by John Sciacca
In general, I don’t want to hear about second gunmen or grassy knolls, or missiles into the Pentagon or bombs pre-loaded into the Trade Center buildings. I hate all of that nonsense. For most things, I subscribe to the Occam’s razor theory, being that when presented with multiple hypotheses, generally the simplest explanation is usually the right one. However the coincidence of Wal-Mart announcing TODAY a new “Exclusive Disc-to-Digital Service” seems just a tad TOO incredible for me to believe as mere coincidental or just serendipitous timing.
The fact that this announcement comes scarcely 24 hours after news hit that a California judge issued a potentially crippling verdict against movie server giant, Kaleidescape – the company that happened to PIONEER the “disc-to-digital” movie server concept – seems to give weight to Kaleidescape’s CEO and co-founder, Michael Malcolm’s comments, “Maybe it's because the large CE companies in Japan and the big computer companies in the USA, on the board of the DVD CCA, are afraid that Kaleidescape is building a better way to enjoy DVDs and Blu-ray Discs than they are.”
With Kaleidescape’s system pushed aside – or rendered non-compliant and incapable of further supporting DVD storage/streaming – it would open up the stage for an entirely different system to step in. So it is with a heaping grain of salt and credulity that I see that announcement from Wal-Mart today about their partnership with Vudu to turn your precious DVDs into more manageable and portable and convenient digital copies.
Wal-Mart’s press release – available here – explains how the upcoming system will work. You would cruise into your local Wal-Mart with your DVDs, and would then create a Vudu account (free) and pay an “equal conversion“ fee to “receive digital access to [your] favorite titles from the partnering studios.” (The partnering studios being Paramount Home Media Distribution, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment, Universal Studios Home Entertainment and Warner Bros. Home Entertainment.) The fee would be $2 for standard def and $5 for High-Def. Once you have put these movies into your Vudu account, they would be available for viewing on any one of 300 Internet enabled Vudu devices and you get to get to keep your discs.
So, here’s the cool and the suck on Wal-Mart’s Disc-to-Digital service as I see it.
This is going to use Vudu’s service and interface, which is actually pretty good. (Here’s a link to my review of Vudu’s XL2 movie player.) I was impressed with how simple and slick the interface looks; it is intuitive and easy to use, and makes it is quick to find movies. And once movies are selected they start quickly with little/no wait or buffer time.
I generally found Vudu’s video to be quite good; way better than anything that Netflix provides. Way, WAY better. The standard def (non-HD) stuff looked a tic below DVD and the HD looked a tic below cable HD quality. Of course, this depends on your Internet connection and the quality of streaming service that your speed will support. Vudu’s highest quality level – HDX – was just a tic below Blu-ray in terms of video quality, but it isn’t clear from this if you will be getting HDX quality or not. But I love being able to “trade up” from an SD copy of a movie to the HD version. I’ve been slowly doing this with my personal DVD collection – changing over to Blu-ray as certain marquee titles are released – and I can assure you that it costs WAY more than $5.
In my experience, movies started within a few seconds of pressing play. Because it is JUST the feature film, it bypasses all of the warning and trailers and menus and other hoo-ha. If digital copies retain this – and there’s no reason to think that they wouldn’t – it is definitely faster than finding, popping in, loading, skipping through trailers and warnings and making it to the beginning of a movie.
Let’s be honest, it is awesome to have all of your movies instantly available to you in an easily managed interface. That’s one of the reasons why the Kaleidescape experience is so outstanding. Digital has changed the way that we listen and enjoy music, and few people are left managing giant stacks of CDs any longer; this aims to do the same for a movie collection.
I own 286 movies, spread between 63 Blu-ray and 223 DVDs. (I know because I just checked my Kaleidescape system on my iPad.) In the “real” world this takes of many linear feet of storage in physical discs and about 4 Terabytes of disk space. If I could convert all of these movies to portable, available anywhere, stream-at-will HD versions for $1430 that would honestly be a pretty small price to pay. My entire collection, available to me anytime, anywhere in HD for under $1500? That’s powerfully cool stuff.
Since each customer’s discs are not actually being individually ripped and uploaded into the cloud, but rather just authorized – probably through a scanning process or just a quick trip into some kind of authentication player – the process should be fast and pretty painless. Well, at least as fast and painless as any trip to the Photo Section of a Wal-Mart can be. Wal-Mart claims movies will be available for viewing within minutes.
