Feb 28 2010

Beyond Blu-ray: Movies On A Necklace?

B-Floppy became A-Floppy, which gave way to CDs, then DVDs, and now Blu-ray. The future of digital media seems to be in online video streaming, but could there be a market for hard-copy transfer? What format would it take?  The answer is both surprising and entertaining (pun intended).

To begin, let’s take a look at where Blu-ray stands now.  Partially because of its digital rights management technology, Blu-ray Disc recently won the media format war against HD DVDs.  The former offers three layers of protection (AACS, BD+, and BD-ROM Mark) whereas the latter offered only one (AACS), prompting major movie studios such as Warner Bros. and 20th Century Fox to announce exclusive support of the more secure Blu-ray Disc.  Also important to its success, the standard Blu-ray Disc holds 25GB of data on a single layer, enough for four hours of high-definition video in MPEG-4 compression (HD DVDs could hold only 15GB, standard DVDs only 4.7GB).

Perhaps the most annoying aspect of any data disc from a consumer standpoint is its lack of durability.  While flash memory cards and USB sticks can be taken anywhere without fear of being ruined from dust or scratches, discs tend to “die” rather quickly with rough treatment (and buffers promising to fix the problem often make it worse!).


“Drive Me Wild” by Steven Brisson

So why hasn’t digital media shifted entirely to flash memory?  Until recently, flash hasn’t had the capacity to store much high-definition video.  While 256GB flash media has since been introduced, production of 16GB memory cards wasn’t even feasible until 2004.  The much more convenient USB flash drives of 32GB are just now reaching the $70 range.  This means that a Blu-ray-size USB drive loaded with a movie would cost between $70-$100 a pop!

The solution to this problem comes from Chris Armstrong, founder of PortoMedia.  Armstrong developed the idea of a kiosk full of movies (Redbox, anyone?) stored in digital format.  Upon paying for a rental, the consumer docks a flash memory device from the company and downloads the rented (or purchased) movie.  At current market prices, this makes the flash model more accessible.  One purchase of a large-capacity yet small and durable flash storage device will serve to transfer rentals and purchases to home computers.  PortoMedia’s solution also solves flash media’s second problem: data transfer rates.  According to a CNET article:


The key to the service is a proprietary USB interface that transfers data at a faster average rate than standard USB devices. A standard-definition movie can be loaded onto a memory device in 8 to 60 seconds, depending on the length and chip speed. High-definition movies, which won’t be available initially on the service, can be downloaded in 18 to 45 seconds.


With the rapid pace of advances in flash technology, you can expect this service and its components to become cheaper and cheaper.  It is also already popular to wear USB flash drives on lanyards around the neck, so when a service like this becomes popular, consumers will be wearing their rented movies home!  No more discs to crack, scratch, or lose between the seats of your car.

I can’t see at this point whether PortoMedia’s product will compete with, replace, or merge with the currently dominant Redbox, but a confrontation of flash-vs-disc is coming.  A strong influence on PortoMedia’s success will be the support of the major movie studios.  Focusing on product security, they previously tipped the disc format balance toward Blu-ray.  Can flash media offer the same?


“It will never be perfect, but we are going to make it as hard as we can,” he said. Movies rented from the service will comply with Microsoft DRM standards. (Kanellos)


Assuming the kinks are worked out, would you rent or purchase your movies via flash drives at in-store kiosks?  Do you think it would still be convenient to do so if streaming videos online were also an option?

Comment and share to keep the discussion going!

Read the full featured CNET article here.

Photo credits: Blu-ray Disc player, courtesy of Xilisoft.com
Flash Bling, courtesy of RogueSun Media


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