Next-Gen DVD Copy-Protection Debacle

Hollywood screws 3 million HDTV owners, sucks in general.

February 24, 2006 – In perhaps the greatest disservice to the general consumer market yet perpetrated by players in the electronic entertainment industry, it has been revealed that next-generation DVD technologies (HD-DVD and Blu-ray) will only function with monitors and HDTVs with HDMI or DVI connections.

What does that mean to you? If you purchased an HDTV more than a couple of years ago, chances are you are using Component Video (the red, green, and blue plugs) to connect HD sources to your TV. Component Video is an analog transmission, which means that it can’t work with the absurdly stringent AACS copy-protection Hollywood has insisted be integrated into the new formats. Thus, no HDMI input on your TV, no hi-def DVD for you. If you don’t have a compatible TV, you’ll either receive a massively downgraded sub-720p resolution version of the content, or what the studios are suggesting, a warning screen followed by nothing.

Who’s to blame for screwing some 3,000,000+ HDTV owners in America that were good consumers and early adopters who purchased TVs without HDMI? A group put together by the major movie studios called Advanced Access Content System (AACS). AACS was responsible for the Reuters report last week that speculated that Sony would miss its spring launch date for the PS3, due to the fact that the AACS had still not finalized the technicalities of the protocol. After a good six months of deliberation since version AACS v.0.9 was put into testing, and only 2 or 3 months away from the supposed release of the first HD-DVD and Blu-ray players, AACS has finally made the baby step of offering provisional licensing to the likes of Sony, Toshiba, and the other early manufactures of hi-def DVD solutions.

Who decided Hollywood got to make all the decisions?

Even if you’ve got an HDTV with HDMI or DVI inputs, it’s unlikely your TV has more than one. Just about every HD source these days is best in HDMI, so what are you going to do when both your cable box and next-gen DVD player/PS3 need the same plug? HDMI switchers or enabled receivers are not cheap, or even easy to find. In addition, it would appear that every component involved in the transmission of an HD-DVD/Blu-ray signal must make use of Intel’s HDCP technology. This extra level of protection works with the AACS protocols on a hardware level.

Why is this bad? Say you decided to be future proof and purchase a high-end AV receiver with HDMI connections and up-scaling capabilities. Seemed like a good idea last week, but not anymore. Unless it supports HDCP, and it doesn’t, because no manufacturers have made HDCP models yet, you won’t be routing your HD-DVD or Blu-ray player through it.

She may be attractive, but she’s still a next-gen-dvd succubus.

Perhaps you’re a progressive type and decided to make your media center PC centric. You’re screwed too. Even if you purchased a high-end ATI or Nvidia graphics card advertised as HDCP compatible, that all it is: compatible, not compliant. HDCP chips must be bios flashed at the factory, and though these new “compatible” cards have space for a TI HDCP chip, none have them yet. In addition, every link in the chain must be HDCP ready, and only a very few PC monitors have adopted the standard. Get ready to buy both a new high-end graphics card and a new monitor if you want hi-def DVD for your PC.

It gets even worse. At the same time the AACS story came to light, it was discovered that the first wave of next-gen DVD players will not support the “managed copy” option that so many proponents of the new technologies have been hyping. Now that it is apparent Hollywood is willing to absolutely screw more than three million early-adopting consumers (who are probably also some of the best DVD-buyers) is it wrong to be skeptical that the “managed copy” features aren’t quite going to be as fully-fledged as we all have hoped, if and when they actually appear? Expect massive downgrades in resolution to be the major movie studio’s requirement for any content they allow to escape from the closed AACS-HDCP loop.

I’ll pass for now.

This is a dark day for the entire consumer electronics industry. Huge manufacturers like Sony and Toshiba have allowed Hollywood executives to punish consumers for the studios’ inability to protect their own content in the wild. Despite the fact that the relationship between movie piracy and the floundering movie theater receipts of recent years has not been proven to be direct, Hollywood is applying an iron fist in their aim to control the next generation of the home-theater experience. You know those previews on DVDs that you can’t skip through? That’s only the beginning of the ways Hollywood wants to control your entertainment experience.

Consumers shouldn’t take this lying down. The difference between HD-DVD and Blu-ray quality and normal DVD isn’t huge, especially in light of the rather nice results produced by up-scaling DVD players available today from Oppo, Sony, and others. Should we allow movie studios to force their biggest fans, the early adopters of HDTV and related accessories, to buy entirely new entertainment systems? Is the upgrade even worth it?

