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    DVD Video - Interviews [LaBarge, Ralph]


    Interview With: Ralph LaBarge
    Focus: Upcoming Alpha DVD Releases
    Title: Managing PartnerCompany: Alpha DVD
    Interviewed By: DCN Forum ChatDate: NA


    #DVD Channel News will welcome Ralph this coming Friday, May 7th 1999, at 5:00pm PST at our Special Events message forum. Feel free to drop by the forum to familiarize yourself with the basic procedure.

    Ralph LaBarge is a managing partner at Alpha DVD. Alpha DVD provides DVD-Video and DVD-ROM consulting services and publishes DVD titles. Current DVD titles that Alpha DVD has published include "Earthlight Special Edition", "USA on DVD" and "AVIA". Alpha DVD plans on releasing several DVD titles during 1999 including "Mars Pathfinder", "Pacific" and "The Planets". Alpha DVD specializes in the development of hybrid DVD titles that be played back on DVD-Video players as well as DVD-ROM enabled personal computers. All future Alpha DVD titles will incorporate features from the new Microsoft/Intel Web DVD specification for playback on personal computers. Mr. LaBarge is the author of DVD-Today, a comprehensive summary of DVD technology, and is frequently asked to speak on the subjects of Digital Video Compression Technology, DVD, and Multimedia Application Development to special interest groups and trade shows including COMDEX, FOSE, IEEE, IICS, NAB, PC-Expo, and SIGCAT.

    Prior to working with Alpha DVD, Mr. LaBarge founded and acted as the President and Chief Technical Officer for NB Digital Solutions (NBDS). Mr. LaBarge is an expert on digital video compression technology, and custom multimedia application development. While at NBDS, Mr. LaBarge was been responsible for the development and operation of one of the world's largest off-line digital video compression facilities providing compression in the Cinepak, DVD, Indeo, MPEG-1, MPEG-2, PLV and TrueMotion formats. NBDS was widely recognized as one of the best sources for high quality digital video compression services. From 1996 through 1998 NBDS published over fifty DVD-Video and DVD-ROM titles for a variety of clients. Mr. LaBarge was also responsible for the development of more than fifty custom multimedia applications for Government clients including NSA, US Army IIAC, and US Army IEWD, and corporate clients including CSX Transportation, Nike, Tandem Computers, Toshiba America Information Systems and Yamaha Electronics. NBDS specialized in the development of custom multimedia applications which utilize compressed digital video formats such as Indeo, MPEG-1 and MPEG-2.

    Mr. LaBarge was once the Principal Engineer responsible for the design, development, test and installation of a number of large signal collection and processing systems for the US Department of Defense. Assigned as lead system engineer on programs valued at over $20,000,000 including Vulpine, Enchilada II and Enchilada III. He held TS/SI security clearance through NSA.

    Mr. LaBarge writes a monthly DVD Column for InterActivity Magazine and has published DVD and digital video compression related articles in DV Magazine, One to One Magazine, Advanced Imaging, and others. Mr. LaBarge writes and publishes an on-line DVD reference site located at http://www.dvdtoday.com.

    Mr. LaBarge is the Chairman of the Software Publishers Association DVD-ROM Technical Working Group, which has published recommendations for developing DVD-ROM titles using the Windows MCI standards.

    June 1979
    University of Delaware, Newark, DE
    Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering
    June 1984
    Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD
    Master of Science in Computer Science
    June 1988
    Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD
    Master of Science in Electrical Engineering
    Professional Experience


    #DVD Channel News welcomed Ralph, of Alpha DVD, Friday, May 7th 1999, for an online chat. The following is a transcript of the complete conversation that occured during this event. Ralph LaBarge Biography

    (Forum Moderator) Hello Everyone!

    I'd like to thank Ralph LaBarge, of Alpha DVD (http://www.alphadvd.com) for taking time out of his busy schedule to speak with us all on a variety of topics today. At this juncture, I would like to open the forum for messages as Ralph has indicated that he is ready. Ralph, if you would like to discuss any particular topic, by all means - please, bring it forth. For the rest of you, I thank you for dropping by. feel free to post any questions, comments, suggestions, and/or remarks at this time!

    - Marc

    (Ralph) I dont have any specific topics that I want to start with. Just to let everyone know, I develop DVD-Video and DVD-ROM titles for a living. I have completed about 100 DVD titles over the past 3 years, so I am a pretty good source of information on the how the process of bringing a DVD title to market works.

