by Jesse Shanks
Following the recent controversies over PC and Mac compatibility with popular DVD releases, our intrepid reporter installs a DVD drive on his PC and takes a glance at the DVD-ROM material on a few discs. What resulted was an eye-opening run through the various offerings and various potentials that are inherent in web-enabled DVDs.
Recently, I wrote an article for this site called Darth Mac: Phantom Menace Exposes Apple DVD Problems. It spoke of an uproar on Mac-oriented web sites about all the additional DVD-ROM material—available via a web link on that disc—not made to be compatible for Macintosh users. Even though I was disappointed that I could not view it on my Mac, I had not felt compelled to rectify the situation by getting a DVD drive installed on my old workhorse PC, which most often these days is used for testing web pages, opening oddball files and playing NBA Basketball. Not really up to snuff for this new century, aging Hewlett-Packard Pavilion with a Pentium II had served me well for its purposes. So I called around to find out what it might cost to replace the old CD drive with a Different... Very Different drive. To my surprise, it was quite inexpensive: CompUSA offered to install the drive for free if I bought it at their store. I found a 16X DVD drive made by EPO Science and Technology for $79.00. I was leery of incompatibility and quality with the occasional plug-and-pray problems of hardware peripherals—especially at that price—but opted to give it a try. CompUSA seems more efficient these days and they had it done in one day, I brought the box home, hooked it up and gathered a few discs to give it a test run.
Prompted by the the TV commercials, I put in Star Wars: Episode I—The Phantom Menace disc one first. It installed the Interactual Browser and clicking starwars.com took me to http://dvd.starwars.com. The site is pretty rich for a typical dial-up, but most pages loaded quickly once I built up a cache. I was able to view the "Choices" preview trailer for Episode II, which I let download during dinner. There were other promotional materials related to the disc itself; clicking "Inside the Phantom Menace" gave me a blurb that led me to click a "video" link. Finally, here I found stuff that was not on the DVD. Lynne's Diary: Web Documentaries includes several new supplemental clips. Tone Poems also included three 15-second spots not found on the DVD. There were four electronic press kits featuring Sound, Watto, Podracing and Depth as well as a regularly updated extension to the already extensive photo gallery. There was a quicklink to the Star Wars forums, but I didn't think I was ready for that, although I did check out some of the posts devoted to the DVD extras. These ran the gamut from high praise for the site to complaints about the Interactual browser software. There were also plenty of disgruntled Mac users and those without DVD drives in their PCs. After surfing awhile, I wanted to test the Interactual Browser/Player with the DVD and see if my viewing quality compared with what I had read in some of the complaints. I can report that the movie played perfectly fine on my old PC and I was even able to download an upgrade to the Interactual Browser in the background while I watched.
Next, I put in disc two of Monty Python and the Holy Grail and was greeted with an autorun screen that offered me buttons linking to www.pythonline.com, the Grail Movie web site and Columbia TriStar's home site. Clicking these launched Internet Explorer and I was on the web. I then tried another recent Columbia TriStar release, the special edition of On the Waterfront (review coming soon), but there was no web material to be found. The special web link buttons on the Interactual browser did not do much, except go to Interactual's web site. They indicated that a special studio button would provide information about other releases from that studio. A "DVD Info" link defaulted to the home page of a DVD site. Yet another Columbia disc that I had around was Gandhi; although the jacket says that there is a "Weblink to Official Mahatma Gandhi website," I could not find it.
Another fine Columbia release with extensive DVD-ROM material is Lawrence of Arabia. Putting in disc one, I was able to access the Online Gateway, Help, Sony Pictures Entertainment and Columbia TriStar Home video sites. "Archives of Arabia" contained behind-the-scenes photos and information. I did get some browser script errors in this section that prevented some elements from fully functioning, but it was very well-conceived, extremely entertaining and informative. "Journey with Lawrence" took me to an interactive map of the Middle East that was nicely created and easy to navigate. Disc two featured "Part Two of the Archives of Arabia" and prompted me to go back to disc one for the interactive map.