Next-gen DVD is looking pretty questionable at this point. Not only do we have a format war to deal with, we’ve got Hollywood’s accounting departments in charge of deciding the minutia of how we’re able to enjoy the content we pay for. No copy protection scheme yet developed has been able to stand up to the genius of the hacking collective, and it’s unlikely that even AACS and HDCP will last for long. Just long enough, perhaps, to strangle what remains of the traditional disc-based content distribution model and open the door for ubiquitous digital content and on-demand distribution.

Xbox 360’s New 1080p Support: Crippled?

We ask a few hard questions of Microsoft on the 360’s new 1080p capabilities.

September 27, 2006 – In the world of high-definition displays 1080p = 1920 x 1080 progressive scan. It isn’t algebra, it just looks like it. Videogames have made the jump to High-Def, but understanding all this resolution, HDMI, HDCP, AACS, ICT and other techno babble is actually more confusing than your average equation. Even after you’ve got your terms sorted out, a good deal of the HD experience with next-gen gaming systems is subjective. What is a better way to see the game — 720p or 1080i? Which is a better television type for playing games — CRT, LCD, Plasma, or projection? With the amount of money involved in setting up a nice home theater for enjoying this new generation of gaming, it’s no surprise that people want to make sure they’re getting the best experience possible. Our own Gear Guru Gerry Block has a long running series of great HDTV Q&As that answer a lot of questions the average gamer has. Be sure to look into that if any of this stuff leaves you scratching your noggin.

At this year’s Tokyo Game Show, Microsoft announced that its fall update would add 1080p support in games and movies, giving the new console what is currently the highest grade of High-Definition resolutions. At the same conference, Sony announced that both versions of its PlayStation 3 will now have HDMI 1.3 support.

HDMI is basically yet another wire that connects a console and the TV, but what makes it special is the signal it sends (both audio and video) is completely digital. Consequently, it is able to support HDCP / AACS, a new copy-protection technology that will some day be required for playback of Blu-ray/HD-DVD at full resolution, if Image Constraint Token (ICT) is ever implemented by the Hollywood studios.

The other connections capable of carrying an HD signal (and the only ones currently supported by the Xbox 360) are Component and VGA. Both are analog connections, which means that they can’t support HDCP / AACS. They are also subject to interference if the cables run too close to masses of power lines. The really big problem with Xbox 360’s lack of HDMI support, however, is the that only a limited number of 1080p-capable HDTVs can accept the signal via analog inputs.

What does this mean? Basically, HDTVs use a fair amount of circuitry and processing power to decode incoming signals before displaying an image on the screen. Because HDMI has long been planned to be ‘the connection’ for HD signals, most manufacturers have built 1080p HDTVs that are only able to accept 1080p via HDMI. Consequently, only a few 1080p capable HDTVs support 1080p signals via Component connections, which are generally restricted to 1080i. A few more 1080p HDTVs will accept an analog 1080p signal via VGA, but often only with the addition of a VGA-to-DVI dongle. To put it simply, trying to work with 1080p without HDMI is very difficult.

In addition to the fall update that will allow the 360 to internally up-scale to 1080p,
Microsoft is launching an HD-DVD add-on for the X360 in mid-November for $199. Obviously, Microsoft is making a serious move in the realm of 1080p, but without support for an HDMI connection.

This will leave many folks in a bit of a quandary. There are very few HDTVs that accept a 1080p signal through anything other than HDMI. The best signal that many of these 1080p displays are able to accept via analog connections is 1080i, which is de-interlaced by the HDTV’s internal circuitry to convert it back to 1080p. This is essentially exactly what these displays would do when accepting 1080i from the 360 right now. It seems Xbox 360’s new 1080p prowess may not amount to much in practice.

To try to get to the bottom of this situation, IGN contacted Microsoft and asked a few tough questions. Plenty of questions remain — we’re waiting to hear even more from the company — but here’s what we have so far.

IGN: Will games begin to be developed with 1080p as the native resolution, or is the 360’s new 1080p support an advance in the console’s internal scaling abilities?

Microsoft: If developed, the Xbox 360 will support playback of native 1080p games and all existing Xbox 360 titles can be up-scaled to 1080p.

