Show Report


(Video Software Dealer Association)

Las Vegas, Nevada

July, 2003



Microsoft, Samsung, and Joe Kane came together in the baking sun of a July desert to demonstrate what the future of HDTV can be. But first, here is a little info about what led up to this teamwork.

Joe Kane Cares About Video Quality.

Joe Kane has spent the last few years working on Digital Video Essentials (DVE), a test and calibration program that is going to replace Joe’s earlier work, Video Essentials (VE). DVE will break new ground in many areas, particularly in that it is one of the first video programs to be mastered completely at 1080p/24 (the top HDTV resolution at 24 frames per second), exercising the full resolution and dynamic range of the format. The 1080p/24 master (studio D5 tape format, recorded at 270 Mbps) will be down-converted to various resolutions for different releases. There are DVE D-Theater D-VHS tapes available right now at both 1080i/60 and 720p/60. The DVE DVD at 480i/60 and 576i/50 are supposed to ship in September, 2003.

DVE video material was shot with a Panasonic variable shutter-rate video camera. It was set for 720p/24. That material was up-converted to 1080p/24. The film segments were shot by Allen Daviau and transferred to 1080p/24 on a Spirit Datacine.

The material on DVE, a combination of test signals, computer generated video, and real world footage, is intended to help the industry and consumers with the transition to HDTV by showing what the format is really capable of and what weaknesses exist in current formats, playback systems, and display devices.

Samsung, Can You See What I See?

Joe began to find those weaknesses quickly. Even the best display devices were having trouble with his material at 720p, let alone 1080p. While producing DVE, Joe was also working with Samsung on their next generation DLP projector. Joe started using his DVE material from the D-5 master to work with Samsung to improve their new unit, the SP-H700A Home Theater HD2 DLP Projector. With Joe’s help, Samsung now has a product that is capable of displaying even Joe’s most demanding material from DVE. The Samsung is currently one of the best, most accurate, display devices you can buy.

Is D-Theater the Best High Definition Consumer Source?

Aside from all the problems he found in the production process and display devices, Joe also discovered issues with JVC’s D-Theater High Definition tape format. The JVC D-Theater VCR stores HDTV material in MPEG-2 at a data rate up to 28.2 Mbps (mega-bits per second). When JVC encoded DVE for D-Theater at both 1080i and 720p/60, Joe immediately noticed some MPEG-type issues as well as analog output performance problems that needed addressing. In one digitally generated scene, where a rose colored flower is growing rapidly, the smaller petals showed an unnatural stepped motion and vertical artifacts on D-Theater instead of a fluid noise-free waving motion visible on the D5. Similar noise and artifacts were to be found in other parts of the graphics. In real world video, there was noise surrounding moving detail such as the Ferris wheel cutting across a static sky. In a live scene, fine beads of sweat on an actress’s face that are clearly visible in the D5 master were not visible in either the 1080i or the 720p D-Theater tapes. In several other live scenes, quantization (blockiness) noise was visible on the D-Theater tapes, particularly in scenes with lots of white or other light colors.

D-Theater also failed some of the test signals. The test signal that the D-Theater tapes fail the worst is a pixel phase pattern that consist of three groups of patches: the first group has two on, two off, the second has one pixel off (black) and another on (white) alternating throughout the patch, and the third has three on, three off (this test signal is resolution specific, i.e., this signal on the 720p tape was originated at 720p).

The results of this test signal on D-Theater depend on how the various components in the signal chain are connected. Joe found the best results when he connected the D-Theater VCR to a Samsung SIR-165 HDTV Tuner via 1394 and used the DVI output of the Samsung to connect to the display.

With this setup, the test signals were okay on the outer edges, but were completely washed out as indicated by a grey blotch in the middle. When Joe connected the JVC D-Theater’s analog component outputs directly to the projector, the test pattern didn't show up. Some faint traces of it were visible, but it was more than 90% gone. The component connections also showed significantly more noise in the entire picture. Indeed, it is very clear here that DVI is the preferred connection for HDTV.

Given that JVC has billed the D-Theater format as the best thing for HDTV, and some have compared it to the D5 format, it is quite disappointing that it has these problems. One would expect an expensive new format like D-Theater to be able to deal with the current high end of video and film production.

Not one to be content with anything less than perfection, Joe immediately set out to find a way to deliver DVE that would preserve the quality of the original.

