Hollywood-Backed ‘Video Anywhere’ to Debut in Mid-2011

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In the next six months, digital-rights lockers will begin rolling out through members such as Best Buy, Sony and Warner Brothers

It’s been talked about for so long that it was beginning to feel like an impossible dream.

On Wednesday, the two and half year journey to make "video anywhere" a reality moved several important steps closer to completion. In particular, UltraViolet — the digital rights locker created in partnership between over 60 major media and technology companies from Sony, Paramount and Fox to Microsoft, Best Buy and Toshiba — is finally ready for its close-up.

A rights locker has become en vogue among content creators as they look for fresh ways to bolster sagging home entertainment sales. In essence, it allows users who purchase video content from one site in one format to store that content in a cloud-based account. In return, they can access that content on any compliant device they own.

Though there's no specific launch date, the UltraViolet label will begin appearing within the next six months on Blu-rays and DVDs, as well as players, tablets and computers, DECE, the entertainment consortium backing the initiative, announced on the eve of the 2011 Consumer Electronics Show

Read also: Hollywood Unveils 'UltraViolet' — the All-Platform Video Player

DECE says UltraViolet will be available in the U.K. and Canada later this year, as well.

“This is going to completly change the way people collect and watch movies forever. This is disruptive and transformative,” Mitch Singer, DECE president and chief technology officer of Sony Pictures Entertainment, told TheWrap.

Other companies involved in UltraViolet include IBM, Cox Communications, Panasonic, Motorola and NBC Universal.

Once studios, retailers and DVD and Blu-ray makers adopt the new universal file format that the major players have agreed to, consumers — and even family members in different cities — will be able to watch films purchased through an UltraViolet retailer such as Best Buy on a wide variety of registered devices.

“Today’s announcement that UltraViolet is ready shows that the entertainment and technology communities have made good on their promise to give the world a new, user-friendly digital standard for collecting movies and TV shows in the digital age,” said Mark Teitell, general manager of DECE.

Though the litany of Fortune 500 companies is impressive — bridging Hollywood and Silicon Valley — there are two big holdouts: Apple and Disney, which is pursuing its own digital rights locker. All the other major studios and Lionsgate are participating. 

In the short term, Singer says that users can get around that hurdle by streaming movies through a participating service such as Netflix onto their iPads or iPods.

“Content that is purchased on iTunes won’t be availble on UltraViolet, but our hope is that over time as we have more and more success, it will be a no brainer for Apple to say, 'we want people who like our devices and who like shopping here to be able to play this on other platforms we don’t sell,'” Singer said. “There’s plenty of time to grow our membership.” 

Planting a flag in mid-2011 might not seem terribly specific, but it's a lot more definitive than previous announcements. Prior to Wednesday's news, DECE had unveiled news about the development of formatting standards and a new brand name but stopped short of committing to a launch date.

Still, there is reason for optimism that the dozens of players involved in its creation may be seeing a light at the end of the tunnel. For one thing, DECE said it has released the technical specifications for the UltraViolet ecosystem to third-party vendors. If these manufacturers and content makers decide to license the technology, they can begin using the UltraViolet logo for promotional purposes and linking up their products to the rights locker. 

Initially, consumers will only be able to play content they have stored in the cloud-based account by downloading UltraViolet-optimized media player apps for PCs, game consoles and smart mobile devices. In early 2012, the first electronic devices designed specifically for UltraViolet are expected to become available.

In getting to this place, Hollywood was essentially operating with a gun to its head. The reason that Warner Bros., Paramount Netflix, LG, Samsung and others have banded together is the mounting threat to home entertainment posed by online piracy and an ailing DVD market. Last year, the number of disc sales nosedived by 13 percent to $8.73 billion, down from $10.06 billion in 2008, according to Adams Media Research.

The hope is that by making content more portable and accessible, the studios and others can stem the bleeding.

Of course, the studios and device makers may sailing against the wind. Though the crackdown on piracy and file sharing has been fierce, users have become increasingly accustomed to accessing movies and TV shows with a click of the mouse without needing to pay for them. Changing consumer habits may be a more difficult obstacle than getting major media and technology companies and their sprawling, publicly traded empires to agree to a universal file format. 

In addition to announcing a launch schedule, UltraViolet also rolled out the latest stream of consortium members, including Akamai Technologies, Arxan Technologies, BSkyB, Dell, Fanhattan, Fujitsu and QuickPlay Media Inc. Those companies are not committed to offering UltraViolet compatible products, but the expectation is that they will participate in the rights locker.

“This alliance of companies has been busy designing what an UltraViolet world will look like, but today’s news doesn’t mean our work is over. We’re going to continue meeting so we can decide what version 2.0 will look like,” Singer said.