Blu-ray goes interactive for 2008, but will consumers bite?

With Blu-ray Profile 2.0 bringing Internet connectivity to all future players, the format is looking at interactivity to convince customers to make the switch. Blu-ray's focus on interactive features is also a response to HD DVD, which has long offered advanced Web-enabled capabilities through the format's HDi layer.

"Now we're ready for the next phase: the phase to really fulfill the promise of Blu-ray technology. That's really to start to develop the interactivity," said David Bishop, President Worldwide for Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, during Monday's Blu-ray press conference. "We'll really get the chance to use our creative juices moving forward. You'll see multiplayer gaming, ringtones that can be delivered to the consumer."

Instead of Microsoft-developed HDi, Blu-ray opted to use a Java-based technology known as BD-J. BD Live, the term used for the Internet-capable interactive features that will be added to movies, is essentially a set of Java components that interact with the BD-J layer that exists in the hardware players.

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Because it chose a Java-based technology, Blu-ray has some distinct advantages over HD DVD. For example, the format can make use of a myriad of existing Java components and even add new functionality over time.

But the blessing is also a curse, as BD-J is still in flux and the differing implementations in many existing Blu-ray players have quirks and bugs that developers must work around. By contrast HDi is precisely defined, although that makes it inherently more limited.

One developer for MX Entertainment said that his company uses the PS3 as a baseline when testing, and does its best to make sure the content it develops will work well in older Blu-ray players. Oftentimes, he submits bug reports to the hardware vendors for them to fix their BD-J implementations.

Zane Vella, president of RCDB, the company that created the first BD Live client and server, said that despite some initial setbacks, BD-J is a vastly superior technology to HDi. "With HDi, you create a text file. With BD-J, you build a full application that has the power of Java behind it," Vella told BetaNews. RCDB provides BD Live for studios to use to build interactive features atop BD-J.

Vella admitted that programming Java is more complex than scripting in XML for HDi, but noted that there are a huge number of Java developers and Microsoft has had to help fund development of interactive features in HDi. HD DVD content developers did acknowledge to BetaNews that they received help from Microsoft, but said it's normal to have such support.

Sun Microsystems has been aiding the development of BD-J, harking back to the Microsoft vs. Sun Java battles of the 1990s.

When asked about the potential slowdown of having to run a Java virtual machine on Blu-ray players, Vella explained that although early hardware from Samsung and Sony may have been sluggish, the PlayStation 3 and new players perform great. RCDB was showcasing BD Live with a game running on the Aliens vs. Predator movie disc.

What's unclear, however, is whether consumers will even want such features. Hollywood studios have been hesitant to invest the time and money to build interactive content because there has yet to be proven demand. Still, they acknowledge that something is needed to help sell consumers on the idea that high-definition movies are about more than just a clearer picture.

HD DVD claims that 30 percent of its customers have accessed online features in movies more than once, but most current users are early adopters of the platform who would typically test the new functionality.

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