Dynamic DVD

As streaming video has become more commonly available, it is now plausible to discuss offering a video interface to a website. A user could connect to a site using a video client and “navigate” on-line video content using a DVD-style user interface – video menus, highlighted on-screen buttons, fast-forward, subtitles. Alternately, such an interface could augment conventional TV broadcasts, offering a nightly news program with video hyperlinks to hours of detailed coverage of events we currently see only in sound bites.

The prospect is tantalizingly close. Anyone with a megabit Internet connection (cable or DSL) and a reasonably modern computer has a client system that can support this. Yet no Internet video clients (to my knowledge) can provide DVD-style interaction. And free software video production tools, while available, lag somewhat behind. Enough groundwork has probably been laid, though, to allow an interactive video client to be built.

Just as fifteen years ago the network provided FTP sites where users could download information piecemeal, so is the Internet’s current video offerings – a little bit here, a little bit there. Just as the World Wide Web melded the graphical user interface with a global data network, we can now contemplate melding the DVD user interface with the Internet to provide hyperlinked on-demand video.

What kind of new content could this support?

Consider, first, news service. Currently, we have traditional national and local news broadcasts, typically a half hour each in length, along with 24 hour cable news channels that basically repeat the same information over and over again, on roughly a half hour or hourly cycle. A news broadcast delivered using dynamic DVD, on the other hand, could be many hours in “length”, accessible via hyperlinks from a traditional half-hour summary. A report on the day’s political events in Washington could linked to full recordings of various speeches. Excepts from an interview could be linked to the full interview itself. A 30-second summary spot could be linked to an entire half-hour report on just that one subject. Weather reports could be hyperlinked together so that travelers could pick a city and see the local report for their destination.

Sporting events could be delivered using DVD’s largely overlooked ‘angle’ feature, which allows viewers to pick from one of up to nine different simultaneous video feeds, allowing viewer selection different camera angles on the event. Highlight footage to link into a recorded history of the entire game, and several different highlights could be made available for each game

And, of course, conventional DVDs could be delivered in this format.

Could the Internet actually delivery the performance needed to make such a system widely deployable? Unfortunately, the current answer is probably “no”. As I have discussed on this blog, caching and multicast are two critical technologies that the contemporary Internet is unable to support for fundamental technical reasons. Without caching and multicast, a video web could only work the way the World Wide Web works – by requiring each server to transmit the same data over and over again. With text and graphics, this is a nuisance. With video, it will probably be a show stopper.

A stopgap solution might be available by providing digital multicast feeds via cable TV. This would be a hybrid of conventional cable video broadcasts and cable Internet service. Using the same basic technology of cable Internet and 10-BROAD-36, a cable provider could broadcast one or more transmit-only digital channels (similar to HDTV). The difference would be that the digital signal would be in some kind of yet unspecified dynamic DVD format that would contain navigation information and be cached onto a set-top box.

What would be required to view dynamic DVD? Certainly a computer would work, but you could probably just build a DVD player with a built-in hard drive. Of course, a DVD player basically is a computer, so maybe the distinction isn’t that great. Instead of a computer that comes with a keyboard and a monitor, you could just build a computer with a standard TV video output and remote control input. In fact, I think I would favor this approach just for reasons of standardization.

So, using either the Internet or a enhanced digital cable TV feed, we could build either a Video Web, or at least provide a far superior NBC Nightly News.

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