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techTALK

By Baratunde R. Thurston

If you hate the feeling that your computer is continuously made obsolete by changes in technology, or if you find it disturbing that our present television technology will be completely usurped by 2003 due to high definition digital television, then today's topic is bound to send you into a rage rivaling that of Achilles.

Later this month, you can expect the first market release of DVD technology. This new technology, if successful in capturing the hearts and dollars of consumers, may revolutionize the way we store data and assimilate VCRs, audio CDs, laserdiscs and CD-ROM disks faster than the Borg in a Federation colony.

While CD-ROM drive speeds keep increasing, the storage capacity of the disk itself has been limited to 650 megabytes for years. However, the first wave of DVD-ROM disks will be able to hold 4.7 gigabytes of data--that's more than seven times that of today's CD-ROM disks--using one side of a single-layered disk.

To achieve this expanded storage capacity, DVD takes advantage of advances that allow more data to be written to a smaller area of the disk.

With the addition of a second layer, the disks will hold 8.5 gigabytes. A double-sided, double-layered disk will store 17 gigabytes of data.

As with CD-ROM disks, DVD disks will first take the form of read-only devices (DVD-ROM). However, manufacturers are already working on a rewritable version of the disk (DVD-RAM) that will allow you to store and erase data from the disk just as with current floppy and hard disks. As a result, CDs would become a more attractive data backup option and there would be consolidation of multi-disk packages, such as electronic encyclopedias and phone directories.

But the increased data storage capacity itself does not account for most of the industry's excitement over DVD.

What has captured most people's attention is the application of this new technology to the entertainment field in the form of enhanced video and audio quality.

The expanded storage capacity will allow for an entire film to fit on one audio CD-sized disk with subtitles in more than 30 languages, resizable viewing areas and multiple camera angles.

DVD utilizes a new video compression method called MPEG-2. In addition, DVD uses AC-3 audio coding--the same coding used by Dolby Sound--to offer significant enhancements in audio, such as the inclusion of different language tracks on one disk.

The increased capacity itself could do away with the CD-Audio box set as we know it--just imagine having those four Bob Marley CDs on one disk.

Of course, as with any newly-emerging technology, there will be problems. But the first of these was solved before consumers had to deal with it.

Learning from the Betamax vs. VHS wars in the video market, DVD manufacturers have agreed to a single set of specifications. Also, many Hollywood fears of pirating have been addressed with the announcement of a uniform copyright protection standard.

A more pressing question for manufacturers is whether the technology will take a more firm hold in DVD players that would replace CD-Audio players and VCRs, or DVD-ROM drives for computers that are backward compatible with current CD-ROM disks.

But what determines a product's success before all these aspects? Price. If Phillips and Sony stick to to their announced intentions, then DVD-ROM drives will be offered in new computers at only $500 to $600--a low figure compared to the plus $1,000 price tag of the first CD players.

If you like to live on the edge of technology's current, then DVD may be for you.

-Baratunde R. Thurston '99 is the Claverly Hall User Assistant for HASCS, a member of the Harvard Computer Society and a Crimson editor.

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