Back in the day, you’d buy a VHS tape and over time, the screen image grew softer and less focused. Or later, you’d buy a DVD, which was bound to get scratched and stop playing; you’d wonder whether the problem was the DVD or its player. Archiving and distributing physical media, from paintings to film, was a battle against inevitable decay.
With digital files, however, the battle waged is against the difficulty of retrieval. With technologies and new platforms being created rapidly, copies of digital files need to be refreshed in new formats regularly. Media producers, too, need to switch formats while creating works in order to keep up with the rapid proliferation of technologies.
What if there was just one file format? Ultraviolet is an innovative service and system, announced at this year’s CES, that allows you, the user, to access your media from any location at any time. Ultraviolet will be released in the next six months and will allow you to buy the right to watch movies and television shows on interoperable platforms, rather than simply own a physical copy of the movie or television show— like accessing a virtual bookshelf. You will be able to have six users and twelve devices signed onto a single Ultraviolet account or household. Ultraviolet will employ a single file format- the Common File Format (CFF).
The brainchild of the cross-industry consortium Digital Entertainment Content Ecosystem (DECE) LLC, Ultraviolet took shape a couple of years ago as more and more companies realized that the expensive digital distribution system, with its frequent file fragmentation, did not work. Consumers did not have freedom of choice with respect to their purchases. Ultraviolet is now supported by sixty four leading companies including Comcast, Dolby Laboratories, Fox Entertainment, Hewlett-Packard, Intel, Lionsgate, Microsoft, Paramount Pictures, Philips, QuickPlay Media Inc., RIAA, Red Bee Media, Rovi, Saffron Digital, Samsung Electronics, Sonic Solutions, Sony, Switch Communications, Technicolor, Tesco, Toshiba, Verance, Verimatrix, VeriSign, Warner Bros. Entertainment, Widevine Technologies Inc. and Zoran.
These companies and other proponents of Ultraviolet believe that the digital supply chain isn’t working. A content producer currently has to encode many different versions of every movie, say 22, in order to distribute it. Until UV, there was no easy way to make copies in the double digits. Therefore, any given movie has been incredibly expensive to make and distribute. DECE hopes to solve these problems through web-based consumer accounts. By locating them in a single space, with standardized technical specs, home entertainment media becomes a lot easier to manage, archive and retrieve.
John Calkin, vice president of Global Digital and Commercial Innovation, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, explains that, “Ultraviolet will provide consumers an easy way to access their content without the limitations of a physical product, in the same way that the ATM network provides consumers access to their money - anytime, anywhere. It's a tremendous leap forward in consumer control and flexibility.”
So far, DECE has approved five Digital Rights Management systems that will be compatible with the Common File Format (CFF) – Adobe® Flash® Access, CMLA-OMA V2, The Marlin DRM Open Standard, Microsoft PlayReady® and Widevine®. The more DRMs that are compatible with Ultraviolet, the more content can be played back via streaming or download. Consumers will be able to play UltraViolet CFF files on all UltraViolet devices, and share files directly between any UltraViolet devices regardless of the brand or DRM.
Mark Teitell, general manager of DECE explains that Ultraviolet is not a new technology per se, but more of a ‘proof of purchase’ honored by companies in many different industries, from tech to entertainment. That proof of purchase doesn’t give you just a digital right, but also ensures you have a predictable experience across multiple platforms. He considers Ultraviolet to be a matter of using well-defined standards to do things in a new way.
Although many major companies have elected to honor this ‘proof of purchase’, two have held out- Apple and Disney. Teitell says that both are welcome to join and that even consumers using Apple devices will be able to access some Ultraviolet content. For example, Netflix is accessible on the new Apple TV and app, but it is also a member of Ultraviolet.
DECE intends to make CFF widely available for use in other areas of video content preparation and delivery. In other words, while it is mostly media and technology giants that have signed on so far, DECE intends to allow indie studios and start-ups to have licenses as well. Hopefully, the licenses will be affordable enough that smaller companies can sign on. The only real danger of this system would lie in the possibility that larger companies would have greater access to Ultraviolet than smaller ones for financial reasons. Making Ultraviolet accessible to all, however, could be a creative end-run around the issue of digital piracy.
Although centralizing and standardizing the way movies are distributed have potential downsides, it seems promising that in a time when corporate backstabbing and intrigue are commonplace, so many companies have collaborated and invested in an attempt to create a system that works for both producers and users. Households, for example, will be able to purchase more diverse media with Ultraviolet because sharing the right to use a particular piece of media within a family will be easier than each family member purchasing his or her own copy and each family member winds up with access to more media than he would have on his own.
Plus, if DECE holds fast to the ideals of accessibility and ease as consumers catch onto Ultraviolet over the coming few years, there is real potential for increasingly diversified home entertainment collections. Cloud-based collections don’t take up a lot of physical room. It seems likely that Ultraviolet, notwithstanding its utility in the home entertainment market, will encourage the production of more movies and films generally because of the ease of making, distributing, storing and retrieving them. Ease will undoubtedly promote the democratization of cinema.