IGN : Does the Xbox 360 have the internal bandwidth between CPUs and graphics processors necessary to move a full 1080p image? There’s a big difference between 1080i and the 3GB/s of 1080p.

Microsoft: No Comment.

IGN: There are very few 1080p native HDTVs that accept 1080p via Component connections. The signal will only come in as 1080i and be de-interlaced back to 1080p. How is the 360’s new 1080p support, in practical application, going to be any different than what was already possible?

Microsoft: We can offer 1080p support through both the VGA connection and the Component connection.

IGN: Could Microsoft theoretically release an HDMI dongle-cable like the various other cables already available for the console? Is the current 360 hardware able to output a digital signal, or is it restricted to analog?

Microsoft: Xbox 360 supports HD Component video output, which is compatible with nearly every HD ready TV on the market today. That’s not yet true for HDMI. We are watching the market closely and will continue to evaluate our solution, in the face of consumer demand.

Microsoft’s current response doesn’t yet explain how the company can rectify its claimed support of 1080p with the fact that the 360 doesn’t support the connection (HDMI) that will actually allow most 1080p HDTVs to display the signal. While the VGA solution may work for a minority of 1080p HDTV owners, we’re left wondering if Microsoft is promoting this new 1080p capability primarily to blunt the onslaught of the PlayStation 3, which supports HDMI and 1080p. Direct information regarding whether or not the current X360 hardware is able to output a digital signal would clarify the entire situation, but Microsoft hasn’t been able to answer this question.

Back in the days before the 360 launched, Microsoft stated that HDMI wires for the Xbox 360 would be released “when the market called for them.” If the Xbox 360 is really going to be a 1080p machine, we’re pretty sure the market is calling for HDMI wires right now. The next question is whether Microsoft will hear it.

Busy Busy Busy

I been receiving emails asking me as to why i have not been posting as much these past couple of weeks. Let me tell you that its not because i been lazy, but rather because i been super busy at work. Working on several projeft that were due yesterday… I am sure all of you know how that goes. But let me just say that last week work worked 80 hours, just to give you an idea as to how much i been staying in the office… remember that always appreciates receiving emails and try to get back as soon as i can…

Thanks also for everyone who left me voice mail on my AIM Voice Mail Box… It’s always cool… 646-873-9699

…till very soon when i can post more often…


Mac game makers disappointed by iPod shut-out

Many long-time Mac game developers figured it was inevitable that Apple would one day add premium games to its iPod music player. But when that day finally came earlier this month, many of those same game developers were left wishing they could be a part of it.

Of the nine games that made their debut with the iTunes Store, all but two were developed by software makers outside of Apple. However, none of the games came from the companies that Mac gamers usually expect to see on Apple hardware.

The result? Many game developers find themselves puzzled by Apple’s decision.

“We’re really glad to see Apple start to take the iPod in this direction,” said Glenda Adams, Aspyr Media’s director of development. “It’s the one big piece of entertainment that was missing. Obviously, we’re disappointed that [Apple] launched it as a closed development system. We had pitched several game ideas for iPod at Apple over the past couple years, but it didn’t lead anywhere.

“We think we’ve got a lot to offer the iPod game market,” Adams continued. “Not only have we worked with Apple on Mac games for 10 years, we’ve developed and published several handheld (PocketPC and Game Boy) games in the last couple years.”

Other developers were less diplomatic. “It was lame of Apple to ignore the guys that have been loyal to them,” said a developer who asked not to be named. “We were ready, willing and able to create anything they wanted.”

Disappointed developers

That sentiment was echoed by several other developers who noted that they’ve approached Apple about iPod games ever the company released the iPod photo, the first color-screen iPod. Those companies say there either rebuffed or ignored by Apple. For that reason, many were caught off guard when Apple made iPod games part of the “It’s Showtime” event in San Francisco last week.

“I understand Apple’s desire to keep things organized and to maintain control over the iPod, but as a game developer who specializes in original content, I’m disappointed that I don’t have access to the iPod because I know I could come up with some games that blow away the stuff that’s available now,” said Pangea Software President Brian Greenstone. “Original content would be more of a selling point than just selling games that are available on 100 other platforms already.”

DanLabGames creator Daniel Labriet echoed that disappointment. While he described his plate as full with Mac projects, Labriet said he has games and ideas that he thinks would be ideal for iPod play.

Apple declined to respond to several requests for comment on this story.

