From disc to device: Under Blu-ray's next Digital Bridge
Hollywood studios live in mortal fear of piracy, and nowhere is that fear more evident than when a customer tries to copy a movie bought, legally, to watch on another screen.
If I buy a $20 Blu-ray disc, I want to be able to watch that movie on my phone, or back it up to a hard drive so I don’t have to find the disc to watch it again.
To some extent, Digital Copy and Ultraviolet were an attempt to fix this issue with current Blu-ray discs. Now there’s a new disc format on the horizon called Ultra HD Blu-ray, or 4K Blu-ray. Perhaps coming as soon as the end of 2015, 4K Blu-ray players and discs offer improved picture and sound quality, supporting higher resolution, more contrast (in the form of HDR), a wider range of color and next-generation audio like Dolby Atmos and DTS:X.
The new disc format will also introduce a new disc-to-digital feature called Digital Bridge. Like Ultraviolet, it allows owners of the discs to “view their content across the range of in-home and mobile devices,” according to its creators. Many of the details are still sketchy, but here’s what we know.
Movie studios, when they dream at night of a perfect utopia, want you to pay (ideally a lot) every time you watch a movie.
Most customers, being not completely insane, want to pay once for a movie, and be able to watch it whenever and wherever we want. We have paid for something, so we “own” it. Renting is somewhere in the middle.
Ultraviolet was the cookie-crumb concession by the studios (well, most of them, anyway), to give us some ability to watch what we buy on something other than a TV connected to a disc player.
I’m guessing not a lot of people take advantage of (or even know about) Ultraviolet, since I’ve never been asked about it, and never gotten an email about it. That’s amazing to me, as I get email questions about everything, and Ultraviolet is about as poorly implemented a service as I’ve ever seen.
In theory, you get a code with the Blu-ray you buy that allows you to stream or download that same movie from a site like Vudu, M Go, Flixter and a few others. I won’t dig deep into all the ways they make this confusing for the customer, but lets just say that it generally works, once you figure it out and jump through all the hoops. You can stream it to your computer, download it to your mobile device, and so on.
So once you’ve registered the movie via Vudu or Ultraviolet, it is yours to watch anytime you want, though only through specific apps, and you can’t, say, load the movie on a thumb drive and watch it on your friend’s TV (unless she’s one of the 5 people you can add to your VUDU account).
There’s also a thing called Digital Copy, where you get an additional disc with the Blu-ray you buy that contains a file readable by iTunes (or other similar services) which can then be played on your various devices. Disney has their own version of all this, though it’s compatible with Vudu too. And the codes have expiration dates because…who knows.
The one thing (OK, one of the many things) missing from all this is that none of the copies are Blu-ray quality. Vudu’s HDX probably comes the closest, and on a phone or tablet screen, the lower quality isn’t a huge deal. If you’re holding these close enough to your face, maybe you will notice the poorer quality. Or maybe not.
So that’s how things stand now with Blu-ray discs. But what about the disc format of the future, Ultra 4K HD Blu-ray? Its creators have a bridge to sell you.
What is Digital Bridge?
Digital Bridge is a feature included on on the upcoming Ultra HD Blu-ray (“4KBD”) format that seems to be an extension on Ultraviolet. Some of the details on this are still vague, though, so we’ll have to wait to see if it’s as user-unfriendly as its predecessor.
What is clear is if you want to watch a copy of the movie on your phone/tablet, you’ll need to register the movie you buy first. After you register, you’ll be able to transfer a copy of the movie to a mobile device (phone/tablet), or a media player (presumably, like Roku). So far this is similar to Ultraviolet and/or Digital Copy.
The big change is you’ll be able to make a perfect bit-for-bit digital copy of your new 4KBD. In fact, as far as early reports show, any copy you make from the 4KBD has to be a bit-for-bit copy. The 4KBD players won’t be allowed to reduce the resolution.
So if you want to watch your new 4K movie on your tablet, it’s going to need lot of spare storage space. You’ll also be able to transfer the movie to a backup hard drive, which you should expect to fill up quickly.
Expect all this to be locked down tight. You’ll be able to watch the movie you buy, but you’re not going to be able to make additional copies for your friends, or, presumably, hand off the hard drive to your friend to play on his TV.
Why, a few months before release, are the details still vague? Well, it’s either they haven’t worked out the specifics, or more likely, they haven’t got all the major licensees (i.e., the studios) to sign off on it.
How well this all works, of course, remains to be seen. The fact that it’s part of the 4K Blu-ray specification at all shows that studios are listening to consumers, and trying to give them what they want, while not angering their shareholders. A delicate balance indeed.
Got a question for Geoff? First, check out all the other articles he’s written on topics such as why all HDMI cables are the same, LED LCD vs. OLED vs. Plasma, why 4K TVs aren’t worth it and more. Still have a question? Send him an email! He won’t tell you what TV to buy, but he might use your letter in a future article. You can also send him a message on Twitter @TechWriterGeoff or Google+.