DVD Promises to Change the Face of Optical Media

A decade ago, most educators in the U.S. had discovered the benefits of CD-ROM, which offered a much greater storage capacity than floppy diskettes. Librarians, in particular, embraced the new medium, which allowed them to replace entire shelves of encyclopedias and other reference books with a few tiny plastic discs.

Fast forward to 1997. Literally thousands of educational programs are available on CD, and their prices seem to drop every day. Yet many observers predict that the CD-ROM will become obsolete in the near future. How could that happen?

The answer lies with DVD, also known as digital video disc or digital versatile disc. DVD looks just like a CD, yet stores roughly seven times as much data. To be exact, a single disc can hold 4.7GB of data on each side, enough room for a 135-minute movie. 

The Theatre Experience

Thus far, only a handful of companies have entered the market with stand-alone DVD players that connect to a TV. These early hardware manufacturers hope to attract consumers searching for the true ìtheaterî experience.

The evolution of DVD will mirror that of compact discs, where music CDs preceded the computer CD-ROM. Later this year, DVD-ROM drives will first appear in high-end PCs, opening the door for software publishers to release a host of reference and instructional titles. Amid all the hype, itís hard to separate fact from fiction.

This article provides some technical background on DVD and examines its potential impact in K-12 schools and universities. Those who want to stay on top of this emerging technology are encouraged to contact the companies listed in the directory as well as peruse DVD-related areas on the Internet, such as the Home Page for the Interactive Multimedia Association (www.ima.org).

Ever since the introduction of the compact disc some 15 years ago, researchers have strived to improve its performance through digital coding and compression algorithms. Despite significant advances, the CD still canít deliver the high-quality full-motion video found on cable or satellite TV.

Some firms, notably Philips Media and Bergwall Productions have put out so-called Video CD-ROMs that can play digitized images on computers equipped with MPEG boards. But these discs, along with CD-i and CD Plus, canít approach the speed or capacity of DVD.

For a while, developers around the world worked on competing new DVD technologies, evoking memories of the VHS and Betamax battle that left many consumers flustered. A major shift occurred in 1995, when ten leading electronics, computer and entertainment companies joined forces to create a unified standard for the DVD format.

Members of the DVD Consortium originally promised that their products would hit the stores around the fall of 1996. However, concerns over copyright protection have forced most companies to delay production until this spring. (Some Hollywood studio officials worry that their movies will be duplicated and sold on the black market.) This is the same kind of squabbling that held back CD-R units, DAT players and more. 

Whatís the Difference Between CDs and DVDs?

To achieve their unprecedented storage size, DVDs differ from CDs in one important respect. The DVD uses smaller ìpitsî of data and a more closely spaced track. DVD players, in turn, incorporate special lenses that can focus narrowly on the densely packed pits.

The DVD specification also calls for MPEG-2 compression, in which the system stores only the changes between frames of video. The quality of the image seen on oneís monitor is determined by the rate at which players decode, or decompress, the data.

Unlike VHS tapes, DVDs offer instant search and rewind, enabling viewers to quickly skip to any section of the program that interests them. In addition, the discs take up less space and boast a longer shelf life, good news for any crowded media center.

But educators will have to wait before scrapping their tired VCRs. A trip to the local electronics ìsuper-storeî will probably reveal a limited number of DVD players and an even smaller selection of movie titles appropriate for the classroom. Another limitation is that, because of the aforementioned copyright concerns, currently, users cannot record onto DVDs the same way they can with VHS tapes.

Last month, Toshiba introduced two DVD players, the SD-3006 and the SD-1006. Both units support 5.1-channel discrete Dolby Digital Surround Sound, Dolby Pro Logic and high-fidelity stereo. (All DVD players can also play back CDs.)

With an SRP of $599, the SD-1006 represents an affordable solution for video enthusiasts. An onscreen menu guides all key functions. For $100 more, the SD-3006 adds a fluorescent display, gold-plated outputs and a universal remote control.

The Toshiba players take full advantage of DVDís flexibility. For example, movie viewers can choose either the 4:3 aspect ratio that fills their TV screen or, if available, a 16:9 ìletterboxî presentation. Plus, teachers can prevent kids from watching objectionable material by selecting the desired ratings version (software permitting), whether G, PG, PG-13, R or NC-17.

Similarly, the DVD-A100 and DVD-A300 from Panasonic let one choose from different language soundtracks or subtitles, if available. Both players can fast forward, slow or freeze video; repeat a track, chapter or any random segment; or pause indefinitely.

Harman Kardon previewed its HVD-715 DVD player at the Winter Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Scheduled to start shipping this spring, the HVD-715 works in conjunction with the AVR75 receiver, Signature Series 2.0 tuner/controller or ADP303 external digital audio adapter to reproduce the low-frequency sound effects found in theaters.

Hitachi, JVC, Philips, Sony and others have joined the race to market DVD players. This competition will eventually drive prices down, which should spur a widespread adoption of the hardware. Once the installed base of players grows significantly, content providers are expected to jump on the bandwagon.

