New CD format promises greater storage capacity

By Jon Roig

Arizona Daily Wildcat

Considering buying a new CD player for either your computer or your home audio system? A new VCR? You might want to wait. Last month, two warring development camps one led by Time Warner and Toshiba, the other led by Sony and Phillips came together for a kind of Super CD summit.

Hoping to avoid another Beta/VHS showdown, the two groups met to decide on the specifics of the format that will shape the future of consumer electronics as we know them. Although this may sound like a rather dry subject, it's something that college students, as the largest consumers of audio "software" (as they call compact disks in the 'biz), have a great stake in. And, although the physical attributes of the disk have been decided on, the format of the information contained on the new, high-density CD's remains worth discussing.

To get a grip on what we're talking about here, consider the numbers: 4.8 billion bytes of data storage on the new disks versus 680 million bytes for a conventional CD. That's enough for 133 minutes of laser-disk quality video to be packed onto one disk with enough room left over for multiple audio and subtitle tracks. It's also enough for 90 minutes of uncompressed music on six independent surround sound channels. Amazing, when you compare it to the current standard of 74 minutes of two channel stereo sound.

And, due to the agreement between consumer electronics companies, the new technology will be backward-compatible with existing technology. That is, you'll be able to use all your old CD's and CD-ROM's in the new system. While the numbers are nothing short of unbelievable, there's more to be considered:

"The digital world is intrinsically scalable," says MIT Media Lab's Nicholas Negroponte in his book Being Digital. "It can grow and change in a more continuous and organic way than former analog systems [such as videotape or vinyl]. When you buy a new TV set, you throw one away and adopt a totally new one. By contrast, if you have a computer, you are accustomed to adding features, hardware and software, instead of exchanging everything for the tiniest upgrade. In fact, the word upgrade itself has a digital tone to it. We are more and more accustomed to scaling computer systems up, getting a better display, installing enhanced sound, and fully expecting our software to work better, versus not at all. Why isn't TV like that?"

Indeed, it will be . and the same with your stereo one day but we should demand this sort of thing now, while we can, rather than later, so we don't have to buy a whole new system.

Take the example of the current CD format: both the physical format and the information format is set in stone. If I had a disk of old recordings that were all done in mono, rather than stereo, sound, there is still no way the disk could hold two and a half hours of music. Since CD's are measured in bytes, not the length of music played, it would all be the same amount of information just double the length.

By the same token, there's no way to adjust the sampling rate on a CD (the number of time a second the computer looks at the data to see what tone it should be making). Currently, the rate is a fixed 44.1 kHz 44.1 thousand time a second. Although many would like a higher rate to allow for better audio fidelity and better frequency range, a lower rate might be all that's needed for a less intensive application such as reproducing a speech. As less information is needed for each second of sound, the immediate advantage of this would be CD length. In the analog world, the equivalent is 33 RPM records versus 45s a 45 RPM album sounds better, but you can put more music on a 33. Assuming a speech was recorded in one-channel mono sound, that would mean approximately 11 hours of talk on a standard CD you can imagine what this would mean for a high density disk. With a scalable system, no decision on a standard sampling rate would have to be made. Implemented correctly, it would all be totally transparent to the user and the user would notice no difference (besides sound quality) when playing a disk. Information encoded on the CD could easily tell a system how a disk needs to be played.

The same goes for videodisks a scalable system could allow for a whole range of new features such as changeable aspect ratios, like letter-boxed versus full screen pan and scan. Moreover, a lockout feature of the disk could be customized to allow parents to decide if their kids should see a G, PG, PG-13, NC-17, or R version of a film maybe not big news to you now, but this technology could theoretically last us for the next 20 years.

Compression is another wild card in the deck. By filtering out redundant information found in a lot of music (sounds you theoretically can't hear), current compression technology allows approximately 10 times the audio information to be squeezed onto a disk without any noticeable loss of quality. That's something like 11 hours of music on a current CD or 40 hours of full stereo music on a high density disk. How this will impact the music industry isn't yet known, but it's for the benefit of the consumer. However, to the best of my knowledge, no stereo system on Earth implements this potentially huge advantage yet. If only I could upgrade .

Digital high-definition TV, the Great White Hope of many entertainment companies, is another potential application of the new, high-density disks. The question that remains is: do you really want it? When you're watching "Seinfeld," do you really find yourself wishing that the screen could be just a little clearer? All that aside, people will no doubt be concerned that they'd be sinking a lot of money into a new technology that will quickly be replaced when HDTV arrives on the scene.

The current analog standard for TV in the U.S., NTSC, has absolutely nothing to do with a digital format that might be encoded on a disk. No matter what, the digital format would have to be translated into an analog one to be displayed on a television screen. This could easily be a software problem rather than a hardware one disks, unlike videotapes, contain nothing but zeroes and ones and what you choose to do with that binary data could end up as PAL (the European standard), Secam (French/Soviet) or anything in between.

Ultimately, the cost will decide whether scalable technology and the Super-CD catch the popular imagination, not its fancy features or great potential. Beta was a superior format to VHS, but consumers bought the latter because of its lower cost, not improved image quality. No doubt you've heard that by the 21st century all our TV's, stereo systems, and computers would be merged into one home appliance this is the big chance. And, if we miss it, we are doomed to follow the old, analog model of paying hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars to upgrade from the old to the new. Why not just plug in a new cartridge that contains the necessary information to decode a piece of entertainment software?

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