|IN THE SPOTLIGHT|
"U-Control" Up Close: A Field Report
Friday, September 29, 2006 at 3:32 PM ET
Next to picture quality, interactivity has been touted as one of the key selling points of the next-gen disc formats. Unlike standard def DVD, both HD DVD and Blu-ray are capable of delivering truly interactive experiences.
And while we've seen a taste of this on select HD DVD titles with Warner's "In-Movie Experience," thus far that feature has been limited to delivering a pre-edited video commentary with two modes -- on or off -- and the titles that have included the feature ('The Bourne Supremacy,' 'Constantine,' 'The Dukes of Hazzard,' 'Troy' and 'Terminator 3') haven't really let you "customize" the experience in any appreciable way.
But with the release of 'Fast and Furious: Tokyo Drift,' Universal has for the first time brought true on-the-fly, user-controlled supplements to a pre-recorded video format via their new "U-Control" feature.
Here's how it works: like Warner's "In-Movie Experience," Universal's "U-Control" is a product of the HD DVD format's iHD authoring environment, which allows for a variety of pre-encoded materials (video, audio, text overlays, etc.) to be stored on disc, and then accessed on-the-fly by users during playback. Multiple audio streams can be encoded on a disc and "mixed live" by the player for integrated supplemental audio content, picture-in-picture video streams can be displayed simultaneously, and even graphic overlays can be "mapped" to specific objects on the screen. If it sounds futuristic, it is, and 'Tokyo Drift' would seem to be only the first of many possibile uses of the technology.
As far as the real-world user experience goes, Universal has included on-screen instructions to guide viewers in accessing the "U-Control" features, but basically anytime throughout the movie, you can just switch on the features you want to watch via the remote. (Note that some readers have reported that the 2.0 firmware upgrade is necessary in order to view the iHD-powered "U-Control" features.)
We included our thoughts on this groundbreaking new feature in our recent review of 'Tokyo Drift' on HD DVD, but -- like anything interactive -- the reality is that there are a multitude of experiences to be had with this feature, depending on the choices you make as a viewer.
Travis Michael, a home theater/HD DVD enthusiast recently posted his take on U-Control to AVSForum, and was kind enough to grant us permission to re-print his post here, as part of a new High-Def Digest feature we're calling "Field Report":
Critiquing "U-Control" on Tokyo Drift
by Travis Michael, September 27, 2006
I think most of us will agree that Tokyo Drift is a reference quality disc in all aspects including picture, sound, and extras. And since it's the first title released with the U-Control feature, I wanted to share my thoughts and comments on this particular feature. I watched the movie the first time with no added features turned on since I hadn't seen the movie before. Then tonight after work, I turned on the U-Control feature and plowed through the movie again.
Here are my thoughts and comments:
1) Picture in Picture. Definitely a step beyond the traditional audio commentary. It's pretty awesome to watch a PIP of behind the scenes material and interviews that is directed towards specific parts of the movie while you are watching them (though sometimes they did go off on tangents). I found myself much more able to sit through a second viewing of a movie with the PIP extras rather than just an audio commentary (which is also included on this title, by the way). On the other hand, I wish the PIP feature had a few more options such as adjusting the size and position of the PIP screen itself (it's fairly small in the lower right corner). Also, it would be cool if you could flip the PIP with the actual movie so that the movie itself is in the PIP and the extras are on the larger screen.
2) Storyboards and Production Photos. Pretty self-explanatory - they overlay on the screen during certain segments of the movie. I'm not highly interested in these, but I know some people like them. The only problem I see is that you have to repetitively go to the button on the U-Control to turn it on. There doesn't seem to be a way to just leave it on for the whole movie. The option will appear when storyboards or photos are available and it will turn itself off when there aren't any more to display for a particular scene. So every time one pops up, you have to scroll back down and turn it back on. It would be nicer to just click it once so that all of the storyboards and/or photos display through the whole movie automatically.
3) GPS. This is a pretty unique feature but also somewhat gimmicky. During the one big race a little over half way through the movie, this option will appear and you can see the cars as dots on a map to see their location. The only problem is that the cars pretty much stay all together anyway, so there's really no point in having a GPS other than seeing where they are in relation to the city streets. Still, I can see this TYPE of feature having some great potential for the format.
4) Insurance/Damage Calculator. Another somewhat gimmicky feature, this will show an overlay with damage amounts when the cars are being damaged during specific scenes. It gives you a little chuckle to see the damages rack up when the cars get hit, but again it isn't a substantial add to the extras. But stuff like this is very welcomed and could be taken much further with success, I'm sure.
5) Tech Stats. This one shows an overlay with description information about the cars themselves when they appear in the movie. It shows the make, model, and some other figures like time from 0-60, etc. I found this to be pretty cool, especially for someone like me who doesn't know one car from the other.
NOTE: The PIP display can be left on for the entire feature, but the rest of the U-Control features mentioned above are mutually exclusive - meaning, you can only have one on at a time AND you must turn them on repetitively at different points in the movie. So while you are watching the movie with PIP turned on, other buttons will appear (like the tech stats, etc). So you scroll down and turn it on, but sometimes you have to rewind a bit if you aren't fast enough turning the button on. And there are times when multiple buttons will appear, in which case you'll have to skip back to watch both features, one at a time. This works reasonably well, aside from the pain of turning each feature on over and over (even if all you wanted to watch throughout was the storyboards).
The PIP feature is the meat and potatoes of the U-Control and it's really cool. I would like to see this feature become as standard on HD-DVD as the director's commentaries are on SD-DVD's.
Finally, I should mention that the U-Control is only a fraction of what is available in the extras department on this disc. There's a pretty neat (but again gimmicky) feature when you can change the paint job / tires of a car in a particular scene. There's the standard audio commentary, music videos, and multiple featurettes about drifting.
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED! Bring on more interactive extras!
Travis Michael is a home theater enthusiast based in Illinois. Over the last seven years, he has grown his SD-DVD collection to 500+ titles. He recently joined the HD DVD camp with the purchase of a Toshiba HD-A1.
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