Hello, Analog Sunset: Part 1

sunset2-0211As I understand it, when people talk about the analog sunset, they’re referring to two specific issues. First is the Image Constraint Token that prevents Blu-ray players from outputting HD video via the analog outputs. The second is the cessation of analog video by broadcasters. The two issues are distinct, yet inter-related.

It was about a year ago that the issue of the Image Constraint Token in the specifications for Blu-ray’s Advanced Access Content System (or AACS) began being seriously discussed by industry watchers. That’s certainly when I began taking it seriously and making an effort to be more informed.
On the hardware side after December 31, 2010, AV manufacturers will not introduce new Blu-ray players with component video outputs supplying more than an SD resolution (either 480p or 576i). Existing models with HD component video will be phased out by 2013.

If you don’t already know, and don’t feel like hopping over to Wikipedia, ICT is a digital flag that limits the analog video output of a Blu-ray player to SD. As a consequence, future model BD players will be incompatible with older model HDTVs that either have analog HD component video inputs, or early DVI and HDMI inputs that weren’t HDCP compliant. Yes, there are still plenty of them still operating out there.

So what’s the deal with the ICT? Content owners, like movie studios may ask Blu-ray disc production facilities to include the ICT on discs manufactured after January 1st 2011. Last year at this time, several AV forums reported on an incident of a BD disc released in Germany where the ICT was accidentally enabled during the mastering process.

As you might expect, the theory behind the studios’ use of ICT is an attempt to prevent individuals from creating unauthorized high-resolution copies of copyrighted material. In reality, it ends up throwing the proverbial monkey wrench into all the installed analog component video multi-display video distribution systems that your company have already installed in your clients homes and businesses.

Hooray.

According the AACS Adopter Agreement, which I had the displeasure of actually reading, it’s an optional inclusion on Blu-ray discs. It may not be enabled through firmware updates to disable the analog HD output. That means that an ICT-enabled BD disc will restrict the analog output to SD, but a non-ICT-enabled disc will allow HD analog output in the same player. So while on the one hand it is not, as some AV forum trolls have declared, an analog doomsday switch, on the other hand, it’s more like Russian Roulette — maybe sometimes your clients’ systems will work, maybe sometimes they won’t.

As of January 1st, 2011, the AACS Adopter Agreement states that Blu-ray discs that are ICT-enabled must have packaging that is clearly labelled to that effect. While that’s nice, how many of you have bought 4:3 Pan and Scan DVDs instead of 16:9 because you didn’t actually read the box cover? I know I have.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but as I understand, ICT is entirely a Blu-ray centered initiative, and digital set-top boxes are not specifically named in the AACS Adopter Licence. There remains considerable talk about similar  broadcast flags to constrain HDTV broadcasts, but from what I’ve read so far, the only ones in action right now related to limiting the duration that an HD pay-per-view program can remain on a PVR that’s rented (as opposed to bought) from a broadcast provider. If any rAVe readers know otherwise, please drop me a line and enlighten me.

In short, the challenges and hassles that the Analog Sunset offer integrators is the inconvenience to end-users who possess installed component video-based HD distribution: both through limiting the resolution of connected HDTVs when watching ICT-enabled Blu-ray discs, as well as making future replacements or upgrades more complex.

But all is not lost. In every challenge lies opportunity. After all, what your clients pay you for isn’t hardware, but rather solutions. It’s a big topic, with a lot of angles, and I’ll be tackling it on a regular basis in the coming weeks. Stay tuned.

Lee Distad is a rAVe columnist and freelance writer covering topics from CE to global business and finance in both print and online. Reach him at lee@ravepubs.com