Home Electronics: DVDs on Demand
luxurious home theaters present one irritating inconvenience: They hide the DVD player in a separate utility room. The simple task of scanning a half-dozen new discs to choose the evening’s entertainment often demands repeated round-trips from your theater recliner to the equipment rack. Even the cruelest high school gym teacher seldom metes out such tedious punishment.
Fortunately, a few creative entrepreneurs have made selecting a movie as easy as choosing a main course at Chez Panisse. Instead of sorting through discs in near-darkness, you view your DVD collection on a menu, displayed right on your video screen. Craving a comedy? Select that genre, and your screen fills with offerings from Woody Allen or perhaps the Farrelly Brothers. Need something to calm your kindergartener? At a touch, a list of your G-rated DVDs appears. Care to punish a misbehaving mother-in-law? Offer her the collected works of Chris Kattan. One more touch starts your movie of choice.
The electronics industry has yet to settle on a name for these devices, but the term “DVD server” seems to fit. While DVD servers vary considerably in sophistication, all sort your collection automatically, using an Internet connection and online databases. All you do is load your DVDs, and the server does the rest.
The pacesetter in this nascent field is Kaleidescape, the creation of a Silicon Valley brain trust. The Kaleidescape System combines the user-friendliness of a toaster with the graphical sophistication of an Apple Macintosh and the understated muscle of a Maybach sedan. Kaleidescape takes a brute-force approach to DVD access. Load a DVD, and the server copies that DVD to one of its computer-style hard drives. The server accommodates as many as 12 hard drives; a fully loaded server stores about 440 movies. DVD fanatics can add more servers as the need arises. One server can play as many as seven movies simultaneously, so you can use a single Kaleidescape System to feed several rooms of your home.
The user interface, though, is what elevates Kaleidescape above its competitors. It shows the cover art of each DVD onscreen. Select a movie, and you can access more information about it: the genre, cast, director, rating. Pick Braveheart, select Mel Gibson from its cast listing, and the titles of other Mel Gibson movies appear. You may find browsing your DVD collection as entertaining as watching a movie. When you do finally choose a flick, the Kaleidescape System brings you right into the action, skipping the trailers, the menus, and the FBI warning if you prefer.
You can outfit several rooms with Kaleidescape for the cost of an entry-level sports car. Those who seek similar convenience and can tolerate a somewhat less gratifying user interface may opt for simpler systems from such companies as Escient and ReQuest Multimedia. These DVD servers rely on comparatively old-fashioned technology—they consist of a central controller that sources video from one or more DVD changers.
The Escient FireBall DVDM-100 displays DVD cover art onscreen; it also interfaces with other Escient components so you can access MP3 digital music files, CDs, and Internet radio stations through a single user interface. The ReQuest Multimedia VideoReQuest server offers more modest capabilities, but it manages 1,600 DVDs (compared to the Escient DVDM-100’s capacity of 1,209).
DVD servers have generated so much excitement among home theater enthusiasts that several other companies are racing to catch up with (and, they hope, surpass) Kaleidescape. The days of ordinary DVD players and disorganized racks full of DVDs may be numbered.