Old discs get born again

Upgraded DVDs take biz by surprise

All along, the key assumption to both the Blu-ray and the HD DVD business models has been that, as more and more people buy hi-def plasma, LCD and DLP TV sets, they’ll want new movies that can take advantage of the higher picture detail.

Turns out that, in many cases, standard-def DVDs will do just fine.

Now widely available and priced under $100, so-called “upconverting” DVD players include internal processors that take the 480 interlaced lines (480i) of standard discs and magically increase them to 780 progressive-scan lines (780p), or even an ultra-crisp 1080i. (The new Blu-ray and HD DVD players can do this with standard discs, as well.)

It’s not true hi-def resolution. The upgrade process is called “interpolation,” and involves the player using a bunch of fancy math — algorithms, actually — to accurately guess what missing lines to make up and where to put them.

Still, with Best Buy selling Toshiba’s HD-A2 HD DVD player for $499, and Samsung’s new Blu-ray device for $799 — the least expensive set-tops for both hi-def formats — upconversion provides an option for budget-minded movie lovers.

So are Blu-ray and HD DVD backers concerned that these legacy boxes could torpedo their markets?

“I think we’re talking about apples and oranges. Picture quality is certainly important, but you’re also talking about the potential for 50 gigabytes of information,” says Lionsgate homevid exec VP and G.M. Ron Schwartz, noting Blu-ray’s potential to include all sorts of fancy Java-based bonus features. “Blu-ray is definitely a change to how you can view a movie, and to talk about it from (just a picture-resolution) standpoint really limits what this technology has to offer.”

Despite ample talk from both camps about potential for amazing new extras, there have been only a few manifestations so far on store shelves, such as HD DVD commentary windows that can pop up picture-in-picture style while the movie is running. U’s HD DVD “The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift,” meanwhile, includes clever interactive toys, such as a tab that pops up during the street chases to keep up with the spiraling auto insurance claims.

Are any of these things enough to convince disc aficionados not to choose a less expensive upgrade solution?

“DVD upconverted looks good, but it’s not high-definition television,” says Steve Nickerson, senior VP of market management for Warner Home Video, noting the price of HD DVD players soon will fall to the point where the cost differential won’t make it worth it to compromise.

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