Blu-ray interactivity enlivens 'Sleeping Beauty'

Disney wants to awaken sales of the Blu-ray Disc format, and the studio knows it'll take more than a kiss to get the job done. In October, Disney will release its first animated classic on the high-definition video format, Sleeping Beauty, with high-tech viewing options not possible with DVD.

Using a new technology known as BD Live — which connects to the Internet — viewers will pop in the disc and get a customized version of the famed castle that serves as a backdrop for the menu. The sky will reflect weather conditions in the viewer's hometown.

Once viewers begin watching, they'll be able to chat with friends right on the movie screen, using a laptop, BlackBerry or other PDA, through Disney's protected network. They'll be able to insert customized video messages anywhere in the movie and send them to friends or family members via a "movie mail" feature.

They'll be able to play trivia games with fellow viewers across the country. And when they're done, they can get a constant supply of new trailers, plus trade in "reward" points, collected by using many of these features, for ringtones and wallpaper.

Sleeping Beauty "will revolutionize the way people will interact with and view movies in the home," says Bob Chapek, president of Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment. "We pulled out all the stops in launching this technology."

The Blu-ray format could use a wake-up call. Despite competing format HD-DVD giving up the field in early February, sales of BD players fell 40% from January to February, and recouped only 2% of that loss in March, according to a report from market tracking firm The NPD Group. (Figures do not include sales of Sony's PS3 game system, which also plays BD video discs and is on the upswing.)

But there's a hitch: Current Blu-ray owners — except for those with PS3s — won't be able to access Sleeping Beauty's online features. BD Live is part of a revised Blu-ray Profile 2.0, which will start to appear on machines from Sony and Panasonic this summer. Players already bought can't be upgraded.

"I hate that; it sounds like planned obsolescence," says Farrell Rigney, 50, a contractor in Carlsbad, Calif., who bought a Blu-ray Disc player the day after Thanksgiving. "They plan it so you have to buy another one, just like with cellphones."

The studios insist they aren't trying to make life difficult for consumers, just trying to keep packaged media alive. DVD sales are slipping, and the studios hope Blu-ray will rekindle consumer interest enough to continue buying discs instead of downloading movies.

At this point, Blu-ray accounts for about 5% of overall disc sales, according to Nielsen VideoScan. To really start the ball rolling, studios believe it'll take not just a clearer picture but a completely different and interactive experience.

That's the chief reason Disney is pushing the envelope with Sleeping Beauty, much as the studio pushed people to DVD in late 2001 with an innovative special edition of Snow White, which became the first disc to sell 1 million units in a single day.

Disney isn't the only studio working with BD Live technology, although others' early efforts aren't as elaborate. Lionsgate's Blu-ray War and Saw IV, released in January, offer chat features.

Sony released two BD Live features in April, The Sixth Day and Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, with downloadable extra content. And 20th Century Fox's Alien vs. Predator lets viewers superimpose themselves into a game and play against others over the Internet.

"Blu-ray Disc alone is a significantly different viewing experience, with seamless menus and other technological advances that make DVD seem almost clunky," says Sony Pictures' Lexine Wong. "But with BD Live, it's a whole other world. BD Live allows packaged media to live forever."

The online additions could give Blu-ray a lift, says Russ Crupnick of The NPD Group. "BD Live promises to move potential buyers off the sidelines," he says. "We are in an increasingly interactive environment, with online gaming, social networking and virtual communities like Second Life ingraining themselves into pop culture. Taking that experience into the living room is a natural next step."