    (Scott) Is Alpha DVD concentrating on delivering a certain type of product to the DVD market? If so, what is your focus as a company?

    (Ralph) Our focus is on what I call hybrid DVD titles. A hybrid title is one that works on consumer DVD-Video players but will also work on a PC with a DVD-ROM drive in some different way.

    For example we may add hyperlink features to the DVD-Video content, or a screen saver, or some other computer centric stuff.

    Since we are located on the East Coast we really dont get involved too much in traditional full length feature films, so our titles tend to be non-movie content.

    (Dave D.) The only other company I've seen doing something similar is the people that put out tthe VOB over at DVD4U.com. Have you seen their materials and if so, how do you think it compares to what you do?

    (Ralph) There are a few companies that put out similar types of titles, including DVD4U. Simitar has released a bunch of titles that have content similar to some of what I have done. Most of the other companies have not added quite as many DVD-ROM features as I have to DVD-Video titles, but the market will start to demand it so I think they will offer them soon.

    (Joe) Thanks for the talk Ralph!

    I have the original Earthlight DVD... how is the newer special edition different than the older DVD that I have?

    (Ralph) On the new version I recompressed all the video at higher bit rates, used a D1 source instead of Digital Betacam, and Fred Grossberg (the Producer) had all the video color corrected.

    We increased the bit rate on the audio from 384 kbps to 448 kbps.

    We added a five minute shuttle liftoff sequence.

    We added 36 high quality still images with interactive menus to display them.

    Finally we developed a new version of the screen saver that uses the new Microsoft DirectShow API. It works much better on new systems and includes the ability to display subtitles in screen saver mode.

    (Scott) What kind of time frame are you looking at here with this type of project from beginning to end?

    (Ralph) That is a tough question. Some titles can be completed in 2-4 weeks, while others take 4-5 months. It depends on the title. The Mars title will take close to 6 months since I have to do all the research to make decent content for the title. AVIA took the better part of 4 months because it was so complicated to author.

    (Jack Olmsted) Do you use a real time decoder? If so, what is it?

    (Ralph) As far as decoders go I have one of just about every type. Creative Labs Encore DXr2, DXr3, Sigma Designs Hollywood +, LuxSOnor. I also use all of the various software decoders (Zoran, Mediamatics, XIng, etc).

    I need to test with all of them to make sure our products work well in the consumer marketplace.

    (Harry) What about encoding equipment?? Can you give us some idea of what hardware goes into the encoding process of your standard DVD?

    (Ralph) I use a bunch of different encoder as well. When I want the best possible quality I will start with a D1 or Digital Beta source and use an off-line variable bit rate compressor like the Minerva Compressionist 250.

    If I have BetaSP source I will capture it with an AVID MCXpress (NT based) system and then encode it into MPEG-2 using the Heuris MPEG Power Professional software. It takes about an hour for each minute of video, but I have lots of time.

    Encoders can cost anywhere from $5,000 to $100,000+ I like to tell people that you get what you pay for, so if you want the best MPEG-2 video you better be willing to pay a lot for your encoder.

    (Sean) Welcome to the forum, Ralph... In your BIO that is listed here, there's discussion of Web DVD. What's involved in the WebDVD specification from Microsoft?

    (Ralph) WebDVD is actually a Software Developers Kit put out by Microsoft. They have developed a new version of the popular Windows Media Player. The new version, WMP3, can read and understand content stored in the DVD-Video format.

    To put it breifly WebDVD allows you to deliver broadcast quality video, audio, graphics and subtitles from a local DVD-Video disc in the users DVD-ROM drive, while you deliver real time updates and Internet connectivity from a Web Page.

    I am working on two differnt titles now that will use WebDVD.

    (Sean) Has anyone else produced DVDs with WebDVD other than your company?

    (Ralph) No one has relased a WebDVD title yet, but I know of several other companies who are working on them.

    (Dave D.) I've come across the following term before in different dvd authoring literature that I've come across and the bio that was posted here. From a developmental standpoint, can you explain in your own words what a DVD hybrid is, its usefulness, and what advancements you hope to see from these in the near future?

    (Ralph) A hybrid simply put is a DVD disc that is designed to work on more than one type of DVD playback platform. For example a single disc that works on both DVD-Video and DVD-ROM systems, or a DVD-Video disc that has embedded hyperlinks to related web sites.

