by Jesse Shanks
One of the hot topics in the realm of DVD is the inclusion of DVD-ROM content in disc extras. Some of the features that can be found on these discs include web links to online material, screenplay viewers, trivia games, photo galleries, desktop wallpaper and episode guides. A leader in the field of developing this technology on the personal computer is InterActual Technologies of San Jose, CA. dOc conducted an interview with John Sheppard, Marketing Manager, about InterActual Technologies and DVD-ROM content and where the potentials could lead.
InterActual Technologies continues to pioneer DVD-ROM content and has created web-enabled material for such discs as Planet of the Apes 2001, The Best of Friends Volumes 3&4, Dr. Seuss' How The Grinch Stole Christmas, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and Rush Hour 2. The company was founded in 1995 and created a video sequencer and screensaver program called VideoSaver’Ñ¢. Building on their experience, InterActual developed the technology to "web enable" DVDs though their PCFriendly software platform. Millions of disc have been distributed utilizing PCFriendly and its successor Interactual Player. Released in 2000, Interactual Player 2.0, added features that enable new kinds of DVD bonus material and allowed developers to create a wrapping "skin." With word that home set top players are headed toward including the capability of displaying this content away from the currently necessary personal computer with a DVD-ROM drive, all signs point to an explosion of new features and capabilities.
dOc: Any hot upcoming releases to talk about that are not listed on the web site?
JS: Our policy is to not comment about projects in development... the title owner controls information releases.
dOc: What is the single, coolest fact about the InterActual Player 2.x that most people don't know about?
JS: Bonus content originally developed for use with InterActual PCFriendly software is forward compatible with InterActual Player software. When an InterActual PCFriendly title is inserted in a PC DVD-ROM drive, the user should answer "no" to the prompt to install InterActual PCFriendly’Äîinstead the content can be accessed using InterActual Player, while providing an improved user interface and improved system compatibility.
dOc: What was the most satisfying project to work on for the InterActual team?
JS: InterActual has multiple resources used at each stage of the project, so identifying the 'most satisfying' would have to be on an individual basis’Äînot practical here. Generally, the projects that push the envelope are normally more exciting to work on... and they normally result in improved sales for the studio.
dOc: Was The Matrix the most important release in the history of InterActual or has a newer effort supplanted it?
JS: The Matrix was certainly a milestone. Not only was it an epic title, but the DVD-ROM material was excellent and subsequent promotional events extended the experience and usefulness of the disc. More recent milestone titles include Star Wars: Episode I (which leveraged disc ownership to allow access to locked content on the Web), and Shrek (which pushed the envelope in sheer volume of content and interactivity, including the re-voice tool). New Line Home Entertainments' new Infinifilm series also has additional online content accessible only through the DVD.
dOc: How successful is your developer program?
JS: Inventor Connection has been very successful for InterActual... this members-only online community delivers a core set of tools, information, sample code, and tips & tricks to developers of DVD bonus content. Inventor Connection delivers the information a developer needs to be both autonomous and efficient at building an InterActual Player-compatible title.
dOc: What is the most interesting enhanced feature that has been dreamed up but not used yet?
JS: [smiles] We charge money for that answer.
dOc: What kind of DVD-ROM material is on The Best of Friends Volumes 3&4?
JS: I popped Volume 3 in my PC, and found a nice DVD-ROM menu with background audio track and links to: Online Events, the Friends Website, a Warner DVD Sampler, the Warner Studio Store, Warner Bros. Online, Warner Home Video, Entertaindom.com, Play Episodes (DVD-VIDEO content) and InterActual's consumer support site.
dOc: One genre that seems lacking in InterActual's showcase is sports discs. Are there any possibilities in this area, which seems a type that would lend itself nicely to DVD-ROM content?
JS: Sports is an excellent genre for DVD, and extending the experience by adding bonus content in the ROM space and on the Web is a natural progression. The primary use of InterActual software and services to date has been the distribution of movies for home entertainment. Many other uses are growing, and will be encouraged through improved access to equipment, software, and cost-effective media.
dOc: Has InterActual done any work in the area of educational or reference titles?
JS: Yes. Check out Planet Earth: Oceana by Ralph LaBarge. Also, see the article in DV, January 2002.
dOc: Have you made studies of user interactivity to determine the level of interest in special features for DVDs? If so, have these studies told us anything interesting about how people respond to the features?
JS: Such studies are in progress. We do know that we have had over 6 million unique users of PCFriendly and InterActual Player, so many people are enjoying the enhanced content. As there are 15 million DVD-ROM households (per Centris research), you can see that DVD-ROM is being used in a significant number of them.
dOc: What seems to be the biggest drag on the popularity of DVD-ROM content? Is it user interest, studio interest or something else?
