DIVX (the Evil Twin), Not!

Franco Vitaliano

My local laser disc rental shop just went out of business. Worse, they were the only place in Boston's Back Bay that rented these big shiny Frisbees. This was probably part of a dark, nasty conspiracy by Time Warner and the rest of the DVD (digital versatile disc) makers. They would dearly love to see all those million or so laser disc players out there recycled into shiny new DVD units.

Trouble is, compared to laser disc, there are still not many DVD movies to be had, and there certainly aren't any available for rent--nor would there likely have ever been, if the Hollywood Scrooges had got their Ebenezer way. The Malibu Mob is still pretty steamed about losing all those video sales dollars. They could have made a killing if the hapless consumer had been forced to buy a copy of Star Wars instead of just renting it. Thus, the star-struck legal hounds wanted to change the current copyright laws to make sure that some enterprising Blockbuster-wannabe couldn't buy a bunch of DVD movies, and then offer them for rent.

But apparently, they figured that it would be easier to add several megatons of planet polluting petroleum byproducts to the earth's ecosystem than getting Congress to change the copyright laws; hence we have DIVX. This is a disposable buy/rent DVD format which is incompatible with all existing DVD players on the market. A specially equipped DVD player with a modem dials into DIVX central whenever you want to play the movie, and automatically duns your credit card. DIVX is the perfect thing for parents with small kids who want to watch Dumbo a hundred times a day. These movie moguls make Brando's Godfather look like nickel and dime boy scouts.

Oye! I guess it's back to watching VCR rentals. But after the high resolution quality of a laser disc, plus its great sound, it's awfully tough to go back to those blurry lines of standard video tape. So, do I just spring for a new DVD unit, and hope for the best? Well, the digital High Definition TV crowd is saying that my new DVD player would also be HDTV ready. But that's just one more bad B movie fantasy. A DVD puts out less than half of HDTV's broadcast video quality (HDTV will offer an amazing 1,080 lines of resolution; current terrestrial TV broadcasts poop out at a measly 330 lines). So, when HDTV comes on the air in 1998, my barely broken-in DVD player is already obsolete.

For a DVD to support true high definition digital TV, its current format will have to be radically redesigned. HDTV-capable DVDs will require nearly twice the storage space of even a new high capacity DVD. That comes out to 15 gigabytes of Bugs and Daffy per each side of that little 5" disc. This huge number is the minimum storage requirement to hold a typical 133 minute movie running at HDTV's awesome resolution. This massive increase in DVD capacity also requires a big leap forward over current laser technology. Moreover, the rate at which the Mickey Mouse bits spill off that platter into my HDTV must be dramatically upped, to at least three times faster than current DVD systems.

Add it all up, and it's obvious I shouldn't be holding my breath for an HDTV-capable DVD any time soon. In fact, when I do all my DVD sums, I see that there will be very few movie titles in comparison to video tape or laser disc; I probably wont be able to rent any DVD movies; the current DVD format will be obsolete in less than a year; I can't copy any DVD movies onto tape because it has all these insane copy protection safeguards to make the Hollywood paranoids happy; and I still can't record on it. This all comes out to a big DVD negative number, no matter which way I calculate it.

Rats! There must be some way to make the high resolution numbers fit.

Well, hello, what have we here? Hitachi says it's introducing a D-VHS VCR as a companion piece to its new direct broadcast satellite (DBS) receiver. This $599 D-VHS recorder (the "D" stands for data) can bag 500 lines of resolution, record up to five hours of program material, and is fully compatible with VHS tapes. A digital DBS signal, from DSS or whomever, will yield almost laser disc quality, the audio is great, and the programming is extensive and varied. Beautiful! Just bag some movies off the celestial air, and play back those great looking pictures whenever I want to. (OK, so it will only work with DSS. I can live with that). But whoops, what's this? Hollywood doesn't like the look of these new "perfect" digital tape movies! Uh-oh, here we go again with insane copy protection schemes, this time for VCRs that record a digital bitstream off the airways.

So, will Hollywood transform yet another great new digital system into Jurassic-ancient technology? Stay tuned to find out.

Meanwhile, how do I mount a new DSB dish inside my high rise apartment?

Copyright 1996, Franco Vitaliano, All Rights Reserved

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