Hollywood Unveils ‘UltraViolet’ — the All-Platform Video Player

Brand, logo and website set for a video-sharing program that allows downloads to play on any device — supported by five studios, cable operators, Microsoft and Netflix

Hollywood moved a step closer toward making universal video a reality.

Get to know the name UltraViolet. By next year you'll be able to play all the movies and shows you download over almost any device — from TVs to smartphones to tablets to PCs to Blu-ray players. You'll also be able to burn them onto DVDs and share them with family and friends.

Most significantly, making the vision happen has involved an historic collaboration among the major media and technology companies — all united by common threats faced by piracy and a languishing home video market.

Plans have been under way since 2008, but on Monday, an actual name, logo and prototype for a website were revealed.

Among the stakeholders are five of the major Hollywood studios, cable companies like Comcast, technology companies such as Microsoft, big-ticket retailer Best Buy and online rental giant Netflix.

Some 58 organizations have committed to establishing a common file format and dismantling the barriers that prevent sharing digital content through a consortium called the Digital Entertainment Content Ecosystem, or DECE.

In fact, that was the original name. For good reason, after extensive testing the participants have re-christened the brand.

“We’re banishing DECE from eveybody’s vocabulary,” Mitch Singer, DECE president and chief technology officer of Sony Pictures Entertainment, told TheWrap. “We tested a bunch of names and UltraViolet just popped. When we asked consumers, people just associated that name with the best, the fastest, superior. It’s outside the visible color spectrum, which means it’s all around. But just like the product it’s ubiquitous and always with you.”

The newly announced website will serve as a digital rights locker, allowing users to store and access their content — it's not intended to become viewers' main entry point to watching and sharing their films.

Instead, the consortium hopes that users will sign up for their accounts through retailers' websites, like Best Buy or Comcast's Fancast. Content that is UltraViolet-compatible will bear the program’s logo.

“Our hope is that consumers go through retailers to manage their UltraViolet accounts, and we want retailers to maintain that close relationship with consumers,” Singer said. “This will be the back end, but, of course, people can go to our site directly.”

On Monday, the group also announced that it had attracted a trio of new members to the party; LG, LOVEFiLM, and Marvell Semiconductor. Yet, there are still two important holdouts — Disney and Apple.

In the case of Disney, the studio has been developing KeyChest, it’s own attempt to make movie downloads more accessible. Though Apple has been rumored to be signing on, Disney created its rights locker before drumming up any media partners. DECE took the opposite approach; assembling its consortium before creating the technology.

Still it is Apple’s lack of participation in the consortium and the apparent absence of such popular devices as iPhones and iPads in UltraViolet’s rollout that have drawn scrutiny from tech circles. But theoretically that content still could be accessed on Apple devices if an app, such as the one employed by Amazon’s Kindle, is created. 

“We do not think that Apple not being a member will hamper our efforts and the door is always open for Apple to join us,” Singer said.

Even after Monday’s announcement, there are still several hurdles remaining before UltraViolet can become a reality. The consortium plans to have the legal and technical framework in place in the next few months and will begin beta testing in the fall.

If all goes well, the specs and licensing details that companies will use to build their UltraViolet offerings are expected to be in place by the end of this year. 

In January, the consortium announced that it had agreed to a common file format and had selected a vendor, Neustar, for creating the rights locker.

UltraViolet’s development comes at a precipitous time for the home-entertainment industry.  As consumers watch and purchase content online, DVD sales have been atrophying for the past few years. The number of disc sales nosedived by 13 percent last year to $8.73 billion, down from $10.06 billion in 2008, according to Adams Media Research.

Sales of digital downloads have increased over the first half of the year by nearly 37 percent to $285 million, a study by the Digital Entertainment Group revealed on Monday — but that’s not enough to compensate for the cratering DVD market.

By making it easier for consumers to watch movies and shows over multiple platforms, studios are betting that they can staunch the bleeding.

They’re also hoping that they can curb the rising popularity of online piracy by making it easier to share and access content that is downloaded legally. Part of UltraViolet’s development is intended to smooth over the myriad anti-piracy devices that entertainment companies use to guard their content, so that consumers can watch movies on a wide array of electronics.

And getting the product to this stage might be enough to spur the few remaining hold-outs to sign on to the new technology.

“I think launching the brand is a key step in getting the companies that we’re talking with to jump on board,” Singer told TheWrap. “Of course, you don’t have to be a member, but the benefit of joining is you get to develop specs, have input into the look and feel of the site, and strategize about what the next generation of entertainment looks like.”

Of course, participating in a consortium requires the major media companies to check their egos at the door.

“I think that if you’re at the table and see potential value, you work through it when you might have issues,” Mark Coblitz, senior vice president of strategic planning at Comcast, told TheWrap. “Enough people see the value of this eco-system that we’ve been able to make enormous progress.”

A spokesperson for DECE would not disclose how much developing UltraViolet had cost or the breakdown of any profit sharing arrangements the various member companies had signed.