How Lou Gerstner & IBM Brought Peace
to the DVD Balkans

Or, how The Barber of Seville and Big Lou made music together;
but the consumer electronics vendors played way off key (in 1995)

Francis Vale

Live opera and ballet are dead. Some savants within the high end audio community firmly believe that watching real performers move around in front of your eyes places too great a demand on your brain. Your visual cortex, they contend, is robbing precious processing cycles from your auditory system. It maybe even gets your brain confused (sort of like rubbing your belly and patting your head at the same time). So, say goodbye to the fat ladies with the horny helmets, und also to the tutus.

Whoa! This just in off the High End Audio Wire Service: "Watching live opera and ballet are OK for your brain, but viewing TV and movies in surround sound are still not." Hmmm. Must be some kind of weird psuck-o-acoustic phenomenon at work here.

This eye/ear-loss nonsense would be hysterically funny if there weren't some high end dealers, vendors, and users who actually believed this pseudoscience claptrap. But as a result of this benighted bunch's bombastic beliefs, the high end is in serious trouble.

This atavistic audio assemblage would probably be beside themselves if they knew they were assiduously practicing a form of high tech virtual reality (VR). It transpires every time they sit down in front of their stereos. You can even hear it: "Great soundstage width, palpable player presence, good depth, well delineated layers of instruments, can see right to the back of the hall, holographic, etc."

In point of fact, a well executed auditory you-are-there illusion typifies the VR experience at its best. VR is an attempt to place a person in a computer-generated 3D space in such a way that the user surrenders to the belief that he or she is 'really there.' The VR experience is typically both visual and auditory. Another goal of VR is to allow the user to move 'through' this artificially created world, and to dynamically interact with the 'environment'.

The irony in high end audio is that instead of using intelligent computers to help generate this VR illusion, it uses dumb as stone electronic components. And if you expect to get this VR thrill, this crude collection of parts also requires your active assistance. You have to sit very still, in just one place (the infamous sweet spot), and then somehow trick your brain into perceiving that a 3 dimensional 'live' image is actually present.

Interestingly, there are some poor souls, who, no matter how hard they try, can only hear two discrete sound sources coming from two speakers. No 3D experience for them. No palpable presence. Zip.

This unfortunate listener exception, along with the sticky sweet spot, are dead give aways: Generating this mental 'trick' demands a whole lot of specialized brain processing power, and user concentration.

Do you want to know what probably causes listener fatigue? It's your having to sit motionless hour after hour, your ears squinting at the sound, and your brain constantly trying to keep an ephemeral image from blowing away into so many vaporous sound pressure fragments. Talk about forcing yourself into believing something!

There is another illusory mental phenomenon hard at work in many high end denizens. But this one is more in the nature of a stroke; as it will severely block the flow of new digital technologies, as well as advanced thinking in surround sound. Many high enders believe that all of this century's truly great performers and performances are a done deal, forever locked away on grooved vinyl devices dating back to the 70's, 60's, and 50's (and even earlier than that).

Further, many of these same folks go so far as to suggest that the design and deployment of a high end system should be optimized around just one genre of these vinyl encased 'reference' performances (e.g., the RCA Living Stereo catalog). The inherent recording weaknesses of that particular catalog can then be carefully counterbalanced by the system's strengths.

In other words, a high end system should not be a general purpose unit; but rather, act like some krooning kamikaze with only one audible target locked in its unwavering sights. Yikes! A kilobuck high end system as nothing more than a hoary oldies but goodies jukebox. How can true technical progress be made in the high end with this type of atherosclerotic attitude?

Truth be said, the present brouhaha in the audio high end is really not about surround sound, or even new technology. It is, in fact, a multicultural war. This struggle threatens to Balkanize, and thus marginalize, the audiophile High End.

The high end looks like it is about to become sadly bifurcated. Going down one path will be the vinyl/analog crowd whose fondest wish is to use the new technologies to serve the old (a time honored, if backassed, social tradition). And going down the other, is an upcoming generation of listeners who aggressively use the newest technology to satisfy its VR entertainment needs. These two approaches to the high end are now probably irreconcilable.

Part of this pessimistic outlook also lies in the belief that many high enders would be aghast and crestfallen if their quest for The Absolute Sound was finally satisfied. It is the thrill of the snipe hunt, and not the quarry's capture, which truly interests them. It is only the tantalizing approximation which is sought after.

For all of these unfortunate reasons, many of those in the high end have seemingly erected (unconsciously or not) a huge psycho-social-techno roadblock to rapid technological progress in audio, and especially in surround sound VR.

But we will need all of the clear thinking and vision we can muster if we are to achieve the full promise of surround audio. For there are still some big problems if you are seeking high end VR delight from home theater/surround sound systems. This viewer/listener dilemma arises from the divergent design goals of the two types of surround systems. (And no, Igor, it's not because one has pretty pictures, and the other one doesn't.)

The design stumbling block comes in the form of how we socially, and hence sonically, experience these two user surround modes. Home theater is typically a multi-person thing (misanthropes excepted). People are spread out over chairs, sofas, and on the floor. They are making snide comments, snacking on things, etc. In other words, the home theater user experience is a pretty dynamic, socially interactive affair.

Now compare that experience with seriously listening to music. Usually it's just one person, two at most. The listener's attention is focused. And if you are lucky, there are few distractions. In other words, surround sound for home theater, and surround sound for listening occur in two radically different user environments.

It is in this key regard that the high end throwbacks may have a point. For currently, the end goals of these two surround systems are not congruent. The user expectations are much too different to be accommodated by one all encompassing electronics/sound/data format.