20th Century Fox's The Sound of Music featured "DVD-ROM link to The Sound of Music web sites and events" on disc one and DVD-ROM games and links to fan sites on disc two. Putting in the first disc, the "Melody Maker" option prompted me to put in the other disc. I was able to install wallpaper on my desktop and then click on the "Weblinks" menu choice, which led me to a page that seemed to be hosted on the Interactual servers There were links to various Fox sites, including the Official site with preview materials, as well as fun and games links. However, when I clicked the link for a Shockwave puppet game, I had to go to Macromedia and get the necessary software. A relatively minor annoyance but an annoyance nonetheless, since the link took me to Macromedia's help rather than directly to downloading the necessary plug-in (10 minutes at 56K.) Bailing on all that, I put in the second disc and found the Melody Maker game to be quite interesting and I think it would surely be fun for kids. The wallpaper and weblinks were also available.
I went back to a disc that I had reviewed some time ago, In the Grip of Evil, that had some DVD-ROM material. Although I had been able to view this by opening the disc in the Macintosh Finder, it was certainly a different and more satisfactory experience. This disc featured a screensaver install (which I did not do because I didn't necessarily want an In the Grip of Evil screensaver, and because I have had some bad experiences with oddball screensavers in the past). There were also desktop pictures that I did successfully install (at least for a short time). Also included were some newspaper clippings that could be read onscreen and links to the Adobe Acrobat material that I had looked at before. This DVD-ROM eschewed the Interactual Browser and had its own "Made with Macromedia" interface that was reminiscent of a classic multimedia CD-ROM. Once I exited the ROM material menu and went to the main movie menu, I could not figure out how to get back to it. I had to eject the disc and start over. After a second failure, I took the time to read the information and found that one should not exit from the DVD-ROM material if you wanted to get back to it. Live and learn.
Next I loaded the supplemental disc, Heritage Interactive's Civilization and the Jews, which was part of the reason why I had the DVD drive installed in the PC. There will be much more extensive coverage of this material in an upcoming review of the entire set. This disc required installing its own application to access the map, video and document material similar to installing something like Grolier's Multimedia Encyclopedia. I had options for a "minimum," "typical" (everything but the video) or "everything" install. Having a smaller hard drive on my PC, I went for typical. This is definitely a prime example of what can be achieved with DVD-ROM material to accompany a disc. Come back soon to find out more about the interface and the content of this part of that set.
This short experience of having a multimedia computer, capable of playing and accessing DVD-ROM extras on a disc, both locally and via the Internet, was an eye-opener. I had been prone to dismissing its importance because I did not have the capability. I would have to think eventually there will be DVD players that have a hard drive and processor to allow you to view such material in your living room. It redoubles my opinion that Apple Computer needs to make the Macintosh's capability of accessing this material a high priority, both for their users and the future of the company. Who can doubt the benefits of having special materials that add value to the disc readable by the player in such an efficient way? The screenshot, hard-to-read slide show of pictures and text in some extras can be pretty lame.
It is interesting to see the beginnings of the web-enabled DVD-ROM through the Interactual Browser/Player and other similar technologies. It reminds me of a couple of years ago when the Winamp media player burst forth on the crest of the MP3 boom. Suddenly, you could add features and plug-ins to the application that allowed you to visualize the music, search the net for information about the artist (and places to buy stuff), and eventually almost much control your whole computer with Winamp. As a technical person in the business of figuring out ways to enhance the experience of the digital obsessee, it sends my mind spinning with the possibilities.
As a consumer of DVDs, I am equally impressed with the medium's potentials. I was in a chat recently with some other DVD aficionados and one mentioned the idea of a watching party, where a group of people watch a DVD and chat about it on the Internet. At the time, I didn't think that it was feasible. At the Interactual web site, there is a page that describes some of the potential features available on a web-enabled DVD-ROM, including just this kind of chat feature, going as far as suggesting the addition of guest talent like directors and actors. I would love to pop in my copy of Star Trek: The Original Series—Volume 30, find other fans to watch it with me and go MT2K on it (for fun), and some serious thoughts too.