SDK wanted

One significant issue that’s hindering software developers’ efforts is the absence of an iPod Software Development Kit (SDK). No iPod SDK has been made available by Apple, and repeated requests from game developers have gone unanswered . Without it, developers don’t have any way of making software to run on the iPod.

“No one can create anything for the iPod without access to an SDK,” said one developer. “They don’t even have to release that if they don’t want to. I can see not wanting to open the floodgates to every [amateur]. But they have our number… let us sign an NDA and work on some things.”

Pangea’s Greenstone agrees. “The lack of an SDK [is a hindrance], but more information from Apple would always help, too,” he said.

“We’ve got some really great ideas for iPod games if Apple will open up an iPod SDK to developers—everything from doing handheld specific branded games, like what we’ve done with Tony Hawk Pro Skater and Call of Duty 2 for PocketPC, to some unique and new gameplay mechanics that integrate with the music already on your iPod,” added Aspyr’s Adams.

At the moment, secrecy seems crucial to Apple for iPod game development—developers who have actually made games for the iPod recently interviewed by Macworld declined to shed much light on the development process.

Mac game makers have grown accustomed to selling products themselves, but games available for the iPod are available exclusively for download from the iTunes Store. This limit doesn’t bother Labriet.

“I think the market is really small—only for the video iPod,” he said. “The iTunes Store is also a good way to protect the games against piracy, as the games are protected using DRM.”

Adams doesn’t see a conflict between the iTunes Store and Aspyr’s own announced digital distribution solution, which is due to come online by the end of the year.

“I think [Apple] could set up a model just like Sony/Nintendo do on their handhelds—they have approval of concept and final game, and take a royalty off each sale… I don’t think we’d have any interest in competing with that kind of distribution. Heck, if they’d let us sell Mac games through iTunes, we’d be right there tomorrow,” she said.

Greenstone thinks the iPod is a good potential market for games—especially for original content, rather than revisions of existing popular titles.

“I think [Apple’s] distribution method is great, and I would actually prefer to keep it the way they are doing it now. I think selling via the iTunes Store is the way to go,” Greenstone said. “Good original games would probably have more of a market than something like Bejeweled which is on every platform on Earth already, and games like Tetris, [which can] be downloaded for free on the Internet.”

[thanks Jen for the tip!]

Symantec: ‘There is no safe browser’

Hackers are hitting paydirt in their search for browser bugs. According to Symantec’s twice-yearly Internet Security Threat Report, hackers found 47 bugs in Mozilla’s open-source browsers and 38 bugs in Internet Explorer (IE) during the first six months of this year. That’s up significantly from the 17 Mozilla and 25 IE bugs found in the previous six months.

Even Apple’s Safari browser saw its bugs double, jumping from six in the last half of 2005 to 12 in the first half of 2006. Opera was the only browser tracked by Symantec that saw the number of vulnerabilities decline, but not by much. Opera bugs dropped from nine to seven during the period.

And while Internet Explorer remained the most popular choice of attackers, no one is invulnerable. According to the report, 31 percent of attacks during the period targeted more than one browser, and 20 percent took aim at Mozilla’s Firefox.

View: Info World

DIRECTV’s magical, disapearing high-def station

DIRECTV has a crisis goin’ on and the only way to resolve bandwidth issues is to turn off high-def stations. Sounds absurd right, but three weeks ago for the first [high-def] Football Sunday of the year, DIRECTV pulled the plug on TNT-HD for a bit. Then last Sunday HDNet drew the short end of the straw and this week Universal was cut during football time. The NFL Sunday Ticket is a major source of revenue for the provider and to be honest, people love the package. Every football game (most of ’em are in glorious high-def now), fast-forward games later in the day, the ability to watch six games at once — it’s the ONLY option for a true football fan but what about the other stations? Not everyone is a football fan and last week TNT-HD featured a NASCAR race, so naturally there were a lot of apprehensive race fans waiting to see if their source for high-def coverage was going to disappear, but instead DIRECTV cut HDNet without warning. DIRECTV has a problem and us, the viewers, are suffering because of it. We just wonder what station will be cut next week?