JS: (smiles) Lack of editorial coverage on DVD-related Web sites. Seriously, there are some factors holding back DVD-ROM popularity. Influential people in the media who could promote DVD-ROM are often Mac users-and Macs can't normally play DVD-ROM content. DVD-ROM material is fairly new territory, as opposed to the movie, which is an existing known entity that is for the most part the same on DVD or VHS... you press play and watch. Lack of understanding... many people don't understand additional content is on the disc that's only available on a DVD-ROM. It's confusing that the DVD-Video space often includes a 'Bonus Features' section, and users may not realize even more bonus content is available on the PC. Since they don't know about the additional content, they may ignore their PC's DVD-ROM capability altogether.
dOc: With the general failure of such things as Interactive TV, what is the biggest argument in favor of interactivity on DVD-ROM beyond just the raw numbers of DVDs being shipped?
JS: For the consumer, the biggest argument today is entertainment. For the studio, the biggest argument is sales. One look at Shrek, and you'll understand what I mean... rent Shrek, and you get 1-3 days (typical rental) to play all the bonus content and games, but BUY Shrek and you can play the games and search the bonus material anytime. Compelling bonus content is cheap entertainment, and for many consumers who would rather buy the disc anyway, it's truly bonus.
dOc: What is your response to the continuing opinion that few users actually use the DVD-ROM content or even care about "extra" features, beyond their novelty?
JS: We are hearing (and seeing) the opposite... Mac users are a good example-many are crying foul because they want access to ROM features and can't get it.
dOc: CEO Todd Collart was quoted in an article in NewsFactor Network as confirming the DVD Forum interactivity specification initiative and saying that consumer DVD players with interactive capabilities are targeted for release by Christmas 2002. Has anything changed to alter that forecast?
dOc: Is there any conception of what such a player might be?
JS: DVD drive, http browser, more memory, modem/Ethernet, remote, TV-Out and Audio-Out.
dOc: How will such a device relate to current satellite systems like TiVo and UltimateTV?
JS: How they interact and/or converge in the future is speculative, but it is likely.
dOc: Are there any possibilities under consideration involving the new generation of game consoles, like PlayStation2 and Xbox, that feature DVD playback and Internet connections?
JS: Yes. See product information released by their respective companies.
dOc: Is InterActual still planning to bring its technology to audio CD?
JS: Yes, if there is demand.
dOc: Do you worry that Microsoft will add DVD playback to its Windows Media Player and eventually attempt to co-opt your business ˆ° la Netscape?
JS: Microsoft has shipped with a DVD navigator for over 3 years. WMP also supports DVD-Video playback. But our solutions are really targeted at content-owner control and content-owner created enhanced entertainment. Only our software can play the DVD-ROM enhancements on the disc and online.
dOc: It is interesting that your software is a free download or is installed by the first DVD that a user inserts that contains InterActual material; is there any plan to change to a pay model?
JS: No plan exists.
dOc: I noted that the "Studio Web Site" button does not go anywhere but to the InterActual site on any DVD I have checked. What is holding up the implementation of this feature?
JS: I cannot answer this question currently, but more details will follow when appropriate.
dOc: What is the biggest hold up in getting studios to implement or utilize these features, especially with the apparent pervasiveness of InterActual involvement in the production of DVDs with DVD-ROM material?
JS: InterActual Player was designed to accommodate future innovation in the DVD-ROM space, the most important feature being the primary content window. Because InterActual Player is a Web browser interface, most any function or feature available on the Web can be integrated into the DVD-ROM space on a disc. InterActual has also added the ability to embed DVD-Video in an HTML page, which allows Web content (HTML) and DVD-Video to be displayed in the same page with connectivity between the two elements.
dOc: Are there any plans to make use of the vast amount of data about movies and DVDs already available on the Internet beyond the link to DVDFile.com and the Google.com search offered in the player?
JS: Various possibilities are being explored.
dOc: On your showcase, page < http://player.interactual.com/default.asp?code=ID > There is a link to DVDFile for each disc.
JS: InterActual purchased DVDFile earlier this year.
dOc: Might there at least be a perceived that some reviews might carry with them a conflict of interest?
JS: InterActual has no ownership or beneficial interest in the sales or rental success of a particular DVD title. InterActual is interested in promoting DVD-ROM bonus content to increase market awareness and consumer demand.
dOc: Although one can download skins for the player, the interface is quite unattractive’Äîas are all the DVD Players for the PC. Is this a fault of Windows, which is generally ugly in its 95 through 2000 incarnations? Is there any hope for something that looks better with Windows XP?
JS: Two part answer: First, ugly is a subjective thing... but we've given access to our skin-building toolkit on our Inventor Connection site (Free registration available for Skin building only)... www.interactual.com/inventor. Second, some really cool 'aftermarket' skins have been developed for InterActual Player, but none of them are available from our download site... they must be installed directly from the disc, or from studio websites. Some example titles with skins are Shrek and Blair Witch II: Book of Shadows
dOc: While watching a DVD, the InterActual Player crashed and when I went to the InterActual support site and typed into the search box: "IPlayer.exe has performed an illegal operation", there were no results found. Shouldn't the site have some sort of troubleshooting information for this common Windows event, especially involving the term "illegal operation?"
