PS3 BD-Live Blu-ray Impressions With Walk Hard

Sony Computer Entertainment rolled out Blu-ray Profile 2.0 to Playstation 3 consoles via the latest firmware update late last week in a swift move to finalize Blu-ray’s features. Downloading and installing the update gave PS3 the immediate means to view BD-Live content, i.e. access online content through select BD-Live enable Blu-ray titles. The only catch: no BD-Live enabled titles had hit the street.

Thanks to our friends at Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, I now possess a pre-release copy of Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story on Blu-ray. Walk Hard is one of two April 8 Blu-ray titles that will feature BD-Live access, the other being The 6th Day. You’d never know Walk Hard was BD-Live enabled by looking at it as there’s no mention of the technology on the front or back cover art. But I knew what the disc was packing and was eager to see if the final product was worth the hype.

Accessing BD-Live on Walk Hard is as simple as selecting special features from disc one’s main menu, then selecting BD-Live. Doing so turns the screen black momentarily, then brings up a red loading bar that ironically is eaten by blu(e) as the BD-Live menu is accessed. Either this analogy of Blu-ray eating HD DVD is a freaky coincidence or someone on the development team has a twisted sense of humor.

Symbolic, or coincidence?
Total load time for the BD-Live menu to appear is roughly 4 minutes on my high-speed DSL connection. Subsequent visits cut that time down to under 1 minute give or take a few seconds. That’s still an eternity to wait for a menu in this age of “gotta have it now” home entertainment, much less the content behind it.

The BD-Live menu includes only Sony Pictures content, headlined by a trio of Derek Stone (Bill Hader) featurettes, Royal Jelly, Mulatto, and Midget Man, where he fills the shoes of a “Coxologist” and breaks down the three Dewey songs. Other available downloads include six Blu-ray trailers in standard or high-def: Untraceable, Dragon Wars, First Sunday, Resident Evil Extinction, Men in Black (not yet announced, but will be *very* soon), and Gattaca, along with three theatrical trailers.

Each Coxologist featurette runs approximately 2-3 minutes but takes 4-5 minutes to download, plus another minute or so to load up. The good news in this is by downloading the material onto PS3’s hard-drive, it can be accessed in the future without the wait. The bad news is not having the option to stream it instead. As if the wait isn’t eternal enough, the featurettes are presented in unwelcome and unexpected full-screen standard definition. What’s the point of accessing Blu-ray exclusive features if they aren’t in high definition, and why force consumers into downloading them at all when they could easily fit onto the second dedicated supplemental features disc?

At least the Blu-ray trailers are offered with an HD option, so without hesitation I clumsily moved the hard-to-see highlighted cursor over to the high-def Men in Black trailer. Given the standard-def featurettes took nearly 5 minutes to download, I feared the worse for Men in Black and got it. My first attempt resulted in an “error message” after several minutes and I had to start over. Maybe the Internet connection had a hiccup? Hard to say, really. My second attempt resulted in the download bar freezing altogether. After backing all the way out to the Playstation 3 menu, I headed back in for yet another attempt.

My third attempt to grab the MIB trailer successfully completed the download in 18 minutes, but in the back of my head I was thinking of how quickly I could have watched it on the Internet via streaming instead. While the download completed, getting it to actually play turned into a chore. It took another two failed attempts that ended in a dead black screen before I finally was able to view the trailer, which ran at a paltry 7ish mbps in 2.0 audio.

Sony’s BD-Live menu, in all its glory (click to enlarge)
Retries and long load times is a lot of hassle to watch a single trailer unless the problems stemmed solely from my Internet connection. I’m inclined to say they didn’t as I had no other issues with my connection from the Playstation menu bar or my computer, and have downloaded numerous game demos, games and trailers from the Playstation Network without a hitch. The only other possibility is the BD-Live server(s) can’t handle the capacity of what must only be a handful of journalists and insiders previewing the technology at this time. If true, hundreds or possibly even thousands of viewers hitting the server(s) simultaneously is a scary thought.

There’s certainly potential for BD-Live to thrive in the future, but there’s equally cause for concern. Slow download times will be an instant deal breaker for many casual consumers accustomed to speedier content via an Internet browser, even PS3’s. Standalone Blu-ray players will need a hard-drive or memory card to store BD-Live content. Adding an option to stream content will help alleviate this frustration, but whether Sony implements this remains to be seen.

Even if Sony evolves their BD-Live service into a winner, it’s still unclear how other studios will approach BD-Live content. The lack of non-Sony product on this portal indicates each studio will have their own unique menus, much the same way Warner and Universal treated web-enabled content on HD DVD. Those online features never really took off, and I’d be willing to wager the lack of a unified interface ala Xbox Live or Playstation Network is partially to blame.

The Blu-ray Disc studios might want to rethink their strategy and look no further than the success of online videogame communities for a road map to achieving mass online adoption. In its current state, the hullabaloo surrounding BD-Live has been silenced by a technology clearly in its infancy and searching for an identity.

– Dan Bradley

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