Remember Ring: A painful reminder


Did you forget your anniversary again? Missed your significant other’s birthday? Those Post-It notes and alarms on your PDA clearly aren’t working — how about some physical pain? Wrapped around your finger, the Remember Ring (get it?) will make sure you don’t forget an important date by heating up to 120°F for 10 seconds 24 hours before the big day, and then doing it again every hour on the hour. It’s equipped with a micro thermopile, converting the heat from your hand into electricity so the tiny battery stays charged and the internal clock never stops. Your jeweler will program the date, then you can just slip it on and forget your troubles; after all, that’s what the ring’s there to remind you about. Not a bad idea, really, since it’s wearable and isn’t something you might forget to take with you like the Mini Reminder. But before you forgetful folk start lining up for it, we’re sad to report the ring is just a concept item right now. We can only hope the designers have some other way to remind themselves to actually make the thing.

SHIFT: Channels are the Wii’s weak spot


I’ve made no secret of the fact that I’m totally psyched for the upcoming Nintendo Wii and that I hope it takes off when it’s released. I finally got a chance to check it out in person last week, and the games lived up to my expectations for the most part. However, one aspect of the Wii seems pretty half-baked to me: the Channels system, Nintendo’s main menu and online portal that appears when you turn the system on. It’s clear that Nintendo is going for the non-gamer market with this, but couldn’t it have been implemented better? What should be a solid online-gaming system instead feels distinctly like filler.

Take a Look at Mii Now
Wii Channels is what you encounter when you first turn the system on: a nonthreatening, TV-like menu of “channels” representing different things you can do with the console. Among them: Play a game, check the weather, or play with your Mii. Mii? Yes, the Mii is perhaps the lamest feature of the Wii, a personal avatar designer that lets you create a little character that looks like you and “lives” on your system. What are the benefits of having a Mii? Uh, good question. It seems like Nintendo wanted a feature that was so cute it would draw in grandma and grandpa, but forgot to add features after making it cute. Really the only thing you can do with your Mii is use it as a player in Wii Sports, the free game that comes with the console. That’s it. A character-creation mode in Wii Sports would give you the same thing and not take up a “channel” on your startup screen.

What else can you do through the channels menu? Well, you can browse photos on your TV, a feature that’s now available on about ten million other products. You can check the weather on your TV, something I believe has been available for a long time through a little thing called the Weather Channel. A news channel also offers a more limited version of something you’ve been able to do on your TV for a while: check the news. Why are these “features”? Will people really go through their Wii to check the weather? It seems doubtful.

Missing the Connection
What Nintendo has done is put Internet access into the Wii while removing some of the best benefits of having a connected console. Yeah, you can surf the Web, but there’s no keyboard available and you need to pay to download the Opera browser. And the number one thing you would obviously want to do — play games against people online — isn’t an option at all, at least at the moment. It’s a tease, being online on your console and not being able to play games using it. Isn’t that the whole point of having a connected console?

The one great thing you can do using the Web on the Wii is download games for the virtual console, the Wii’s built-in emulator for older games. This allows you to get games from past consoles such as the NES, SNES, and Sega Genesis onto your Wii. Retro gaming is making a comeback, and this is a great way to do it. However, imagine being able to play Mario Kart against your friend in another state. Again, not having online gameplay as an option seems like a missed opportunity.

From everything that we’ve learned about it, Wii Channels appears to be a pretty weak offering from Nintendo. Fortunately, people aren’t going to buy the Wii to surf the Web or look at photos; they’re going to buy it for the games. There’s still the distinct possibility that Nintendo will announce an online gaming feature in the near future, but as it stands the Wii’s Channels and online system are pretty underwhelming. One would think that the success of the Xbox Live online system would inspire Nintendo to take a similar route. However, Nintendo has been clear from the start that the Wii is taking a different path from the big boys, and for the most part the company’s choices have been spot-on. Let’s just hope they don’t screw up what could be another selling point by aiming just at non-gamers.

Sony cuts PS3 price in most half-assed way possible

PS3 with controller

The jaw-droppingly expensive PlayStation 3 has gotten a price drop, but don’t get too excited: it’s for the lower-end model, and it’s only in Japan. Sony has announced that the 20-GB PS3 will run for $429, down from the originally announced price of $500. Also, the lesser model now comes with an HDMI 1.3 output, the latest standard for the all-digital high-def connector that’ll enable the PS3 to handle lossless audio and the 36-bit color, not that anyone cares. Is Sony listening to all the haters out there and trying to make nice? If so, they’d better bring those price drops stateside if they want any goodwill from the likes of this hard-to-please blogger.

Via Kotaku