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technofile  by al fasoldt
Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology 
Simple gray rule

DVD recorders are a long way off 

Technofile for Sept. 21, 1997

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1997, The Syracuse Newspapers

Don't even think of getting rid of your VCR. You probably won't be able to replace it with a laser-disk recorder for at least two years.

Even though you can already buy a state-of-the-art Digital Versatile Disk (DVD) player for your computer or as a separate unit that hooks up to your TV, no one sells a DVD recorder. The major Japanese manufacturers can't even agree on how to make one.

The problem of finding a way to record on a DVD disk is turning out to be a major embarrassment for Sony, Toshiba and other leading consumer electronics companies.

The DVD, which originally stood for "Digital Video Disk,'' provides high-quality pictures and sound on a disk that can play for an hour or two in its standard guise and for half the day in a long-playing version. DVDs are the same size as CDs, and most of the new DVD players can handle both.

Recordable DVDs have been developed as prototypes, but the design has changed many times. No standard method of making a DVD recording has been adopted, despite an apparent agreement on the technology a year ago. In the time since then, engineers at different companies have come up with proposed improvements that will need many months just for testing. This means DVD recorders won't be available until early 1999 at the earliest, with the most likely introduction date being the fall of that year.

What went wrong?

On the engineering side, the goal of producing affordable DVD recorders has proven elusive because of the need for very-high-frequency lasers that can operate safely in the home. Lasers used in CD players and CD-ROM recorders don't need to work at these high frequencies, but ones that will work in DVD recorders must have very short wavelengths—and this means they must operate at very high frequencies. These short wavelengths allow the DVD recorder to store far more on a DVD than could be recorded on a CD.

On the political side, makers of DVD equipment delayed the introduction of DVD players to placate the movie industry, which could lose millions of dollars a year if DVD owners copy movies onto video tape for their friends and neighbors. The delay was all for effect and did nothing to help, because anyone can copy a DVD recording onto tape. But copy-protection circuits will curtail direct digital copies onto DVD recorders if present plans are followed.

In another DVD development, a technology called Zoom TV could bring pay-per-play rentals to the home DVD market.

Zoom TV is based on a simple idea: You pay a small rental fee for each playing of a DVD disk. Rental customers would take home a DVD movie that can only be played on a Zoom-compatible player supplied by the rental store. The Zoom player would have a built-in modem that makes a toll-free call to a monitoring service. The call would confirm how many viewings you have left. If you've paid for two and are trying to view the movie a third time, for example, the player would stop working.

Few people outside the entertainment industry know much about Zoom TV, which reportedly is being backed by Circuit City, an electronics retailer, and a few other companies. Stories in trade papers say the Disney organization may become a partner in the Zoom TV business if it gets backing from enough other companies.

Zoom TV is just an idea at the present, and I'd be surprised if it actually comes to market. But it may signal the beginning of an era five or more years from now in which "smart disks'' could keep track of how many times they've been played using built-in microchips. This would work better and would be cheaper than modem-equipped players, since the circuits in "smart disks'' could come to life from the spinning motion inside any standard player.

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