JS: Our software sits on top of several other non-InterActual software components: DVD Navigator, DirectX, graphics driver, audio driver, etc. Our software will give an illegal operation when something underneath our software has encountered a problem. While we try to protect against such situations, and handle these underlying problems gracefully, sometimes these problems can bring down our software with it. This is why we offer free consumer technical support with all InterActual titles. While it is impossible to guarantee that any software will work all the time, we ensure that we have a support person ready to assist consumers with playback problems.
dOc: In watching the second disc of The Sound of Music, I opted to use PowerDVD, a player that came bundled with my DVD Drive. The message said (after installing PCFriendly software) the following: "The Sound of Music DVD includes great features when used with your personal computer's DVD-ROM player. Insert this disc into your computer for a unique way to experience the movie and access lots of extras like games, desktop wallpapers and the original web site. *To access these features one must have a PC running Windows 95 or higher equipped with a DVD-ROM drive (will not work in a CD-ROM drive.)" However, even though I had fulfilled the stated conditions, the material could not be accessed through the PowerDVD player. Is this type of proprietary lock out a technical necessity or a decision to keep the material to only users of the InterActual player? Shouldn't it state clearly on the packaging that proprietary player software is required in addition to the system standards?
JS: The limitation is [a] technical necessity, not random limitation. PCF and InterActual Player both provide the ability to play back and interactively control a DVD from within a web page. InterActual is unique in that it can act as a browser, and play the DVD within the web page. Standard DVD players do not have this functionality, but rather just play back the DVD within a window (or full screen). The requirement for PCFriendly is not listed because it's provided on the disc... it's not a pre-requisite for using the disc. This is similar to most computer software’Äîunless you use the provided installation application to load the application to your PC, it's unlikely you'll be able to get that application to work.
dOc: When playing another disc, that had no ROM material, I noted that they mentioned a link to an Internet site in the credits that was not hot-linked. Would a company be able to put in a link to a site that your player would recognize without your involvement?
JS: No. They would need to join our developer program to understand how links are embedded, and to obtain a license for distributing our player on their DVD.
dOc: How far does InterActual go in developing the DVD-ROM content beyond providing the technology to connect with it whether on the disc or on the Internet?
JS: InterActual develops very little content’Äîthat's usually done by a member "Inventor". For a list of some, see this link: http://inventor.interactual.com/Resources/inventorDirectory.asp?Page=3&SortBy=USRCOMPANY
dOc: It states on your web site that the InterActual Player 2.x requires Internet Explorer 5 and a software decoder in order to run. What features, other than proprietary content, make the player more than just another free browser skin with embedded video?
JS: To clarify your question: I believe InterActual Player is the ONLY browser interface with embedded DVD-VIDEO. The content is the draw, and if InterActual Player can become seamless with the content, we believe that will improve the user's experience (hence the ability to extend the experience all the way out to the skin). Skins are not exclusive, nor is providing a replacement interface to Internet Explorer’Äîother companies have done that. The decoder is required to decode DVD-Video from the disc (InterActual Player does not perform this function).
dOc: Has there been any movement in the Macintosh compatibility area? The tech note on the InterActual site refers to the previous system. Has the move to MacOS X, with a totally new DVD Player, had any effect on InterActual's work?
JS: Yes. OS X completely eliminated any capability for Video content to be synchronized with or controlled by ROM content. InterActual would like to provide a compatible solution, but to date Apple has shown no interest.
dOc: Have there been any actual discussions with Apple Computer about providing support for the InterActual system?
JS: We cannot comment.
dOc: Will InterActual software play a DVD authored by Apple's iDVD software?
JS: InterActual Player is compatible with any DVD title authored to the official DVD specifications.
dOc: Does InterActual believe it is the responsibility of the studios to promote features it provides on DVDs? What does InterActual do to promote DVD-ROM content beyond its own DVDFile.com web site?
JS: It is prudent for any studio to promote DVD bonus content. We would be very interested in working with you and other sites on ways to further promote DVD-ROM.
dOc: What does the immediate future hold for InterActual Technologies?
JS: This is an exciting time for InterActual... recent DVD releases have helped dramatically with market awareness, and InterActual's software, services, and technology have enabled the hottest-selling DVD titles of the year. Next year looks to be equally bright, with an expanding number of feature-rich titles leveraging our products to push the DVD-ROM envelope.
dOc: What can be seen in the distant future crystal ball?
JS: Set-top DVD Players with integrated DVD-ROM access and Web connectivity is the brightest light in the future (possible for Christmas 2002). InterActual is currently working with the DVD CE industry to adopt a standard system for this.