So, if you figure you’re running at 2/3 of that bitrate, then subjectively, you should expect a picture that’s about 2/3 the quality of broadcast SDTV.

Thing is, with Blu-Ray and HD-DVD bogged down in their format war, a downloadable high-def service could potentially trump them both, and the combination of the iTunes Store and the Apple TV could easily be that service. Not only is the Apple media platform (iTunes + iPod + computer and/or Apple TV) already far more popular than either Blu-Ray or HD-DVD, it’s also far more obsolescence-proof than either: if the HD disc formats die, owners are screwed, but nobody expects Windows or Mac OS X to go away in the next 10 years.

The catch may be that to serve up HD content, iTunes TV shows and movies would have to be encoded at a far higher bitrate, and what’s good for Apple TV is bad for the iPod — the iPods don’t have enough pixels to render the HD picture, and the bigger files would consume CPU and storage resources (imagine filling a 4 GB iPhone with a single HD movie).

If Apple were going to do this, maybe they could sell a bundle of an HD movie for your Apple TV and a smaller iPod-optimized version. Question is, do they want to? Would they really move enough Apple TV’s to make it worth the effort, and could they get content if the Blu-Ray and HD-DVD camps kept their stuff proprietary to their own formats (e.g., Sony keeping their studios’ movies Blu-Ray only and off the iTunes store).

So it’s an interesting option, but I doubt we’ll see Apple pursue it.