    My hope for DVD is that we will eventually have all DVD titles come with content designed for the various types of playback devices. A disc should have great video for DVD-Video players, great interactive and connectivity for DVD-ROM users, and great audio for DVD-Audio players.

    (Dave O.) So, for example, a Hybrid DVD wouldn't offer the same options for the DVD Video as would the DVD-ROM information? A DVD Video player can't very well access the internet, so I'm curious to what happens with any internet related material on the disc when it's being viewed in a standard DVD Video unit.

    (Ralph) You will see a number of DVD-Video players come out this fall with Internet connections. Think of them as a cross between a DVD-Video player and a WebTV box. Once those units start to sell there are lots of things you can do with movie content that will take advantage of the Web. A direct link from the movie to the on-line store that sells items related to the movie. An on-line chat club where fans can talk about the title, etc.

    (Jack Olmsted) What are you working on now?

    (Ralph) I just finished a very complicated DVD-Video title called AVIA. It is a similar product to Joe Kanes Video Essentials, but it was designed from scratch for DVD.

    The AVIA title has over 600 static menu pages, more than 2,500 interacive buttons, more than 150 video test patterns, more than 50 audio test patterns, and about 90 minutes of video/audio content. It took about 4 months to author the title.

    I am in the middle of two other projects. The first is a title called Mars that will be a hybrid DVD about, you guessed it Mars. The second is also a hybrid title that we have given the name Pacific to, but we actually have not finalized the decision on what content to use.

    Mars will be out September 1st.

    (Joe) Interesting! Something like Video Essentials? How does it differ?

    (Ralph) AVIA Vs Video Essentials

    AVIA has more Video Test Patterns.
    AVIA has more Audio Test Patterns.
    AVIA is easier to use since the menus are much easier to understand.
    AVIA was developed just for DVD, while Video Essnentials was developed for Laser.
    Disc and repurposed for DVD.

    (Jack Olmsted) AVIA title:

    Is is designed to adjust HDTV monitors? Where is it going to be distributed? What is the MSRP?

    (Ralph) It is for standard and widescreen monitors, but not specifically for HDTV.

    It will be sold in most DVD-Video retail outlets, and SRP is $49.99.

    (Taylor) I'm late! :)

    I've heard now about Mars and Earthlight - what were some of the other DVD projects you were directly involved in - and which of those did you find the most interesting?

    (Ralph) I have done lots of titles over the past three years. More than 75 of them were standard movies titles for second or third teir studios/distributors. They were not very challenging or interesting.

    I have done DVD-ROM training titles for the US Navy and US Air Force, and I also published the first dual layer DVD-ROM title called USA on DVD that has over 7 Gbytes of data. That was a fund project since nobody has every tried to put out a dual layer DVD-ROM before we did it.

    (Taylor) Can you expand a bit more on the military titles you worked on? Were they simulartion related?

    (Ralph) The title for the Navy was called "Management and Treatment of Chemical Warfare Injuries". It was first published as a Laser disc based traning course for doctors, and then republished in CD-ROM format. We were paid to publish it again in DVD-ROM format as a prototype project.

    The Air Force title was called "What Now Lieutenant" and actually won an award for best corporate DVD-ROM title of 1998 (DVD-Pro). It was designed by the prime contractor we worked for (Cubic Applications) and was a new project that has only been published on DVD. It is being used today to train Second Lieutentants on ethics.

    (Forum Moderator) Can you tell us a little bit about the upcoming "Mars" DVD that you're working on, Ralph?

    (Ralph) Mars will be an interesting title from a developers and hopefully and end-users perspective. Here are some of the interesting things that the title will have.

    (1) A multi-angle video sequence with 6 angles. The content will be a full rotation view of the surface of Mars from about 200 miles up. Each angle will cover about 30 degrees in latitude. You can switch angles at any time to move north or south across the planet. It will be set to a full Dolby AC-3 5.1 surround sound rendition of Gustav Holst's Mars movement from The Planets.

    (2) A series of over 750 interactive DVD-Video menus that will allow you to pan and zoom through detailed maps of the entire surface of Mars. Most surface items (craters, volcanoes, etc) will have their names available as a subpicture overlay.

    (3) Probably 100+ Martian Easter Eggs that will pop up when the user does a certain combination of things (like go from one part of the map to another in a specific order). We will have a marketing campaign that awards prizes to the first people who find all the Easter eggs.

