Sony's Blu-ray DVD technology is going head to head with the Toshiba-developed HD-DVD system, and many analysts expect a hardware war similar to that fought by VHS and beta videotape systems 25 years ago. With some studios committed to Blu-ray and others to HD-DVD, the conflict is likely to be an expensive gamble for many within the adult industry and throughout the mainstream entertainment world.
Both systems use blue lasers - instead of the less-tightly focused red lasers of conventional DVD players - to read disks. This development gives disks much more storage capacity, creating a sharper, more-detailed image and making room for more interactive features and stronger anti-piracy protection.
While Blu-ray is a brand new format requiring a completely different manufacturing process from that of conventional DVDs, HD-DVD represents an improvement in the existing technology and calls for much less retooling. Talks between Sony and Toshiba to develop a common blue-laser DVD format broke down last spring.
The major Hollywood studios, electronics manufacturers and computer companies, along with software giant Microsoft and chip maker Intel, have divided more or less evenly between committing to one next-gen format or the other. While neither Sony nor Toshiba has set a firm date for rollout, Toshiba has been publicizing introduction of its first HD-DVD players in the first quarter of 2006, and Sony has promised the premiere of the new PlayStation, which incorporates Blu-ray, this spring.
As usual, the porn industry is ahead of the technology curve. Even though hi-def systems aren't yet available, much of the adult video industry has begun shooting in hi-def. The switch has meant an investment in new cameras and a move to longer shooting schedules to accommodate the need for more subtle lighting, but by all accounts the enhanced images provided by hi-def make up for the impact on the bottom line.
"You feel like you're part of the action," Joone, founder and director of Digital Playground, said. "You get lost in it."
"If you're going to shoot beautiful women, hi-def just works," said Rick Davis, a director for Cherry Boxxx Pictures, which made the switch in 2004.
Mark Stevens, buyer and marketing director for AdultDVDNow.com, estimated that 30-50 percent of the studios he buys from are shooting in hi-def. In the adult industry, most larger operations that have switched to hi-def have adopted Blu-ray, while smaller outfits prefer the less expensive HD-DVD.
Joone told XBiz that Blu-ray gets his vote for its superior storage capacity - up to 25GB, compared to 15GB on an HDDVD - which provides more security against piracy.
"HD-DVD is a little step [up] in storage," he said. "Blu- Ray is a big step, and we need to take a big step."
Blu-ray also gives the viewer a noticeably better image than HD-DVD. In a side-by-side comparison of the two formats conducted several months ago, 58 percent of 1,200 consumers preferred Blu-ray, 16 percent favored HD-DVD, and 26 percent were undecided.
Blu-ray's greater sophistication, however, may not do it any favors in the marketplace. Because producing Blu-ray requires extensive retooling of equipment, Blu-ray disks are up to 10 times as expensive to produce as HD-DVD discs. That suggests a high price tag at the retail level, at least initially, though Sony and other Blu-ray supporters insist that any price gap will be temporary. AdultDVDNow's Stevens said he doesn't expect retail prices for hi-def disks to be raised more than a few dollars - the amount studios will need to pass along due to higher production costs.
Hardware that supports Blu-ray also will be more expensive too and is likely to remain so. Steve Colky, video merchandising manager for Ken Crane's, a California-based high-end video chain, told XBiz that because they're based on the existing technology, HD-DVD players "by definition" will play older DVDs, but Blu-ray units will require a second head for conventional DVD, adding to production costs.
It appears that consumers are more interested in price and convenience than in achieving the best possible picture. A JupiterResearch survey published in August found that a majority of online consumers cited low cost and backward compatibility as the DVD features they'll consider most important if they switch to hi-def.
"If HD is 10 times better than DVD and Blu-ray is 20 times better, most consumers can't tell the difference," Colky said.
It will probably take a few years to find out which next-gen format will prevail. "Everybody's waffling," Colky said. "We're going to have to cater to both."