Coming To A Screen Near You

May 24, 1999|By Doug Bedell | Doug Bedell,Dallas Morning News

If one ending to the movie "Austin Powers" weren't enough, home theater viewers can now select from three. They can also watch "Contact" with a relaxed Jodie Foster occasionally zooming into their living rooms to offer background on key scenes. Or they can completely warp the ultimate lesson of "Ronin" with a flick of the remote.

Digital video disc, or DVD, technology, long delayed by movie industry copyright worries and its manufacturers' battle over formats with Circuit City's Divx, is finally leaping into America's living rooms, computer stations and sound systems.

Digital versatile discs -- often called digital video discs by the video industry -- are a supercompact disc with the capacity to hold up to 17 gigabytes of data on a platter the size of a CD, which can store a mere 650 megabytes.

Given that kind of capacity, experts have little doubt that DVD-ROM will one day replace CD-ROM as the standard for personal computers. Already, major PC manufacturers such as Dell and Gateway are including DVD drives as options.

But it is DVD's ability to instantly display rich, wide-screen video undergirded with quaking, six-speaker Dolby surround-sound that captures imaginations in Hollywood and beyond.

"It's almost like dragging the guts of a big-time movie theater into your house," says Rene Rodriguez, a 23-year-old college student who was shopping for new releases at an Arlington, Texas, electronics store. "Well, actually it's better. You can't change the endings there. You can at my house."

The first generation of DVD television set-top players hit the stores three years ago, but Hollywood was hung up in technicalities. Title selection was spotty, and big business infighting hindered the format's expansion.

First, the major movie studios couldn't decide whether DVD could be made secure enough for release. They wrangled to make sure reproductions couldn't be mass-produced, diluting their share of the booty.

"They'd been hyping DVD for years before it came to market," says Tom Bonjour, owner of Sound Idea in Arlington, Texas. "The lawyers and all these side issues got involved. You can't record a movie off your DVD player, thanks to all that."

Another industry issue kept pouring cement into DVD's shoes: Circuit City and a California law firm broke from the pack to create a hybrid, Digital Video Express -- the name of a technology and the partnership. Divx, as they're called, gobbled up commitments from corporations such as DreamWorks and Disney.

Consumers buy a film on Divx. After the first time they push the play button, they have 48 hours to watch the movie as many times as they want. They also can renew the time period for a small fee or pay more for unrestricted viewing.

Consumers were bombarded with the fact that Divx-enhanced machines can play regular DVDs but DVD machines can't play Divx. Consequently, they worried that DVD technology would become outmoded prematurely. Remember laser discs?

But the sideshows seem to be fading. Purchasers of the first DVD set-top players once had to rely on stores that sold the players for disc rentals. Now, more than 2,500 movies are available for sale or rent from sources including Blockbuster and Hollywood Video, as well as on the Internet.

"People have been clamoring for this product," Bonjour says. "It was three to five years into the [music] CD's existence before we saw demand like this. There's never been anything like it."

DVD can be many things to many people. Audiophiles are mesmerized by its reproduction of nuance. Several manufacturers have leaped in with audio-only decks that can expand existing home sound centers.

An industry consortium has developed a way to prevent illegal copying of DVD audio, removing a barrier to its adoption as a new music format. Top music companies such as EMI Group, Sony, Bertelsmann AG's BMG, Seagram's Universal Music Group and Time Warner's music unit now back the technology.

Computer aficionados have been astounded by the storage possibilities for data. Because DVD players can play regular CD-ROMs, many listeners are upgrading their computer drives with DVD kits, then playing movies either on their PC monitors or through TV screens.

Drives for DVD-RAM, another offshoot, have begun making their appearance at retail outlets. These computer-controlled machines, available for as little as $500, can record and re-record data on DVDs. However, these DVDs won't play in set-top boxes or handle multimedia tasks.

An endearing quality of the DVD TV player is its ability to zip to specific scenes. Tight compression of the data makes any search a quick one. DVD renters and buyers can also benefit from Hollywood's eccentricities. Outtakes, alternative endings, "directors' cuts," actor background features and narratives such as Jodie Foster's in "Contact" add adventure to the viewing experience.

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