It's 2009, and the Blu-ray Disc Association has a problem. Hollywood is gaga over 3D. Coraline and Monsters vs. Aliens try to sell families on 3D early in the year, while My Bloody Valentine 3D and The Final Destination grab the teenage market. And then in December, James Cameron's Avatar becomes the box office phenomenon Hollywood expected it to be. Thanks to 3D ticket premiums, the movie goes on to earn $2.7 billion worldwide. But Blu-ray doesn't do 3D...yet. So the Blu-ray Disc Association set out to update the specification for an install base of 10 million households.
"Blu-ray is unique in that it's the first package media format I've worked with--and I've worked with every one since LaserDisc back in 1980s--it's the first one we've had with an adaptable format," says Andy Parsons, a Blu-ray Disc Association spokesperson and Senior VP at Pioneer. "No one changed the CD spec to add functionality. No one changed DVD spec to add functionality. When 3D came along, we said 'we'd like to add 3D. Is it technologically feasible, is it possible?' "
Indeed it was. On December 17, 2009, the day before Avatar opened in the United States, the Blu-ray Disc Association announced it had finalized a specification for Blu-ray 3D. The Disc Association went from investigating the possibility of 3D Blu-ray to releasing that specification in eight months. "That was a world record, I think," adds Parsons. He's proud, and with good reason--it took less than a year to add a new dimension to Blu-rays, something that had never been done with CD or DVD or VHS or LaserDisc.
But now it's three years later, and 3D is still a divisive medium. It no longer has the easy selling power to guarantee a movie like My Bloody Valentine 3D a $100 million box office. On December 12, 2012, Peter Jackson's The Hobbit hit the silver screen, bringing with it the most significant technological advance since Avatar sold the world on 3D. The film was shot and released at 48 frames per second, double the traditional frame rate of a century of cinema.
But this time, there's no new Blu-ray spec waiting to usher in a generation of high frame rate films. And despite the proliferation of 4K TVs at this year's Consumer Electronics Show, there's no specification for 4K Blu-ray, either. There's no doubt that Blu-ray will evolve again to keep up with Hollywood's next big thing. But will it be 4K? Or HFR? Or H.265?
As Parsons explains, adding any of those features to Blu-ray will be a whole lot of work.
Where's my 48 fps Hobbit Blu-ray?
Avatar was huge for 3D, but Cameron didn't have to justify 3D all by his lonesome. In ushering in a new frame rate, The Hobbit doesn't have the same pull that 3D did. A relatively small percentage of theaters actually showed the film at 48 fps, and many viewers had trouble adapting to high frame rate footage (but that's another story). It's not too surprising, then, that we won't be seeing The Hobbit on Blu-ray at 48 fps--at least, not anytime soon.
"If you go in and add something like HFR to the spec, you want to make sure it works," says Parsons." That responsibility lies with the "format extension study task force," which the Blu-ray Disc Association established in 2012. It's a new group, but they're doing the same work that the BDA had to do back in 2009, when it weighed the prospect of 3D Blu-ray: Studying "technical feasibility, market demand evaluation, and impact on the install base." 50 million US households are now equipped with Blu-ray players.
Market demand evaluation is an easy one to figure out, here: One movie won't cut it. But what about technical feasibility? Trickier to diagnose.
HDMI doesn't support 48 fps, and TVs would need a firmware update to properly process the signal anyway.
"[We were able to] make [Blu-ray 3D] in such a way, that it...could play like a 2D disc in a 2D player," Parsons says. "If they had a 2D player it would turn out 2D, if you had a 3D player it would play in 3D...Perhaps we could do something like that with HFR." But, he adds, "Not all studios made 3D discs work that way." Some movie studios--Disney, for example--choose to release their films in combo packs, and those 3D versions won't play on 2D disc players.
If possible, the BDA wants to avoid adding features that will only work on certain players. 3D is, for the most part, backwards compatible. But HFR isn't just a problem for the Blu-ray Disc Association to solve. The current HDMI spec doesn't specify support for 48 fps (it can do 50, which isn't quite the same), and TVs would, best case scenario, need a firmware update to properly process the signal. In other words, even if you got a 48 fps Blu-ray, you might not be able to watch it.