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Japan aims for the lead in DVD production

The battle over the standard for DVD production began heating up on Wednesday in a sleepy village near Tokyo.

Memory-Tech, one of Japan's largest optical disc makers, demonstrated production of HD-DVD discs using a slightly modified DVD production line at its factory in Akeno. The company said it will be able to produce HD-DVDs initially at a premium of about 10% over current DVDs and rapidly move to near-DVD prices.

Memory-Tech showed an optical disc production line turning out HD-DVD discs at a rate of one every 3.5 seconds. After several minutes of production, the line was halted and switched to DVD production by swapping the disc stamping tool. The switch took about five minutes, after which the same production line turned out DVDs at a cycle time of three seconds.

"This is an example of cutting-edge production technology in the heart of the countryside," said Ryoichi Hayatsu, chief manager of NEC's storage division. The HD-DVD format has been largely developed by NEC and Toshiba.

The fact that the Memory-Tech demonstration has focused on optical disc production and not the more consumer-friendly areas of picture or sound quality could indicate that the battle between HD-DVD and the rival Blu-ray disc format will be fought not in the living room, but in the boardrooms of movie producers and DVD distributors.

When it comes to picture and sound quality, there is little to tell the two formats apart. Both deliver digital high-definition images most users would be hard-pressed to distinguish. HD-DVD has an edge in that it uses more advanced video compression codecs, but backers of Blu-ray are also considering using the same codecs - MPEG4 and Microsoft's VC9 - thus eliminating this competitive edge.

Representatives of several content producers, including Time Warner, the Walt Disney Company and Fox Broadcasting have been shown the same demonstration and were impressed, according to Hayatsu. "They said... cost is the most important. If it costs even one cent more you lose," he said.

Memory-Tech aims to reduce cycle times to three seconds within a year or so, according to Kanji Katsuura, Memory-Tech's chief executive of technology for next-generation DVD. Beyond that, 2.5 seconds may be possible, he said. By reducing the cycle time the disc production costs should fall.

Memory-Tech will release details of its production technology to help convince other DVD makers that HD-DVDs can be produced easily, according to Katsuura. "The equipment makers are ready," he said.

Martyn Williams and Paul Kallender write for the IDG News Service

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