Friday, January 20, 2006

When is HD QD?

According to Video Business magazine, the companies in the Advanced Access Content System (AACS) consortium, the group defining the digital rights management system for Blu-Ray and HD DVD players, decided this week to make consumers with analog HD monitors and receivers watch HD movies in “quarter-def.”

Here’s the story: Blue-laser players are capable of outputting 1920x1080 images to television monitors equipped to display them. However, most HD monitors built before the end of 2004 don’t have digital inputs, so they use analog component video connections. Video signals that are encrypted for copy protection have to be decrypted in order to be displayed through component video connections. The decrypted video can then be recorded in analog form, reconverted to digital and distributed freely. This is the “analog hole” that the film and television industries are concerned about.

Earlier this week, the AACS consortium came up with a way to make the analog hole smaller, without plugging it entirely. Each publisher will set a flag on each disc. If the flag is turned off, the disc can be viewed over an analog connection at the full resolution that the monitor is capable of. However, if the flag is turned on, any video sent to a monitor or other device through an analog connection must be down-converted from 1920x1080 to 960x540—exactly one-quarter the resolution of the original HD signal.

Supporters of this scheme (called “Image Constraint”) say that:

  1. It’ll only affect owners of “first-generation” HD devices, and

  2. Most viewers can’t tell the difference between HD and quarter-D anyway.

Concerning point number 1, there are a lot of people who have HD monitors and televisions without digital inputs. I have three HD monitors purchased in 2002 and 2004, none of which have digital inputs. All of my receivers are subject to “Image Constraint.” As for point number 2, if the argument is true (viewer’s can’t tell the difference,) WHY ARE WE BOTHERING WITH HD IN THE FIRST PLACE? 960 x 540 isn’t much better than the 720 x 480 resolution used in today’s DVD players.

Let me make this clear: AACS will be broken. It most likely will be broken outside the U.S. and outside the jurisdiction of U.S. laws. Once it is broken, it will take approximately 30 milliseconds for bootleggers in Eastern Europe and Asia to start circumventing it. Making U.S. consumers settle for HD that’s actually QD will do nothing to stop piracy. All it will do is add to the confusion surrounding the idiotic release of two incompatible HD formats. Why would anyone buy either HD DVD or Blu-Ray if what they’re going to get is no better than what they already have?

We have an entrenched media industry that believes that all its customers are potential thieves, and a consumer electronics industry that is desperate for products that will bolster its profit margins against the phalanx of Chinese manufacturers. Neither side seems to care whatsoever about its customers. However, at the end of the day, it’s those customers who will decide whether or not to buy in. The entire motion picture industry is now living on revenues from home video sales, and if they jeopardize those revenues in the HD transition, the effect on their businesses will be immediate and devastating. For consumers, the message is clear: Do nothing.

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