Will Blu-ray be the Last Physical Medium in Home Theater?

For my entire adult life, physical media has ruled the home-entertainment realm. 5/16/2011 8:55 AM Eastern

Will Blu-ray be the Last Physical Medium in Home Theater?

May 16, 2011 12:55 PM, By Jason Bovberg

For my entire adult life, physical media has ruled the home-entertainment realm. I'm a child of the 1970s and 1980s, when we consumed such odd media as laser discs, beta and VHS tapes, and even 8mm and 16mm film. It seemed only natural (and very satisfying) to evolve through the 1990s into small-disc media inspired by the revolutionary CD. I remember seeing my first DVD and thinking, "That's it! That is what I've been waiting for! This is the media format that will reign forever!" Naturally, that wasn't the case, and soon we saw a yearning in the market for even higher resolution, evolving to the dubious benefits of the SuperBit DVD and then finally to the high-resolution HD DVD and Blu-ray formats. When Blu-ray ultimately claimed dominance in the market, it wasn't long before the market wanted to shift again—and rather abruptly. We're now facing a rather gigantic evolutionary precipice, and we're wondering, "Is Blu-ray it? The final physical medium? If so, what comes next?"

There's actually a sense of desperation in the market right now, as far as this consumer can see. Can you feel it? The high-definition disc got off to a late start, thanks in part to the format war a few years back, but even so, Blu-ray experienced a pleasant surge of initial excitement. To many comsumers, Blu-ray felt like the perfecting of the DVD. And at least for the past couple years, it has delivered on that promise, standing tall in a market that was, at long last, valuing the highest levels of AV quality. But now a couple of factors are threatening to prematurely topple Blu-ray from its lofty throne, and you can sense Blu-ray's desperation: Prices are dropping like stones. Even brand-new discs are being released at prices that are 60 percent off retail. (Recently, the Criterion Collection has offered unprecedented deep-discount sales on its Blu-ray catalog.) And catalog titles are dropping below $10 regularly, and sometimes below $5. Discs are sitting on shelves—in both brick-and-mortar and virtual stores—just begging you to buy them.

The first factor contributing to tremors in the Blu-ray world is its own schizophrenia. Blu-ray has never seemed to know what to do with itself. To us techies, the value is inherent in the higher storage capabilities: Let's face it, that's one spectacular AV presentation. But to the average consumer, Blu-ray has never truly differentiated itself from DVD. Specifically, it has never really carried through on its more added-value, wow-factor promises—notably, all the potential wrapped up in its Internet connectivity. Although a few studios have half-heartedly offered interesting web features—such as the ability to download bonus extras, watch future content such as movie trailers, and browse for related stuff—we haven't seen anything that's truly exciting and widespread. It's not for lack of trying. Some studios, such as Disney, have tried to generate a lot of enthusiasm about the capabilities of BD Live, but consumers haven't completely embraced them. Perhaps the efforts are coming too late. When it comes to interactivity, after all, HD DVD had the edge, but we all know the fate of that format. And perhaps the high-resolution content, in the end, just takes too long to download. But what about low-bandwidth features such as cast/crew filmographies in sync with IMDB? Or streaming audio commentaries with fans?

Will Blu-ray be the Last Physical Medium in Home Theater?

May 16, 2011 12:55 PM, By Jason Bovberg

Beyond its paucity of compelling web-enabled features, Blu-ray also seems now to be scrambling to keep up with the already-fading 3D craze, and the result is that it has taken its eye off the ball. Just as 3D has always been a gimmicky fad in public theaters, so shall it remain, for now, in the home theater. Nevertheless, Blu-ray spent a lot of time and effort—still is, in fact—trying to thrill home audiences with comin’-at-ya technology, and by doing so it has splintered what should be a narrower, more compelling focus.

And that lack of focus opens the door to the other, more pernicious factor: the incredible rise of media streaming and rental services. In my home, we are suddenly and rather deeply involved with media streaming through both Netflix and Comcast On Demand. No more than a week after implementing Netflix in our home-entertainment system, in fact, my kids had completely forgotten about our rather substantial “family movies” DVD collection and had switched over to the streaming mentality, ready at any moment to fire up the Nintendo Wii and choose from the vast selection of kids programming. DVDs and Blu-rays had suddenly become a giant inconvenience. Even those movies we already have on disc, they’d rather access through Netflix!

I’m an aging technophile, so I don’t see myself making so quick a transition, but I do appreciate convenience as much as the next guy. I already make heavy use of the DVR, which gives me the convenience of fast-forwarding through annoying commercials on broadcast TV. And I appreciate the ease with which I can call up a favorite film or TV show from Netflix’s extensive and growing selection. But I still place tremendous value on my DVD/Blu-ray collection. If nothing else, these are my backup media for entertainment I might eventually store on my PC. And they’ll almost always play perfectly, compared with streaming media that sometimes experience bandwidth issues. But I also realize that I’m increasingly in the minority with my physical-medium opinions. And data pipes and streaming capacities will only grow larger.

Given the near ubiquitous nature of these kinds of subscription services, what could possibly be the next physical medium? The fact that 3D Blu-ray isn’t exactly thriving leads me to think it won’t be a disc. A USB key? A card with a magnetic strip? More likely, physical media will continue to fade. I can now imagine my daughters growing into a world that contains no physical media. That reality was easy to imagine with music, isn’t quite as easy with video content, and remains most difficult with books. But at this point, anything is possible.

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