Recently, Disney put on an impressive little dog-and-pony show for its upcoming 50th anniversary Blu-ray edition of Sleeping Beauty, which hits Australian stores in October.
Sleeping Beauty gets an interactive makeover on Blu-ray.
While the new, restored version of the film looks fantastic, Disney hardly mentioned anything about the dramatically improved video and sound quality of the disc. Instead, company representatives were showcasing the new array of Disney BD-Live features, which will not only appear on the Sleeping Beauty Blu-ray but also on all Disney Blu-ray Discs going forward.
For the uninitiated, BD-Live refers to the interactive features on a disc that require an Internet connection to make them work. They also require a Profile 2.0 or "BD-Live-Enabled" Blu-ray player and, obviously, an Ethernet or Wi-Fi connection. The Sony PS3 happens to be one of the handful of BD-Live Blu-ray players currently available, though more are on the way.
When it comes to interactivity, HD-DVD was ahead of the game, and before its demise, we'd started seeing some of the interactive features on HD-DVD discs that are now just starting to appear on Blu-ray discs — along with a few that haven't been developed yet for Blu-ray. HD-DVD called its interactive platform HDi and, like BD-Live, its features were partly designed to differentiate the format from standard DVD. The refrain we've heard several times from high-level folks in the HD-DVD camp was that just the promise of better picture and sound wasn't enough to lure mainstream shoppers — most of whom remain satisfied with DVD — into buying high-definition discs. Unlike enthusiasts, the average consumer needs a bigger carrot. Now we're starting to hear similar rumblings from the folks at Disney and other studios. Interactivity is once again the new magic lever.
So, what exactly is Disney rolling out? Well, the first thing we saw was something called Movie Chat, which lets you text chat with another person — or people — on your TV while a movie is playing (you can call up a virtual keyboard or you can log onto a special Disney site and use the keyboard on your laptop to type). Then there's Movie Mail, which lets you record a personalized video using a Webcam or cheap video camcorder and embed it in a scene in the movie. And finally, there's Movie Challenge, an online trivia game you can play against others in real-time online and potentially earn Disney rewards points that give you discounts on Disney products or unlock exclusive movie trailers.
We've been disappointed with the very early iterations of BD-Live, which seem mostly to involve free downloads of trailers and some video mashups. Part of the problem is that everything takes so long to download. However, Disney representatives said they'd really been working on making the experience much smoother with a strong backend system that would be ready for prime time when it launches. They described the Disney BD-Live network as an interactive "platform" that's designed to stand on its own as a social network.
Judging from the demo, we're pretty confident Disney is indeed going to take the BD-Live experience to the next level. The text messaging and trivia game ran smoothly and our recorded video message was sent up to the Disney server and appeared about 10 minutes later on a Panasonic Blu-ray player that was sitting across the room. (Except for one PlayStation 3, all the Blu-ray players in the room were the Panasonic DMP-BD50 — Panasonic was a partner in the showcase, and the BD50 was one of the only non-PS3 players that could currently handle BD-Live content.)
Interactivity vs. affordability
As much as we appreciate technology that works, the big question that remains is whether consumers actually want these features. For instance, in the example Disney gave of the video messaging feature, it showed a promotional video of a Dad seemingly on some sort of business trip. He'd sent his kid a message that popped up in the middle of the Sleeping Beauty Blu-ray as she was watching it at home, miles away. Our initial thought was that while the idea of remotely sending a video is conceptually cool, we would probably try it out only once or twice and never bother with it again.
As for text messaging while watching a film, we can't think of anything we would rather do less. We believe teenagers gabbing on screen while watching something like High School Musical or perhaps a movie club may like the feature. But it seems most people would take a pass. Then again, we think Twitter is completely inane, so what do we know.
Is it too little too late for BD-Live?
We don't mind trivia, it's kind of fun to compete against a friend, but the cynical side of us say that the trivia and these other BD-Live features are a way for Disney and other studios to gather personal information and lure us into buying more crap. The studios, of course, would argue that they are trying to get to know us so they can serve us better and give us what we want. That's fine. We get it — it's great for them and great for advertisers. We're just not sure there is a benefit for the consumer.
Blu-ray's tentative steps into this area have brought no new revelations, as we thought the same things about HD-DVD's interactive features. To be fair, Disney's core BD-Live features won't be the only BD-Live features on a given disc. The Sleeping Beauty disc, for example, will have an interactive weather feature that changes the appearance of Sleeping Beauty Castle according to the weather in your area (it knows where you live based on your IP address). Other discs will offer customized games, interactive maps, online polls, and other special features.
Some HD-DVD interactive features are already being ported to Blu-ray. For instance, the upcoming Blu-ray versions of Universal's Miami Vice and Heroes are said to include BD-Live versions of some of the better HDi features found on last year's HD-DVD versions. And Warner has announced a new Blu-ray edition of 300 for release in 2009, which will load the disc up with the sort of interactive extras found on the earlier HD-DVD version. Among them, the capability to choose your favorite scenes from the film and share your bookmarks with other users. Back in the HD-DVD days — last year, that is — we'd heard talk of a step-up version to that feature: Allowing viewers to loosely re-edit a film by reordering and chopping out certain scenes, and then sharing that "personal cut" with other users. No word on whether — or when — this feature will come to Blu-ray, but studios like to talk about all the possibilities and how we're really just at the starting line, so stay tuned.
We'll give Disney this: Even if we don't think the features are all that useful, we think it's smart that their marketing people came up with a standardized platform based on a core set of features that the company can employ across all of its Blu-ray titles, including those from Touchstone and Miramax. Until studios figure out what works and doesn't work with BD-Live, they've got to rein in costs and have a disciplined approach that attempts to create some economies of scale. Creating special Web sites to support movie-specific interactive features that have to be maintained in perpetuity doesn't exactly seem cost-effective, especially for titles that have only a limited lifespan in public conscience. For example, the HD-DVD of Blood Diamond had some online-enabled features, but how many times are you going to pop that disc back in your player after you've watched it once? While we liked the movie and appreciated its message, who's that obsessed with Blood Diamond?
Ultimately, when it comes to interactivity, the very nature of what movie watching is all about presents a serious challenge. The fact is movies are mostly a watch-once medium. You sit down, you watch the movie, and you move on. Yes, there are certain family titles, especially Pixar/Disney films, which children watch over and over, and which lend themselves better to a full array of BD-Live tricks. And when the occasional cult classic turns up and develops a hardcore following — I'm thinking The Big Lebowski and Office Space, as well as plenty of sci-fi flicks — we can see how you could develop a social community around the disc. The same goes for a handful of TV series.
Unfortunately for studios and consumer electronics manufacturers, what's going to sell Blu-ray in the end is the same thing that sold DVD: cheap prices on players and the discs themselves. Oh, and the better picture and sound don't hurt, either. That's why we'd buy the Sleeping Beauty Blu-ray. How about you?
Will interactive features entice you into buying Blu-ray Discs? What features would you like to see? Leave us your thoughts below.