Monday, March 20, 2006

"Hollywood's Tokyo Godfathers"

How Japan enabled the re-invention of Hollywood.
By Edward Jay Epstein
SLATE


Sony's decision last week to delay the launch of its third-generation game console PlayStation 3 until November 2006 sent shock waves through the entire entertainment economy. The reason is that PlayStation 3 is far more than a child's toy. It is a state-of-the-art home server that can play the next-generation high-definition DVDs, wirelessly connect to the Internet, and simultaneously support up to nine different operating systems for consumer electronics that, for better or worse, will further accelerate Hollywood's move from theaters to home entertainment."

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The next Tokyo initiative in the war for the couch potato will be raising home movies to a high-definition standard. High-definition, which contains five times the color picture elements of conventional DVDs or television, was pioneered in Japan in the late 1970s and allows home audiences to watch a movie-quality picture on a much larger display. Toshiba and Sony, the same Japanese companies that brought Hollywood the DVD, have now decided to replace it with a high-definition disc, which Toshiba calls "HD-DVD" and Sony calls "Blu-Ray." Both companies have machines that use a blue laser to read the densely packed data, can connect to the Internet, and produce the same quality high-definition picture.

The chief differences between them are price and storage capacity. Toshiba's HD-DVD is less expensive to manufacture and holds just enough data, 15 gigabytes, for a high-definition movie (Toshiba assumes other features can be accessed over the Internet). Sony's Blu-Ray is more expensive to make but can hold much more data. Its disc can be divided into as many as eight wafer-thin layers, each of which can hold up to 25 gigabytes. In addition, some of the layers can be used to record additional material downloaded from the Internet. The Blu-Ray format, with its enormous storage capacity, is backed by all the Hollywood movie studios.

One reason for the studios' support is that the Blu-Ray technology provides two separate "viewing planes" for a DVD: one for the high-definition movie, the second for scene-specific features such as commentaries, music videos, and games. This opens the door to creating parallel universes, which the viewer can navigate among with a click of the remote control. Disney, for example, plans to put scene-specific educational lessons on children's movies, while Sony plans scene-specific games. The Internet would provide further interactive material, including prequels, sequels, altered endings, and additional action sequences, which can be downloaded on the rewritable layers of their disc.

When PlayStation 3 arrives this November, with its Blu-Ray technology and super-realistic games, it will further blur the line between movies and games. The hand of Tokyo may not always be visible in the dazzling glitter of Hollywood, but it has enabled the industry to re-invent itself.

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