Microsoft Gets into The Fray

In May of 2003, Microsoft worked with Artisan to release "Terminator 2, the Extreme Edition" (T2EE). The package has two discs: one is a standard 480i/60 DVD from a new 1080p transfer of the original film, the other is a Windows Media 9 (WM9) version of the movie at 1080p/24. The Windows Media 9 version of the movie will not play in a regular DVD player; it will only play in a Windows Media PC (with at least a 3 GHz Pentium 4). You can play it in a regular PC with WM9 if it has a 3 GHz P4, 800 MHz front-side-bus, and a good 8X AGP video card such as GeForce FX-5600. Otherwise, frames will be dropped. You also have to set your screen resolution to 1920 x 1080 for 16:9 monitors, or 1920 x 1440 for 4:3 monitors. With this release, Microsoft has leapt ahead of all competing HD-DVD formats by actually releasing an example disc to consumers.

Microsoft is making a major investment in the WM9 format. Their Digital Media Division (DMD) is loaded with PhDs. Clearly, Microsoft has bigger hopes for WM9 than streaming web video. With the kind of investment they are making, it is clear they hope to make it the industry standard for HD video encoding. But, even if it does not become the standard, it will definitely be a viable alternative that is already bypassing the turtle speed progress of other industry giants in giving us a usable HD-DVD format.

The current DVD format that we all use today has a maximum data transfer rate of 9.8 Mbps. Artisan encoded T2EE around 6 Mbps, so HD-DVD for the masses may be closer than we think.

In February, 2003, Microsoft approached Joe and asked if would be interested in releasing DVE in WM9. Joe provided Microsoft with two D5s in late June, a 720p/60 and a 1080p/24. Microsoft encoded DVE at 1080p/24 and 720p/24 using WM9 at 9 Mbps for the VSDA.

At VSDA Home Entertainment, July, 2003, It All Came Together.

At the VSDA Home Entertainment 2003 show in Las Vegas, Microsoft, Samsung, and Joe Kane Productions got together to show what can be accomplished when you cooperate. In a dark room, they had the new Samsung projector connected to a Windows Media PC with DVE encoded at 720p/24 in WM9 at 9 Mbps and the JVC D-Theater VCR connected via 1394 to a Samsung SIR-165 Tuner for MPEG decoding and the 720p D-Theater DVE tape. Both systems were connected to the Samsung projector via DVI.

The results were impressive. The D-Theater tape showed all of the problems described above. When they switched over to component video out of the JVC deck, things were much worse. On the other hand, the WM9 encoded content was clear and essentially artifact free. WM9 is definitely a winner. This is really significant because the data rate that WM9 was encoded in will work with existing red laser DVD, meaning HD-DVDs could be produced immediately.

The only thing that is required for a DVD player manufacturer like Samsung to make a DVD player that will also play WM9 based HD-DVDs is a new chipset that will decode WM9 format HD video. Upcoming chipsets from Sigma Designs and others add WM9 HD video decoding to their existing MPEG-2 capability.

Is WM9 the Future of HDTV?

Joe is so enthusiastic about WM9 that he is going to release DVE in WM9 at both 720p/24 and 1080p/24 in January of 2004. The Samsung representatives at the show told me that they are working on a standalone DVD player for the WM9 format that they hope to release by January as well. Keep in mind this means HD-DVD movies. It is big news. Microsoft is leaping out in front of the HD-DVD fray, and, unless the others move quickly, Microsoft could win the HD-DVD war before anyone else has a chance to make their next move.

Considering that Microsoft is also invested in media and cable companies, they can push for more content (HD-DVD movies) and delivery in WM9. A cable or satellite company could significantly increase the number of channels they are offering by going with a complete WM9 system. Another angle for Microsoft is the X-Box. They could potentially turn it into a home media center as a cable box and PVR that use WM9. There are many possibilities for Microsoft here, and considering their obvious commitment to video quality, the results are bound to be good for the consumer.

Naturally, the outcome of all this is based on politics. Will Microsoft's ready to go HD format be stifled by the good old boys who have been in this game from the start, and who probably don't like the idea of a software company - especially Microsoft - stealing their thunder? It will undoubtedly be a fight. I wish they would put it on HBO.


- Tod DeBie -

© Copyright 2003 Secrets of Home Theater & High Fidelity
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