LAS VEGAS — Every year at this time the sound of digital distribution of video entertainment content threatens to hasten the demise of the Blu-ray Disc player, and every year the last bastion of physical media digs in its heels a little deeper.
And the case appears to be the same headed into 2013. Andy Parsons, Blu-ray Disc Association promotions group chairperson and Pioneer Electronics senior VP, told TWICE the prospects for the sustained vitality of the trusty disc player look brighter in light of a possible new enhancement to the Blu-ray Disc standard supporting Ultra High-Definition on the way, the growing use of Blu-ray players to access digitally distributed content, and rockbottom player pricing making consumers an offer that many can’t refuse.
According to the Digital Entertainment Group (DEG) and Screen Digest, more than 50 million U.S. households now have Blu-ray Disc playback capability, up 42 percent from a year ago, Parsons said.
“We see no reason to expect any sort of slowdown in player sales, since players are so affordable now and offer so much bang for the buck feature-wise … It’s the best value in home entertainment today,” he said.
In software, Parsons pointed to a 20 percent increase in catalog Blu-ray Disc title sales in 2012 as another promising sign for physical media, because, he said, it is “a sign that people decided to invest in content that they may already own in lower-resolution formats. This is excellent news, as it shows that the value of high-definition video, and sound is becoming more and more obvious to mainstream consumers.”
Parsons pointed out that Hollywood studios invested in producing “excellent restorative work on some classic films that are must-haves for everyone.”
“For 2013, I think the collectible catalog trend will continue to build momentum, as Blu-ray is really the best way to own a film you care about,” he said. “I continue to see comments posted on discussion forums from people who say they prefer discs over streaming for the films they enjoy the most.”
Parsons said that the rapid growth of digital content streaming as method for home movie viewing has produced no detectable impact on the popularity of Blu-ray Disc viewing.
“Many [consumers] are really getting behind Ultraviolet [UV] now, and I think you’ll see a strong push for this in 2013. But the key point is that UV is complementary to Blu-ray, and no one should be thinking of it as a replacement. Watching a film on your home-theater system begs for Blu-ray-quality picture and sound, while watching it on your tablet needs a solution like Ultraviolet or Digital Copy.”
Parsons added that with streaming services there is no guarantee that a favorite film that was there six months ago will be there now.
“But with Blu-ray, the benefits of ownership become clear, because it’s always there for you — and ‘there’ means a lot more places when UV and Digital Copy versions are included,” he said, adding that streaming and packaged media “should coexist for many years to come.”
As for new generation of 4K “Ultra High-Definition” displays hitting the market in need of a source to provide native content, Parsons said: “The BDA recently formed a new task force called the Format Extension Study task force, or FEST for short. As its name implies, this group’s mission is to evaluate new technologies that could be included in the format, such as 4K, high-frame-rate films, enhanced color technologies, new audio codecs and so on. Each technology being evaluated will be considered for technical feasibility (the ability of Blu-ray to properly support it), market demand and potential impact on the installed base of Blu-ray players in the market.”
After assessing the technology, the group can make a recommendation to the BDA’s board to move forward, he added.
As for 4K, Parsons said it’s difficult to say with certainty if Ultra HD has a long future in the market ahead.
“Technology providers tend to always reach for the next level of performance, so it’s natural to pursue even better quality than we could achieve ten years ago … At the same time, there has to be a perceived value to the consumer in order for a better performance product to succeed at a mass market level.”
One of the biggest technological obstacles in developing a market for 4K, he said, will be finding sufficient storage capacity for all the extra data in the new images – that would be four times the number of pixels as FullHD 1080p.
“Blu-ray discs can currently provide up to two 25GB layers on ROM discs, and every single player in the field can play high-definition content from these 50GB volumes. Fitting four times more information on a Blu-ray disc could be done by adding more physical capacity to the disc (i.e., more layers — or by using more efficient video compression techniques or both.) There are cost and compatibility considerations that would need to be carefully examined,” Parsons said. “We do think that Blu-ray Disc would be the most practical way to bring 4K to consumers due to its high capacity and data throughput.
“Internet bandwidth limitations in most U.S. homes would be a serious barrier to streaming such content online,” he added.
With or without a 4K enhancement in the Blu-ray Disc spec, Parsons said Blu-ray “seems likely to remain viable for many years to come. We’ve not yet reached a saturation point for HDTVs in the U.S., and even those who own them may not yet be watching actual HDTV content on them, so there’s a lot of room for growth left.”
What has changed to a degree in the last year is the way in which consumers acquire Blu-ray Disc software, as the mom-and-pop video rental store has followed the path of the buggy whip into oblivion.
Does that mean, Blu-ray Disc media distribution will be relegated to mail order rentals and online purchases?
“It’s an interesting question,” Parson said. “As Blu-ray has moved more mainstream over the past couple of years, retailers I never expected to see selling BD titles are doing just that. I see them at my local supermarket checkout stand – who would have guessed this would happen five years ago? The immediacy of buying something right now and watching it tonight will always be appealing for motion picture content, so I think traditional retailers will continue to play an important role,” he said, adding that the variety available online should help both methods coexist.
As for the BDA’s plans for International CES 2013, Parsons said the format promotions group will stay “relatively low key again this year.”
“Believe it or not, we announced the completion of the Blu-ray specifications seven years ago. We’ve certainly come a long way since then.”