Now, That's A Home Theater

You've nuked the popcorn, dimmed the lights, and packed your den with friends who share your passion for movies. Just before showtime, you slip what appears to be an ordinary five-inch compact disk into a slim black box that resembles a CD player or VCR. Someone presses a remote control and an explosive soundtrack grips the room. An instant later, your guests are having a close encounter on the big-screen TV with Arnold, Clint, or the Caped Crusader.

That was no ordinary compact disk, all right. It was a digital videodisk (sometimes called digital versatile disk), or DVD, a new format that backers say will enable consumers to watch movies at home as they were meant to be seen. DVD players will start at about $500, though legal and technical hurdles might delay their arrival until next year.

MULTILINGUAL. The first thing you'll notice about DVD is a bang-up digital soundtrack. Then there's a supersharp color picture that comes pretty darn close to a studio's master copy. In technical terms, a DVD can display up to 720 pixels per horizontal line vs. 320 for a standard VHS, though you'll need a high-end TV that can take advantage of the difference. A single-sided, single-layer DVD platter can contain 4.7 gigabytes of data, or more than the capacity of seven audio CDs or over 3,000 floppy disks. (And using both sides of the disk, developers can stuff in even more data.) That translates into about 133 minutes of video, which would cover roughly 95% of all new film releases.

What's more, the studios have the capability to load up to eight different audio language tracks and 32 subtitle tracks on one DVD. Hollywood can also record alternative versions of the same film on one disk, so parents might watch an "R" cut while using passwords to let the kids only take in an edited-down PG-13 version. The disks can display "multiple aspect ratios": The 4:3 or "pan and scan" ratio, which may chop off a third of the movie's picture on a standard TV, or the wide-screen, 16:9 "letterbox" ratio that duplicates the image in a theater. The disks might also hold movie scenes from multiple camera angles. As with CDs, consumers can get quick access to any part of the disks, which might cost as little as $20.

Where DVD gets more intriguing for film fanatics is in the kind of content that could eventually accompany a movie. A Clint Eastwood DVD might let fans call up a filmography of his acting and directing credits, clips cut from the theatrical release, or other behind-the-scenes footage. Such versions have been done for laserdisks.

For all its promise as a video playback machine, DVD probably has greater potential as a replacement for CD-ROMs. A DVD-ROM disk not only takes advantage of DVD's vast storage capabilities but is much faster than most current CD-ROM drives. And people will be able to watch full-screen movies on their personal computers.

A number of software developers are working on reference and entertainment DVD-ROM titles. Digital Directory Assistance in Bethesda, Md., has already released a DVD-ROM disk of its PhoneDisc PowerFinder, which contains 112 million telephone listings. The CD-ROM version of PowerFinder takes up six disks. Similarly, Tsunami Media claims its upcoming Silent Steel interactive movie will use a single DVD-ROM disk vs. four CD-ROMs. Tsunami CEO Ed Heinbockel expects the price of DVD-ROMs to be about the same as conventional CD-ROMs. Anyone who has already invested heavily in CD-ROMs can breathe a sigh of relief: DVD-ROM players will be able to handle CD-ROM software.

So how soon will DVD come to a home theater or PC near you? The movie studios, the PC industry, and consumer-electronics manufacturers are still grappling over technical and legal issues to prevent illicit copying of these digital disks, hurdles that might delay the DVD rollout until 1997. But such avid DVD backers as Toshiba, Panasonic, and Thomson Consumer Electronics are sticking to the fall 1996 time frame for a launch. "I believe we are very close," insists Craig Eggers, director of DVD marketing at Toshiba America Consumer Products.

The companies have already demonstrated impressive working DVD models. Thomson's RCA base DVD player will start at $499. A model with a universal remote and other features will cost $100 more. Toshiba has announced two models with suggested retail prices of $599 and $699. At the PC Expo trade show in New York in June, Panasonic and Toshiba displayed DVD-ROM units. Panasonic plans to market the drive in a DVD upgrade kit that might cost $500 to $700.

With all of the industry muscle behind DVD, it is only a matter of time before consumers get to render their own verdict on the new format. Their final thumbs up or thumbs down will determine whether or not DVD has one of those glorious Hollywood endings--or is a Tinseltown dud of extremely large proportions.