Jonathan Takiff: Happy birthday to Blu: Videodisc format turns 5

The Blu-ray Diamond Edition of "Bambi" includes dual-screen technology that allows the Blu-ray player to sync up with an iPad to provide a complementary show on the tablet.
The Blu-ray Diamond Edition of "Bambi" includes dual-screen technology that allows the Blu-ray player to sync up with an iPad to provide a complementary show on the tablet.
Posted: July 13, 2011

THE GIZMO: Very much alive, Blu-ray turns 5.

ALL THINGS TO ALL PEOPLE: Higher-quality video and sound were the primary selling points for Blu-ray when the videodisc format was introduced five years ago. Those features still score first on the priority list for buyers as they upgrade home-entertainment systems and replace that worn-out DVD player.

Truth is, movies sometimes present better at home on Blu-ray than at the theater. And it's shocking how great even oldies (say, Cecil B. DeMille's 1956 classic "The Ten Commandments") can look in a meticulous Blu-ray restoration.

But if high quality were enough to keep a technology alive today, we'd still be listening to our music on CD, SACD and DVD-audio discs, not mourning those audio formats' fall from grace.

GIMME MORE: Wisely, movie studios and hardware companies backing Blu-ray have grasped that user flexibility, bonus extras and the consumer's unending lust for novelty are also key to survival in today's rapidly changing media landscape.

Their payoff is that Blu-ray sale and use figures have almost doubled in the past year, reports the NPD Group. More than 3,000 Blu-ray titles are now available, calculated Sony Blu-ray Disc Group Vice President Victor Matsuda. And "25 percent of our front-line [read: hot, new] title sales are in the Blu-ray format, up from 10 percent just last year," noted 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment President Mike Dunn.

Now with more enhancements looming on the horizon, Blu-ray's future is looking so bright, we gotta wear shades - maybe even the 3-D variety.

EMBRACE THY ENEMY: One of the hottest sales motivators offered in Blu-ray packages is Digital Copy. That's an extra file (often hiding on the bundle's bonus DVD disc) that loads onto your PC or Mac. From there, the movie can be transferred onto one portable smartphone, media player or tablet of your choice.

Half the disc buyers with a Digital Copy option activate the feature within a year, often motivated by a vacation trip, said Dunn.

Now on the Blu-ray (only) "Super Awesome Edition" of "Cedar Rapids," Fox is opening another can of worms with the Wi-Fi Digital Copy Transfer option. It invites a disc owner to move a small (1GB) copy of the movie directly from a Blu-ray player to a portable device, eliminating steps and with no cables attached.

The movie transfer worked fine though slowly (42 minutes) in my test, shifting content wirelessly from a (Blu-ray-drive-based) PlayStation 3 to an iPad.

A GIZMO GUY EXCLUSIVE! Next year, these worms will be wiggling all over the place, thanks to UltraViolet. Whassat? Every movie company (except Disney), many hardware makers (minus Apple) and even cable/telco/satellite companies (like Comcast, Cox Cable and Dish Network) have signed up to support UltraViolet - a technology that gives consumers access to legally purchased content on as many as a dozen different devices.

Built for flexibility, the UV system works with a single "cloud-based" site that stores your proof-of-purchase information. There will then be plenty of customization from each content provider, as you stream a title or load it onto devices, "some currently available, plus a bunch that will be introduced in 2012," said Dunn.

Remember, you read about it here first!

DUAL-SCREEN EXCITEMENT: Blu-ray also cozies up with the "enemy" by delivering extra content and functionality to a smartphone, tablet or computer through an app called pocketBlu. The biggest deal here? pB turns that phone, tablet or computer into a spiffy wireless remote control.

Way cooler is the "Disney Second Screen" technology recently introduced on the Blu-ray Diamond Edition of "Bambi." Install this special app on your iPad, then start the movie on your networked Blu-ray player and TV. The two screens magically lock into sync and you're then treated to a second, complementary show playing just on the iPad.

Most of the time, you'll be comparing preliminary sketches with the finished animation playing on the TV. But there were also puzzles to play and touch-screen finger painting to do on the iPad, including a kindly distraction when Bambi's mother was felled. (Disney may charge extra to access second-screen content in the future.)

MORE MULTI-TASKER TREATS: Lots of Blu-ray discs serve extra fun and information as a picture-in-picture option. On request, Universal's new Blu-ray special edition of "American Graffiti" overlays either a telling commentary from director George Lucas or identifications of all the rock oldies playing through the film.

Even cooler here is a new U-Control feature called "U Hear." Miss a line of dialogue? Press a button on the remote and the scene replays, with the mumbling spelled out in subtitles.

3-D IN YOUR FACE: Both Mike Dunn and Warner Bros. Vice President of High Definition Marketing Kris Brown think 3-D is Blu-ray's "killer app." Feedback from early hardware buyers (surveyed by the Digital Entertainment Group) has been quite positive. And first-year sales of 3-D Blu-ray discs were decent - 1.75 million sold, and 1.7 million more scored in bundling deals with hardware, IHS Screen Digest reported yesterday.

Hardware prices are plummeting, with 3-D evolving toward a "standard" feature in players and TVs.

And content offerings are stretching beyond cartoon features ("Gnomeo & Juliet 3D") and IMAX specials ("Hubble 3D") to embrace the likes of "Kenny Chesney Summer in 3D," "Cirque Du Soleil Journey of Man in 3D" and "Sports Illustrated Swim Suit 2011 3D Experience."

"By the end of the year, somewhere between 100 and 125 3-D Blu-ray titles will be available," said Brown, "including all of the major summer movies - 'Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides,' 'Cars 2,' 'Captain America: The First Avenger,' 'Green Lantern' and 'Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows: Part 2.' "

E-mail Jonathan Takiff at takiffj@phillynews.com.

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