Falling Prices Fuel Demand

InfoTech, a market research firm in Woodstock, Vermont, projects first-year sales of DVD players at 820,000 units worldwide. By the year 2000, DVD players could reach price points in the $250 range, stimulating a tenfold increase in demand. The firm projects that over 600 DVD video titles will be available by the end of 1997, with the total climbing to 8,000 by the end of the decade.

Ted Pine, an analyst with InfoTech, says that the greatest competition for DVD will come from Digital Satellite System (DSS) services. He notes that, within the education community, videodisc players will continue to have loyal followers, thanks to unique features such as barcodes and external computer control.

Pioneer plans to sell a ìcombination playerî that accepts both videodiscs and DVDs.

Recognizing the popularity of videodiscs, Pioneer plans to sell a ìcombination playerî that accepts both videodiscs and DVDs. This product will allow educators to preserve their investment in videodiscs while slowly building a new library of DVDs.

In the short term, ìthe main effect DVD will have in schools is confusion,î writes Jim Taylor, director of information technology for Videodiscovery, in a DVD primer posted on the Web (www.videodiscovery.com/vdyweb/school/dvd.htm).

According to Taylor, DVD players may never succeed in schools, where the Internet could emerge as the most cost-effective medium for delivering movies and other programming. Videodiscovery has pledged to support the DVD format, but so far the firm has not announced release dates for any specific titles. 

DVD-ROM Drives Surface

Industry observers are more optimistic about DVD-ROM drives, which have already surfaced on some Windows PCs. The drives, which are backward-compatible with CD-ROMs, add about $300 to $500 to the cost of a base system.

In a Tactical Marketing Group survey sponsored by International Data Corp. (IDC), 31% of respondents said they would buy a DVD-ROM drive if their favorite educational software were released on the discs. The same percentage would embrace DVD-ROM simply because ìitís the latest technology.î

Compaq and Toshiba have indicated that DVD-ROM will replace CD-ROM in some computer models starting this summer. Hitachi has manufactured an external DVD-ROM drive, the GD-1000, that spins discs at 8x the standard speed.

Dale Ford, an analyst at DataQuest in San Jose, Calif., projects that six million DVD-ROM drives will be sold in 1997, mostly as built-in components of desktop PCs. But those clamoring for the new hardware should be warned that DVD-ROM titles remain few and far between. 

ìRepurposingî Existing Titles

Look for many publishers to ìrepurposeî existing CD-ROMs for the DVD-ROM format, enhancing video or graphics as appropriate. Other firms will simply combine multiple CD-ROMs onto a single DVD-ROM, a move that should save educators money in the long run.

Digital Directory Assistance did just that, placing its series of six PhoneDisc CDs onto one DVD-ROM. As a result, users can search all 112 million business and residential telephone listings without the frustration of constantly swapping discs.

The Learning Co. plans to introduce three DVD-ROM titles this spring, including one program developed specifically for the new format. Digital Library comprises a 29-volume Funk & Wagnalls encyclopedia, Rogetís 21st Century Thesaurus, Merriam-Websterís Dictionary, Hammond World Atlas and other reference works. More than 200,000 articles are integrated with surround sound, photos and over two hours of MPEG video and animation.

The other two titles are based on CD-ROMs that have been re-engineered and enhanced. The Genius of Edison examines Thomas Edison and his remarkable inventions, from the light bulb to the electric train. Battles of the World re-enacts ten pivotal conflicts through video, maps and strategic analyses.

ìThe DVD platform sets a new standard for software developers by making it possible to offer incredibly rich, high-quality content on a single CD,î says Diana James Cairns, senior vice president of marketing for The Learning Co.

Another educational publisher of image collections, Sumeria, is finishing work on two DVD-ROM titles, Vanishing Wonders of the Sea and Wild Africa. The latter product was conceived and shot with DVD in mind.

George Reynolds, a multimedia producer at Sumeria, says the arrival of DVD enables him and his colleagues to proceed with a range of video-intensive projects that could not have been squeezed onto conventional CDs.

As more publishers recognize the power of DVD-ROM (as well as its market potential), the number of educational titles should increase dramatically. Jeff Cole, co-director of UCLAís Center for Digital Innovation, notes that a single disc could present subjects in several languages or in varying levels of complexity.

However, such innovative applications exist only in the imagination at this point. At press time, Microsoft and the vast majority of educational publishers had announced no concrete plans to develop DVD-ROM titles. To encourage adoption of the new technology, publishers may bundle their titles with external drives. Thus, a librarian could dedicate a computer station to a DVD encyclopedia, freeing up existing CD-ROM towers for other applications.

On the Horizon

After DVD-ROM drives gain a foothold, DVD recorders are expected to crop up. Within education, DVD-R could replace magnetic tape as the primary method for software backup and archiving. Elektroson, a pioneer in the CD-R field, has teamed up with Software Architects to develop a DVD-R pre-mastering application.

It should be noted that researchers already have found a way to bond two data layers onto a DVD, doubling the discís capacity to 8.5GB. (The DVD players coming out now are equipped with laser systems that can seamlessly read future dual-layered discs.)

As DVD's storage capacity increases, its value for teaching and learning will surely grow as well. Although no one can predict the exact path this technology will take, the opportunities for education seem to be plentiful.

This article originally appeared in the 04/01/1997 issue of THE Journal.

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