    (4) About 40 minutes of originally composed 5.1 surround sound music with at least 250 unique color images of Mars.

    (5) A WebDVD page that ties it all together and allows DVD-ROM users to get access to extras on the disc.

    There is a lot more, but I dont want to give it all away right now. Just wait til September 1.

    (John K.) I have a question on the following:

    >>(3) Probably 100+ Martian Easter Eggs that will pop up when the user does a certain combination of things (like go from one part of the map to another in a specific order). We will have a marketing campaign that awards prizes to the first people who find all the Easter eggs.<<

    Can you give us a clue to what kind of easter egg awards you're talking about here?

    (Ralph) Sure, things like free printers, DVD players, DVD titles, etc. We will probably get a big computer store to join in.

    There will be lots of prizes, and we will set aside some for DVD-Video owners and some for DVD-ROM owners.

    (John W.) Yeah, I was going to ask about this Mars DVD since I saw it was upcoming on a release list. Is there anything you're doing with the "Mars" disc that you think sets it apart from the other discs currently out on the market?

    (Ralph) It will be a unique disc.

    The use of six camera angles for a full rotation of Mars is a unique use of multi-angle.

    The use of 750+ menu pages to create an interactive surface map will require over 20,000 buttons. This has never been done before.

    Mars will certainly be one of the first WebDVD titles, and we are adding our own custom ActiveX control that allows us to define hot spots on the video playback area. You can watch a video of the surface of Mars going by, click the mouse on a specific crater and call up the name and details of the crater.

    (Jack Olmsted) Do you sell your titles direct or do you use a distributor?

    (Ralph) I do sell some of my titles on my web site directly to consumers, but the vast majority of my sales go to a distributor. I am really not very good at sales and marketing of DVD titles so I concentrate on developing them and let my distributor sell them. It seems to be working well so far.

    (Raja) Are you and your colleagues looking into more advanced interaction between DVD and the internet - moreso than what we've already been exposed to? If so, what features might we see evolve from this functionality?

    (Ralph) I will not put out a DVD title that does not have some Internet features, even just a plain DVD-Video title. I think that over the next 12-18 months we will see a lot more connected DVD titles coming out. The studios have figured out that the DVD-ROM installed base is at least 10 times larger than the DVD-Video installed base. DVD-ROM owners are willing to play movie content back on their PCs but they would prefer titles that use the power of their computer. That is local hard drive storage for saving off data, connectivity to the Internet, and the interactivity that comes from a mouse and keyboard.

    (Jack Olmsted) Do you think we will see full DVD support in Director any time soon?

    (Ralph) Probably not. I actuall wrote a column in Interactivity Magazine where I took Macromedia to task a bit over the lack of support for DVD in Director. We may see a few plugins that offer limited DVD playback capabilities, but until DVD is offered as a cast member in the base version of Director, I dont think it will mean much.

    Macromedia is much more focused on their web related products than on updating Director for DVD. I would guess that Director will eventually be replaced by a new tool that embraces the Microsoft WebDVD and Apple QuickTime 4 technologies for DVD support.

    (Sean) I don't have a Macintosh, but I'm sure that a lurker here or someone who reads this script may take an interest in something like these products. How do your products mesh with the Macintosh? Are DVDs interchangable between the PC and Macs??

    (Ralph) Unfortunately they dont mesh with Macs very well at all. Those of you who own Macs with DVD-ROM drives know that about all they can do is play back a DVD-Video title. Apple is well behind the curve right now. Most Macs with DVD-ROM drives can not read DVD-R discs, and there is no Apple supported API that lets developers release titles that take advantage of the DVD-Video multimedia assets. Hopefully QuickTime 4 will solve some of these problems, but right now I am concentrating on Windows 98 titles.

    (Slick) How much room is there for improvement with our current compression techniques and equipment? Will we be seeing big potential for much more information per layer on a DVD in the future without sacrificing too much quality?

    (Ralph) I dont see room for "big" improvement unless we get away from MPEG-2 and move to a new type of compression algorithm like fractals or wavelets. MPEG-2 is a wonderful compression algorithm but people have been working on it for over ten years now. The improvements we will see over the next few years are going to be marginal at best.

    (Slick) what other methods can be used then to improve the quality of the images we see on dvd now? i have to admit that they look pretty darn good as they are - but I'm interested to hear if there are other avenues that people in your line of business are looking down...