The answer to this user requirement hydra lies in the use of 1) new 'consumer' computer systems which utilize the next generation of multimedia, high level programmable DSPs ( see accompanying DSP sidebar); 2) loaded with format-liberated content; and 3) which 'open' content is easily reconfigured to meet various ad hoc users' needs via software applications. I.e., digital convergence is the path to consumer salvation.

Let's talk about consumer A/V content for a moment. The various digital formats promulgated by the consumer electronics companies are mostly techno-bogus razzle dazzle. Bits are bits, no matter how special their producer may think they are. A bit could care less if it turns out to be a reproduced Mona Lisa or just cheap porno. It is the software that assembles and displays the bits for the user that makes the final determination on how it all comes out. The format the bits are stored in is just an artificial contrivance, a set of conventions, for storing and retrieving the data.

As the format is only an arbitrary set of rules, these formats are easily transformed back and forth from one to another -- provided, of course, you have a general purpose, 'open' computer and the software to do the transformation. But instead of giving you open systems, the vendors try to lock users into a dizzying array of 'closed' special purpose devices having limited functionality.

And now, many of the same group who brought you 'scammed' DAT drives [as in SCMS; a brain dead copy protection scheme that prevents consumers from using a legal copy as a new digital master. So if the dog eats your DAT master cartridge, no more backups are possible], bit enfeebled MiniDiscs, and Perfect Sound Forever, have decided to join forces to bring you the new DVD (Digital Versatile Disc) format.

The computer industry finally seems to be giving the consumer electronics industry a wakeup call, if only half-heartedly. Many of the same group who brought you Perfect Sound Forever and VCR panic attacks have recently decided to join forces to bring you the new DVD (Digital Versatile Disc) format.

Until recently, it looked like DVD was destined to be a replay of the VHS/Beta battles. On one DVD side were Warner/Toshiba with their SD (SuperDisc) format; and on the other were Philips/Sony and their MMCD (MultiMedia CD). The two feuding formats were both offering DVD storage of approximately 4 to 5 gigabytes per side. Both camps had also proposed a dual layer technology that effectively doubled the single side capacity.

But in September, the two opposing factions joined forces to come up with a single format. This loving marriage would probably never have come about were it not for the intervention of matchmaker IBM. Having missed the boat on CDs and CD ROMs, this giant computer maker was not about to let this important digital ship set sail off in two conflicting directions.

IBM has industry weight because it is the acknowledged world leader in very high density laser/digital storage technology, including the new short wavelength blue lasers. (How come, we must wonder, IBM never come up with its own DVD plan?)

In any event, even though other folks were carrying Armonk's water, a Mr. Patrick O'Toole, an IBM senior vice president, is the person we have to thank for bringing sanity to this impending DVD madness. Mr. O'Toole got Lou Gerstner, the IBM CEO, to write a letter to all the warring DVD chiefs.

Lou urged them to adopt the Sony/Philips EFM Plus signal modulation (EFM = eight to fourteen bit modulation, a variant of the encoding scheme used in CDs) to store the data on the new DVD disc. IBM also wanted to see the SD architecture adopted, which consists of two 0.6 millimeter discs bonded together (the Sony/Philips MMCD used a single 1.2 millimeter thick platter). And topping off this DVD ice cream sundae was Toshiba's RS-PC error-correction system.

Big Blue preferred the 0.6 mm disc because it believed the thinner SD platter would make it easier to adopt its small blue lasers when they become available. Blue lasers will bring tremendous increases in DVD storage capacity.

With the thinner .6 mm discs, the likelihood of short wavelength light scattering (resulting in signal attenuation/errors) should be less than when reflected off the deeper 1.2 mm platter. Furthermore, when a light wave front hits the edge of an opaque body, such as a disc layer impurity, the front can be modulated, thereby causing a redistribution of energy within the front. This phenomenon is known as diffraction. The thinner discs might also ameliorate the effects of diffraction.

None of these benefits are guaranteed, but the odds do go up in the designer's favor with the .6 mm discs

Such was the enmity between the two warring DVD camps, that Toshiba first tried to cook up its own version of the Sony/Philips signal modulation scheme, and sell it to Lou. But IBM said nix to Toshiba's half-baked idea. IBM then grabbed all the quarrelsome lads by the ears, and sat them down in the toolshed for a day long heart to heart. At the end of the day, DVD industry unity prevailed.

One important outcome was that the original 5GB/side/layer capacity of the Toshiba/Warner SD format dropped to 4.7 GB. The cause of the decrease was that, for reasons of "worst case data reliability", the Sony/Philips 8-16 modulation system adds a bit to the original Toshiba/SD 8-15 modulation system. Sony's 'worst case' extra bit is responsible for this 300MB of suddenly missing DVD capacity.

The new DVD players are also backwards compatible, and will be able to play CDs, as well as CD ROM discs. But this new consumer DVD format is still not consumer recordable (although future variants of DVD will offer write-once, as well write-many capabilities). The first instance of consumer DVD is for playback only.

Now please note, we have two big time producers of software/content, Warner and Sony, backing these systems. They both have huge vested interests in not only controlling the new media format, but also in making sure that their content doesn't 'escape' via high quality, consumer recordable devices.

So please don't be misled into thinking that relatively cheap, removable cartridge, 5GB+ capacity, optical, recordable systems don't exist today. They do, and by the time the $500 DVD players hit the streets next year, these high capacity computer storage devices will probably be price competitive.

In the next issue of 21st, see why computer users are first class citizens,
and consumers are not.

Copyright 1995, Francis Vale, All Rights Reserved

21st, The VXM Network,