I maintain a certain fascination with Blu-Ray, against my better judgement, and this blog is an attempt to pull many thoughts and facts together. It starts with Dragon’s Lair… because these things always start with Dragon’s Lair.
But I’m not talking about the Java-based Blu-Ray Dragon’s Lair. No, I’m thinking about how I first saw this game running in arcade-perfect form on a home console 13 years ago, in a now-closed CompUSA in Atlanta. Running on… a Philips CD-i.
CD-i. BD-J. There’s a scary analogy here, and I’ll get there in due time…
Never seen a Bluer sky…
But let me get back to the present and the Blu-Ray Disc, its interactivity powered by Java. I first learned of the connection in talkbacks to yet another of my blogs whining about Java Media (scroll down to
jteach’s informative comment, along with the followups by me and
coxcu). Following the JavaOne debut of Blu-Ray that year, I opened my mind to the possibility that there might be something novel to the use of Java in the form of BD-J, even though my gut told me that the consumer electronic companies would prefer to keep their standard locked down (as I said at the time, “there’s no indication that this would be a general-purpose J2ME environment for Blu-Ray authors, or whether the PS3 would even expose the JVM outside of the movie-playing functionality.”). I looked up what little developer information was made publicly available, even wondering aloud in late 2005 about doing a series of blogs on getting into BD-J development.
I don’t have the hard copy of those white papers anymore, because I threw them away after the Blu-Ray session at JavaOne 2006 pissed me off. Basically, they came to a developer conference to talk up their great format, but didn’t and wouldn’t make an SDK available, tried to sell us on $50,000 authoring suites (um, we’re developers, we’re the ones who write authoring suites), poo-poohed the idea of doing development on anything but Windows machines, etc.
Things have turned a deeper shade of Blu…
As I reported in a brain-dump of a Blu-Ray BoF from this year’s JavaOne, I’m somewhat less pissed off at Blu-Ray this year. So what happened? Well, things are changing, and potentially becoming more interesting.
I attended the morning kick-off session for the Blu-Ray/Interactive-TV track and the evening Blu-Ray BoF, but could not attend the tech sessions, as I was needed in the java.net booth. Fortunately, slides from the tech sessions are available on JavaOne online, and they tell part of the story of Blu-Ray development.
But before you take a deep dive into the code behind the Chicken Little game in the J1 slides, let me cover some impressions from the Blu-Ray stuff in the morning session and the BoF. Clearly, there was a very different attitude this year, more of an outreach to developers. In fact, there was a frank admission that Blu-Ray needs to recruit Java developers to succeed, even as it struggles to figure out how to do that. Key among the disclosures is the fact that of all the Blu-Ray titles issued so far, only eight use the BD-J environment to provide their interactivity — the rest use a simpler DVD-like scripting/timeline tool.
It gets more interesting: the content developers know that having full-blown Java developers doing all the programming work is a mistake. There are interesting problems for developers to solve, but a lot of the interactivity really should be driven to tools that content authors can use. In other words, it should be, but currently isn’t, possible for a content author to just work on the movie navigation and the arrangement of the multimedia content (how to switch audio tracks, present picture-in-picture, etc.) with a timeline-based tool, while the Java developer focuses on the functionality only he or she can provide, like the bonus feature games. As noted in the evening BoF, the current need for BD-J developers is acute.
A third remarkable statement: the platform is having serious compatibility problems. A slick BD-J version of Open Season was shown off in the morning session, with the caveat that it was not actually released, because of compatibility problems. The tech session PDF’s discussion of developing the Chicken Little game also notes compatibility problems with all current players.
No black and white in the Blu…
One comment that Sun’s Bill Foote made indicated that there was disagreement within the Blu-Ray Disc Association as to how to approach non-licensee developers. The current situation, with tools and specs only available to licensees (basically just the studios, as licensing costs are extraordinary), leaves the format with too few programmers to be viable, and while participants like Sun would clearly prefer to get information out to independent developers, this apparently doesn’t sit well with some BDA members, even though Foote reports agreement that some kind of overture to indie developers needs to be made.
Presumably, any ONJava reader can see the case for opening up to more developers: more innovation, more code to test compatibility against, more mind-share, etc. But the situation today is still that any BD-J developer pretty much needs to be working for a BDA licensee — there’s little prospect of developers working on Blu-Ray content from home anytime soon.
There’s something about Blu…
I managed to get in one of the last audience comments in the evening BoF, saying among other things that I was interested in developing for this format, but that I did want to do so from home and not move to L.A., and that I wanted to develop on my Mac and not Windows. This got agreement from the panelists, most of them avowed Mac fans, and a sort of “hey, we’re trying”.
