March 2002 | Not long after DVD was introduced, the companies that developed and promoted the standard decided that the "V" in "DVD" stood for "Versatile" rather than "Video." It was a symbolic declaration, subsequently overridden by the assertion that DVD stood for nothing at all. But the intended effect was to underscore that DVD is indeed a versatile family of formats, thanks to the common form factor (physical specifications) and file system (logical specifications) that underlie its various siblings.
Even within the DVD-Video format itself, the combination of audiovisual quality, random access, and interactivity, plus the ability to include additional materials in the "DVD-others zone," has made a very flexible platform for entertainment and information.
When these capabilities of DVD-Video first became known, it seemed possible that the new format would succeed where CD-ROM—hampered by incompatibility and insufficient capacity—had failed. DVD, it was hoped, could free consumer electronics from the chains of linearity and usher in a new era of interactivity and diversity.
Five years after the format's launch, however, DVD-Video remains predominately a kind of better VHS, a vehicle for the release of essentially passive entertainment to the home video market. The technical capabilities are there, but the attributes of a successful market (the product categories, the shelf space, the consumer "mindshare") have yet to extend much beyond the realms of feature films and music videos. Ask your average consumer what DVD is for, and you will likely get a one-word response: "movies." \
Despite these obstacles, there are producers of DVD-Video content who see the format as more than an opportunity to re-release material originally intended for presentation in theaters or on MTV. Among them is AlphaDVD of Gambrills, Maryland. "We have released a number of ‘made-for-DVD' titles," says Ralph LaBarge, managing partner of the company. "In fact, most of the titles we work on have never been released in any other format."
LaBarge doesn't see the market for made-for-DVD titles as being limited to a specific category or genre. "We specialize in ‘special interest' DVD titles," he says, "but our titles include both entertainment and educational aspects. We have a series of titles covering classical music and a series covering space themes, as well as a number of other titles that address specific topics. All of our ‘made-for-DVD' titles are targeted at the general consumer, although a few titles are also intended for the education market."
LaBarge says DVD's primary advantages for his company's titles are high video, audio, and graphic capabilities, low replication cost, interactivity, and ease-of-use for the consumer. "Since most of our titles have both an entertainment and educational component," he adds, "we use the interactive features of DVD to allow the consumer to decide which specific items of content to view. If they just want to be entertained, they can sit back and watch the title. But if they want to learn they can use the remote to explore all the ancillary content we include on the disc in addition to the main video program."
As an example of AlphaDVD's approach, LaBarge points to StarGaze: Hubble's View of the Universe, which features an hour of images from the Hubble Space Telescope, plus Dolby Digital and DTS surround sound music. The title won an Excellence Award from the DVD Association.
"StarGaze was made for DVD," LaBarge says, "and will never be released in another format, such as VHS or broadcast. It has menus, narration, and subtitles in four different languages—English, French, German, and Spanish— so it is sold worldwide. This combination of four languages in a single media simply could not be done outside of the DVD format. The title has sold over 15,000 copies in the 12 months since it has been released, and should sell quite well for several more years."
Another award-winning made-for-DVD title in the special interest field is The U.S. Capitol: A Vision in Stone, released in October 2001. Produced by Heritage Series, LLC and the U.S. Capitol Historical Society (USCHS), the title was 2nd Runner Up in the Best Instructive DVD category at the 2001 Discus Awards (sponsored by EMedia). The title was executive-produced by Samantha Cheng and Charles Crawford of Television Production Services (TPS) in Washington, DC. According to Cheng, the title is the first in a series of interactive, educational DVDs about the nation's history, treasures, and symbols.
"The advantages of DVD over other distribution formats are its interactivity and capacity," says Crawford. "The navigation tools and menu structure of DVD accommodate random access and individually paced discovery. As content developers, we can take advantage of these technological advances. This is very important when the subject-matter assets and resources are so rich and diverse."
In the case of the U.S. Capitol disc, those assets are utilized in both the DVD-Video and DVD-ROM contexts, including what Cheng refers to as "DVD-Web." The video zone contains an audio/video documentary detailing the history of the Capitol building from site selection through all stages of development and construction. "It also has audio/video tours of the nine primary public spaces of the building," Cheng says, "pictures of a wide selection of artwork, murals, and sculptures, a timeline describing major legislative and commemorative events, a game-like tour of the building with ‘Easter-egg' surprises, and interviews with Capitol historians and curators."
The DVD-ROM component, meanwhile, contains numerous databases, including all the members from the 1st to the 107th Congress, a children's printable coloring book, and Web links to several Capitol-related Web sites. The databases are presented in both Microsoft Access and Adobe Acrobat formats.
Overall, Cheng says, the DVD provides an in-depth, interactive learning experience of the U.S. Capitol building. "Now that tours of the building are severely limited for security reasons, this title provides a breadth of information unavailable anywhere else."
Cheng says the target audiences for the title are students, teachers, parents, libraries, history buffs, tourists, and collectors of Americana. "The disc was initially targeted for middle- to high- school, but there are many features on the DVD for K-6 grade-school levels, as well as for first and second-year college."
Another example of DVDs that feature educational content is the product line of Cerebellum, a Falls Church, Virginia-based maker of videos for VHS, DVD, and broadcast on public television. The company's top sellers include videos on subjects, such as Organic Chemistry, Statistics, and Calculus.
"Our DVDs are created for students, teachers, and parents," says Mark Mashaw, Cerebellum's director of marketing. "We have released more than 25 Standard Deviants DVD titles, with subjects ranging from Spanish to Shakespeare to learning HTML."
Mashaw says the Standard Deviants titles are created for multiple formats, including not only DVD and VHS, but in some cases, CD-ROM. "Most new titles are released in DVD as well as VHS format," he says. "And for some titles that were previously released as videotape only, we are re-releasing in DVD."
"DVD is an ideal format for Cerebellum's style of educational material," Mashaw continues. "We add lots of interactive tests to our DVDs, allowing users to measure their learning progress as they go. Also, the ability for users to directly access key content areas is one area in which the DVD format is superior."