Will 4K Blu-ray Bring Back the VCR?

At its CES press conference, Panasonic produced a minor tech tremor when it surprised the assembled press with a prototype of its Ultra HD Blu-ray deck. Ultra HD Blu-ray is the formidable official moniker for 4K Blu-ray announced last week at CES, as were the finalized mandatory specs initially unveiled last September at IFA.

But the real breakthrough next-generation Blu-ray technology may not be the ungainly-named 4K version, but what Blu-ray Disc Association folks are calling a “digital bridge,” a way for consumers to move content off the player to mobile devices. The “digital bridge” system is called SeeQVault, which, for the sake of typing brevity, I’ll shorten to SQV (even though it’s pronounced cee-que-vault).

SQV, with its fancy golden ampersand logo, isn’t necessarily new. It’s an outgrowth of the Next Generation Secure Memory Initiative (NSM), led by Panasonic, Samsung, Sony and Toshiba. Licensing of SQV began nearly two years ago, and NSM is currently working with studios and service providers to establish SQV foundations in the U.S.

The idea behind SQV is to enable consumers to move copyrighted content from a source or recording device, such as a disc player, DVR or TV, to SQV-compatible SD cards. Once the card is inserted into a mobile device, the content can be played via the SQV Windows or Android app. For mobile devices missing an SD card slot – like every iOS device extant – consumers would buy something like the phablet-sized Sony WG-C20 wireless server, currently discontinued in the U.S., to stick the SQV card into and stream the content to the iDevice via direct Wi-Fi.

Last month, the Digital Entertainment Content Ecosystem (DECE) approved SQV so UltraViolet users can move their purchased content around without suffering through long download times. In many ways, SQV is simply an extension of the UltraViolet concept to all content.

Last October, SQV 20 SQV-enabled products, including TVs and new Panasonic and Toshiba Blu-ray recorders, went on sale in Japan. But Japan’s OTA premium content delivery system and its 60 percent penetration of BD-r makes SQV an easy fit.

In the U.S. and anywhere else with a wired cable ecosystem, however, adopting SQV is a bit more challenging. The idea is to make cable and satellite cable boxes SQV-capable, but even SQV’s minders know any SQV enhancement or add-on to an STB would be a tough sell to content providers.

Which is where Ultra HD Blu-ray decks come in.

Premium priced product

Along with the mandatory Ultra HD Blu-ray (UHD BD) specs and features, manufacturers will be able to add on functions to create higher-priced premium versions. One such premium option could be a UHD BD with an SQV SD card slot, and an even more premium model with an SQV SD card slot plus an SQV-compatible hard drive that lets consumers copy and store their Blu-ray movies to create their own Kalaidescape, while doubling as a DVR.

At least the four NSM brands are drooling over the prospects of presenting premium-priced products in what has become a commodity market with a dim future. The trick is to get these UHD BD decks and UHD BD titles to market before the streaming community gets its 4K ecosystem act together.

I’ve been told some studios are hot to trot for SQV. They figure consumers who can more freely move purchased content around might not resort to piracy.

That’s probably naïve – we humans don’t need any reasons for engaging in questionable acts other than because we can. We love getting something for nothing and because we think we can get away with it. In the case of online piracy, there’s also an element of showing off technical legerdemain and thumbing our nose at the man. After all, the victims are faceless, rich Hollywood studios, so where’s the crime?

But for normal folks not tempted by even this minor legal infraction, the implications of SQV could be the return to the age of the VCR. Once upon a time, you could record a show and lend the tape to someone who may have missed said show. But the DVD not only made the VCR disappear, so did tape-swapping. SQV could bring back this recording swapping.

Whether or not the copy protections of SQV will allow this return-to-VCR scenario remains to be seen. Adopters of SQV will have to set their own specific copy restrictions on the number of times a piece of content can be copied, which and how many devices it can be played back on, etc. Whatever they come up with is bound to be confusing to start.

The roadmap calls for the first SQV devices to be available this summer, but it’s more like the standard gets its real boost when the first UHD BD decks start to appear a year from now.