But the other point I made was that so far, Blu-Ray’s interactivity doesn’t seem to be going nearly far enough, and that maybe the most important thing more developers could bring would be a greater variety and novelty to BD-J applications that what’s available now. What they showed at the morning session was BD-J’s superior user interface for viewing movies. For example, accessing the chapter selection doesn’t blow you out of the movie, but instead overlays a chapter selection GUI atop the still-playing movie. You can also switch languages this way. Granted, nicer than DVD, but are people going to spend $600 for a marginally better user experience?
The example I made of opening up BD-J development was somewhat directed at the Disney representative. My two-year-old daughter, Quinn, loves watching a Walt Disney World trip-planning DVD, stuffed as it is with video of Mickey Mouse, Winnie the Pooh, the Little Mermaid, etc. My point was that BD-J could offer the content author more than just high-def video — with the network connectivity mandated by a future version of the Blu-Ray spec, the Disney trip-planning disc could offer to find the viewer flights to Orlando and book them a room at a Disney World resort, all lavishly offered in a high-def presentation that would be more compelling (and would probably close more sales) than is possible in a simple web page.
Another app: one of my college summer programming gigs was working with Ford’s heavy truck division, on an app to help dealers order custom-built trucks from KTP (”Kentucky Truck Plant”), eliminating the staggering error rate of the paper process — 70% of the orders placed from the model-year books could not actually be built, as they made incompatible combinations of wheelbase, powertrain, transmission, etc. Take the Disney example above and transfer it to cars: your favorite auto maker sends you not only a disc showing how great their vehicles are, they help you put together your dream car on your HDTV and order via a local dealer (ideally, it would come straight from the factory, but that’s not legal in the U.S. for various reasons). Contrary to what you might think, a report I saw a few years ago said car makers would love to move to an build-to-order system, as it would eliminate the industry’s hugely expensive inventory problem (Suzy and Phil aren’t bying that new minivan until they can get it in sage green with an iPod connector…).
A third app: remember exercise videos? They’re still popular. But why not use the BD-J’s interactivity and machine storage to remember the user’s preferences and history, and adjust the workout to suit their goals and their performance?
Don’t wake me from the dream… it’s really everything it seemed
There’s only one problem… it’s been done. My wife owned the exercise disc. It was called Kathy Smith Personal Trainer and it ran on the CD-i. Just like Dragon’s Lair (told you we’d get back there).
And now that we’ve gone there, let’s open up the CD-i analogy. For those who’ve forgotten, the CD-i was a home multimedia player from Philips, which hoped to develop a new market after the CD had reached the point of saturation and commoditization. They gambled that they could create “CD for your TV”, adding video and interactivity to the CD format, and get people to pay serious money to watch multimedia in their living rooms. For a lot of reasons — uncompetitiveness with both the PC and game consoles, the rise of the internet, the lameness of most of their content — it failed, and failed badly. Sources I spot checked for this blog say Philips lost anywhere from $1 billion to $3 billion on CD-i. Ouch.
See the analogy yet? Let’s get there: the stunningly quick ascendence of DVD has already saturated the market and made it a commodity, so it’s not surprising that hardware manufacturers are ready to move on to the next big thing. A DVD optimized for HDTV (DVD is keyed to standard def) seems an obvious bet, and from this we get HD-DVD and Blu-Ray. HD-DVD aspires only to offer a better picture, and it’s not clear that this is sufficiently compelling to consumers, particularly given the decades-long crawl to HDTV.
Blu-Ray has hedged its bets not only on better picture, but also on interactivity, which is what BD-J provides. But, alas, here’s the CD-i analogy: it’s not clear that consumers will see the value in that, especially when:
- Blu-Ray will have to compete with more interactive (if lower-def) internet content, most of which is free.
- Blu-Ray’s closed standard leaves it with an underwhelming eight discs with non-trivial interactivity.
- The CD-i disaster argues strongly against the premise that consumers are interested in — or at least willing to pay serious money for — interactive video in their living room.
The developer in me sees immense potential in Blu-Ray, something utterly unlike anything currently available in the living room or the computer room. But the CD-i owner in me — come by sometime and we’ll play Dragon’s Lair or Space Ace — reminds me that I’ve been down this road before.
Blu-Ray’s success used to be a given, thanks to the PlayStation 3. Now that PS3 has had a ruinously bad launch, everything seems in play again. Blu-Ray will have to provide demonstrable value of its own to succeed… if not a killer app, then at least a bunch of highly-appealing apps (to end-users or to producers, as in the theme park and car-builder examples above) that help to make a sale. Opening up the format to the point where developers make it do more than show a chapter selection GUI seems a crucial step.
But will the BDA really go there? That may be the $3 billion question.