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Crave Talk: The fallen rise of high-definition video

High-definition video hasn't taken off as many had hoped, even though HD Ready TV sets have been hugely popular. Crave takes a look at the reasons why

It was supposed to be the awakening of a new era in entertainment history, but high-definition video seems to have overslept its alarm clock. HD Ready TV sets have been startlingly popular, but there's nothing to watch on them. Blu-ray and HD DVD could still be sleeping giants, but sales projections for 2006 have fallen drastically -- so why are next-generation players having such a nightmare?

The format war between Blu-ray and HD DVD is the main culprit. It's creating a gamble that most buyers are unwilling to take, especially as the stakes are high and the odds still seem evenly balanced. If history has taught us anything it's that only one format will be left with all the chips and early buyers could be left counting their losses from placing the wrong bet.

Widespread uncertainty isn't helping to quell these fears. A lack of knowledge amid extravagant hype means media reports are often aired above the safety net of scepticism. Technology itself isn't enough to entice buyers and marketing hasn't been aggressive or informative enough to create a catalyst.

The first players have been plagued by false starts, including changing standards, delayed releases and hardware glitches. Early adopters who've already been burnt by their enthusiasm for previously failed formats, such as Laserdisc and Betamax, are now holding back. This means that hi-def video is going to take longer to reach consumers at large -- and that's only going to stretch out the stalemate between competing formats.

While high definition offers obvious improvement, it isn't necessarily the quantum leap in technology that many expected. It's not like the arrival of CDs and DVDs, which brought an entirely new technology and more pronounced improvement in quality. Most people have only just become accustomed to DVD and the more easily available step up in performance granted by hi-def displays and upscaling DVD players seems to have satisfied them for the time being.

True hi-def content is also relatively scarce, as greedy and lethargic film studios only appear to be releasing uninspiring titles and at a price point that's far more than typical DVDs.

There were high hopes that the arrival of games consoles sporting hi-def disc drives would spark interest in the same way that the PlayStation 2 did for DVDs. The PS3 with its integrated Blu-ray has stalled badly, however, and missed its slot for a Christmas launch in Europe.

Finally, there's been a shift in interest among early adopters from high-quality movies and programmes towards the interactivity, convenience and convergence offered by user-generated content (such as YouTube and MySpace). This is going to lead to an increase in paid-for downloadable material on the Internet. Microsoft and Apple are already implementing services that will eventually offer consumers loads more standard-definition content via the Net.

It could be a couple of years before all these issues are resolved and by that time prices will have fallen, hybrid models may be introduced or there could be an all-new technology in town. Until then, when it comes to new hi-def formats, keep your hand on your wallet and your money in your pocket. -Richard Arrowsmith