It is *exactly* two miles from my front door to a Super Wal-Mart, and I visit the store probably once or twice a week. So it is with great personal experience that I can proclaim that visiting a Wal-Mart often sucks. Crowds, parking, and a unique mélange of characters that often don’t fall under the description “the beautiful people.” (Far more often you encounter the “people of Wal-Mart.” Click that link. You’ll get it.) Picturing myself walking into the store with armloads of DVDs – and explaining my purpose to the greeter/security person at the door who will then put a sticker on each and every one of my discs to show that I didn’t steal all of them – and then going to the transfer service machine/kiosk/person doesn’t fill me with joy. Also, Wal-Mart rarely does anything with your best interest in mind…
Part of the beauty of Kaleidescape is that it will import ANY DVD (or Blu-ray) you give it. While this has the support of five major film studios, that still leaves a lot of movies out there that won’t be eligible for this service. Say all of those Disney/Pixar films I own. Or maybe anything with “Lucas” and “Film” in the title. And many others. It also doesn’t state that EVERY title available from these studios will be eligible for this digital transfer. Maybe it will be select catalog or new titles. So, you might bring in 100 discs and find that only a (small) percentage are eligible to transfer.
Remember the old adage, “Why buy the cow when you’re getting the milk for free?” This is kind of a, “Sure, we know you bought the cow once. We know you love the cow. So why don’t you just pony up a bit more and buy the cow again?” While I conceptually understand that this is me using the movie in a new way, I MORE understand that I bought the movie once and don’t want to frickin’ pay for it again. Also, on several of my movies, I already PAID the premium one time to get a digital copy of the film. This will be paying again…twice!
While I’ll freely admit that Vudu’s quality is *good* it is NOT on parity with the physical disc version. And while “good enough” is “good enough” for most people, if you are going to be paying for something – that you already own, I remind you – wouldn’t you want it to at least look AS GOOD as what you already have? The biggest downfall is the sound; while the HDX picture looks very close to Blu-ray in quality – again, reminding you that HD does not necessarily mean Vudu’s highest HDX quality – the sound is limited to Dolby Digital Plus which clearly did not sound as good as Dolby TrueHD or DTS HD Master. Big deal through TV or computer speakers or headphones? No. But on a dedicated AV system? Yes.
The information touts using “Internet-connected devices to view movies any time, any place.” And that sounds all well and good. However, in practice, because you are streaming – not downloading – these movies, it will mean you will have to be connected to the Internet the *entire time* you are watching a movie and will greatly limit viewing options for many people. Without 3G/4G broadband it will mean no viewing in a car. Without buying the in-flight WiFi it will mean no viewing in a plane. And with the horrible Internet speeds in many hotel rooms, it will likely mean poor experience while viewing on the road. So “any time, any place” is really like “some times, some places.”
For me, one of the big differences between movies I buy and movies I own are movies that I really love. And when I love a movie, I want access to all of the special features; the deleted scenes, the commentary, the making of docs, the bloopers, all of it. Generally a “digital copy” of a film means just that…a digital copy of THE FILM. Yes, you still own the disc and have access to these features, but how often are you going to root through your pile of discs to watch a making of doc?
One of the contentions in the original Kaleidescape lawsuit was that the system couldn’t prevent people from copying films they didn’t own. Like movies rented from Netflix and Redbox or the library or borrowed from friends, or whatever. What will possibly stop Wal-Mart from doing this? I come in with an armload of discs; I hand them over – or feed them in to the machine – and they add them to my account. Does each DVD have an individual ID print that can be tagged? I doubt it. (In fact I checked and the answer is “No.” DVD discs are not individually coded.) Could I just walk up to the Redbox – in the front of almost every Wal-Mart – rent a bunch of discs for a $1, walk back to the kiosk, turn them into my own personal digital copies, and then feed them back into the machine? Or say that I borrow my friends collection and get all of his movies and let him have all of mine? Now, Wal-Mart *could* do something like physically mark the disc where it would still play but be identified as one that has already been loaded, but what will this mean if you buy a used disc on Amazon? Is there a chance that it may already be locked out?
Beyond the fact that Wal-Mart would now know every movie that you own – or at least every movie that you choose to bring in and Vudu-ify – there is the fact that some nebulous cloud being out there would know what movies you watch, how often and when you do so. Think that this might be useful information for studios and advertisers to know what content you like and what your specific interests are?
With all that information being gathered, think that there’s any chance that a Wal-Mart owned service *might* take the opportunity to make you watch a Wal-Mart ad before the movie starts?
Breaking the Law
There should be consumer benefits to following the “legal” solution. With this solution, consumers have to drive to Wal-Mart, register discs they already own, pay a fee to have them “authorized” – provided the movie is on “the list” of allowable titles – and then be able to view them on a limited number of devices when connected to the Internet. Contrast that with the many “illegal” (or at least “grey area”) ways of copying movies. Take the movie you own, pop it into a computer, use readily available software to turn the disc into a bit-for-bit digital copy in full quality and with all features that you can then load and view on any device you own to be viewed without an Internet connection.
Cloud based streaming seems to be the writing on the wall for future content delivery; it’s cheaper for the studios not to have to produce physical content, and there are many benefits to users “consuming” media in the digital domain. The issue with “switching to digital” has always seemed more of a “how to handle legacy titles?” one than how to handle new content. And despite my “suck” list, this is actually a pretty impressive sounding first stab at the complex solution of taking existing content and making it available for streaming in a legal way. The interesting part will be seeing what the second stab looks like…