It's been coming for some time now; now that America has forsworn audio cassettes and videotapes in favor of CD's and DVD's, and now that your grandmother's TV is woefully backward because it isn't a High Definition model, it's time to play the new technology game.
Suppose you inherit $10,000 from your Aunt Connie after she passed away, and you decided to upgrade your home theater system (or actually procure one); would $10,000 even cut it? Probably. Since the arrival of home theater in the lexicon of America's technological vocabulary, we've seen the virtual evaporation of two-channel (ie stereo) receivers in favor of 5.1 (and 7.1) models. Two-channel models offer just that: two channels of sound -- left and right. But that's no longer good enough, despite the fact, last I checked, we humans still only possess two ears. No, now we have a choice. We can opt for a 5.1 setup, which offers a soundscape of left front, middle, right front, left rear and right rear, or a 7.1 setup, which offers two additional speakers (left and right side). The .1 represents the subwoofer, or the LFE (Low Frequency Emission) channel; it does nothing more but pump out extremely deep, low bass, and if you place a subwoofer near something like a couch, you can not only hear the bass but feel it physically as well.
Confused yet? Good.
This is only scratching the surface; with the sudden, complete domination of DVD's over videotapes, we have become more demanding of picture quality. Hence the arrival of HDTV, ie High Definition TV. High Definition TV is a format which allows the viewer to watch TV at higher resolution. Most older, non-HD TV's offer resolution of 640 x 480 pixels; typically, HDTV's offer 1920 x 1080 resolution. This means that more pixels are packed into the same basic size viewing area; the more pixels, the more detail; the more detail, the better the picture. Since there are so many more pixels, there is more opportunity for more simultaneous colors, which means HDTV's are capable of displaying images that, for the most part, resemble real, live images (many people say it's like looking out a window). And more importantly, since many HDTV's are sized at 45" and up, they make regular, analog televisions resemble what 3" black and white models resembled back in the early 1990's. Put another way, watching an HDTV versus a typical, 15-year-old set is akin to the difference between watching a home-recorded videotape of a movie versus the store-bought DVD thereof.
Now that we have that part of the discussion out of the way, we get to the real meat of the discussion; apparently, Sony, Phillips, Toshiba and the other technological stalwarts have been working on an enhanced version of the DVD; this enhanced version would allow the user to better mate these new DVD's with higher-end TV's, improving picture quality even further. Since most DVD's sold today are compatible with analog as well as HDTV's, the quality thereof is designed to work with the lower end resolution. The problem with this notion of improving the DVD standard is twofold; first, there are two separate technologies which are on the near horizon. One is called Blu-Ray and the other is called HD-DVD. Both offer resolution three to four times better than today's DVD's, and both offer features which make watching a DVD easier (including being able to change audio and video features while the movie is playing, seeing a mini-video of the participants of a commentary, etc.). The problem with the competing technologies is that neither is compatible with the other (sort of like VHS and Betamax). Both are backward-compatible, meaning both of the new players under these technologies will play older DVD's; but the second issue is that if you choose one technology and re-purchase all your movies again, what happens if the technology you choose winds up disappearing (like Betamax did)? Rob Pegoraro addresses this question in an excellent article in The Washington Post. Your newly-repurchased movies will still work with that player, but it's almost the same situation that confronted owners of huge LP and Laserdisc collections. What to do when you have thousands of dollars invested in a collection of "software" when the hardware is obsolete and no longer supported?
Needless to say, I am less-than-thrilled about the prospect of needing to replace 1,000 or more movies on DVD; and what's worse, until a clear winner between Blu-Ray and HD-DVD is chosen, there's no way I'm spending a dime on either format. And I'm pretty certain I'm not alone. In an article on PC World's website, Lucas Mearian references a possible way to figure out which way this battle will go -- pornography. His supposition is that the pornography industry will likely back one format over another, and that will pretty much be the indicator of which format is stronger. But as he indicates in the article, the porno industry might not be the harbinger of which format is the winner, simply because, as an industry, they'll supply their wares in whatever format makes it easiest to get to consumers. And since most consumers aren't going to run out and spend $1,000 for a new DVD player and another $5,000 to replace their movie collections knowing full well they might wind up choosing wrong. So there's a lot of indecision in every industry that has connections to DVD.
But most importantly, it reminds me that when it comes to new technology, while I like to think of myself as being in the forefront of any new technology that might enhance my life, I think in terms of cliches. I'll defer "The early bird gets the worm" and instead go with "Second mouse in gets the cheese."
Or as they say in (sic) Latin, caveat emptor.