    (Ralph) Well the next generation of DVD players that come out this fall will have progressive scan capabilities. This means that they will have more lines of resolution and a much cleaner look on playback. Essentially this is the first step towards a high definition version of DVD. Standar MPEG-2 at 720x480 pixels, 30 frames per second, will be replaced by the high definition resolutions of MPEG-2, like 1024i or 720p.

    (Forum Moderator) I may have missed it - but, what upcoming DVDs do you have planned on the horizon?

    (Ralph) During 1999 I will finish the Mars and Pacific projects, and probably one other small title for a client. During the start of 2000 I want to release a title called The Planets that will be a DVD-Video, DVD-ROM and DVD-Audio hybrid. It will of course be about the planets in our solar system.

    (Charlie) Will The Planets DVD contain information only on our galaxy or do you plan to incorporate information on other aspects of our Universe?

    (Ralph) The plan is just our solar system. I dont have access to video from other solar systems just yet.

    Although I may include some Klingon subtitles like we did on Earhtlight Special Edition.

    (JimTheFrog) Will the AVIA disc be commercially available? What is the intended audience?

    (Ralph) I did not know we had a ringer in the audience. AVIA has been released and is available from Image Entertainment and the retailers they sell to.

    The intended audience are home theater enthusiasts who want to set up the equipment to get maximum performance. Many people dont think twice about spending $10,000 or more on their home entertainment systems. They really need a disc like AVIA or Video Essentials to set all the equipment up correctly.

    (Dave D.) Will AVIA price less than Video Essentials?

    (Ralph) Actually I think it's SRP is the same as Video Essentials ($49.99) I know Video Essentials is being discounted by lots of people now and you can probably get it for less than $30. I dont have anything to do with the pricing for AVIA. I did the authoring for Ovation Software and I do not get a royalty on the sales.

    (Tammi) Curiously, how many people make up the crew at Alpha DVD?

    (Ralph) Beleive it or not, Alpha DVD is pretty much just me. I have a graphic artist who works for me on a contract basis, and a couple of C++ and Visual Basic programmers who also work for me when I need them. I do all the video and audio compression, the DVD title authoring, write the DVD-ROM installation programs, devleop the web sites and maintain them.

    You can see why I can only work on 3-4 title a year.

    (Pete) How do you like the new Microsoft WebDVD SDK? Have you found any bugs or short comings?

    (Ralph) As Jim Taylor can tell you I have found more than a few bugs and shortcomings with the current release of WebDVD. That is to be expected with a Beta release of a new technology. All things considered it works pretty well.

    If you ever get the chance to see a WebDVD demo in person you will be impressed by all the capabilities it has to offer.

    I dont know if the Mars title will be the first WebDVD released, but it will certainly be one of the first and it will have some features that will even impress the folks at Microsoft.

    (Forum Moderator) I would like to close questions at this point, so that Ralph can respond to some of the followups in the early discussion.

    Thank you.

    (Charlie) What is the MSRP for your DVD releases considering what they offer in comparison to these studios that often release bare-bone DVDs with little or no features?

    (Ralph) Lets see.

    Earthlight and Earthlight Special Editon are $29.95
    USA on DVD is $59.95
    AVIA is $49.99
    Mars will be $24.95
    Pacific will probably be $24.95
    The Planets will probably be $24.95

    These are all higher than a standard DVD-Video title, but in general are less than most DVD-ROM titles.

    (Forum Moderator) Well, time flies... and we don't want to take too much of that from Ralph LaBarge.

    Ralph, thank you kindly for stopping by. If you have the time, please feel free to post any responses to the follow up questions that some people threw in.

    To the rest of you, I would like to extend a thank you as well for taking the time to present the questions you had for Ralph. I will be making the materials dicussed here easily accessible for review in the coming days.

    On a final note, we will be randomly selecting a number based on the total amount of individuals that posted messages. The number selected will point in the direction of one lucky winner of a DVD of their choice. Numbers will be consecutively applied to contributors in the order that messages were posted.

    Thanks again for everyone's help in in this event... and a big thanks to Ralph of Alpha DVD (http://www.alphadvd.com) for extending us his wealth of knowledge!

    - Marc

    (Ralph) Thanks for having me, and I hope I answered everyones questions. If not, send me an email and I will try to get back to you as soon as I can.

    Ralph LaBarge
    [email protected]

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