While researching for my previous two-part article (Part 1, Part 2), I stumbled across something interesting that I hadn't encountered before. It ended up on the cutting room floor due to space, but I thought it was worth exploring further in this diverting little side topic. If you could just scooch over a bit closer and allow me to whisper conspiratorially in your ear: the MIL-CD enhanced audio disc might not have been the only special multimedia format that Sega invented especially for the Dreamcast - they may have also toyed with the idea of snubbing the DVD Consortium by producing their own proprietary digital video disc format for movies and films. Hush, stifle your gasp, they'll hear you.
|N-n-no Mr. Bighead, I didn't tell them. Honest.|
You may have noticed some logos during the start up sequence of many Dreamcast games for ADX and Sofdec. These are the CRI developed middleware tools for sound compression and multi-streaming video respectively. ADX allowed for CD quality audio to be compressed and encoded into the high-density GD-ROM layer (as opposed to standard 'red book' audio tracks). Sofdec was an enhanced version of the MPEG-1 video standard which not only encoded standard FMV cut-scenes into games, but was also tailored towards providing 3D game designers with access to some pretty swish graphical trickery. Video files could be rendered as textures over 3D objects and they could also utilise full alpha blending for effects such as explosions, fire and smoke. Multiple video files could be played synchronously or asynchronously and they could also be looped and stitched together seamlessly. All in all, Sofdec is probably a substantial reason as to why Dreamcast games looked so good (and have aged well like fine wines too). CRIWARE, as they are now known, continue to flog their wares to this day, proudly waving their flag in recent games like Bungie's Destiny.
The seamless transition from one video file to another implies that FMV games or interactive movies were tailor-made to take advantage of the Sofdec toolkit, and that they could be made better and more dynamic than the old and much maligned Mega CD and 3DO titles of yore (better being a subjective term). These features were put to good use in games like D2 and other lesser known Japanese FMV titles like es and Dancing Blade. However, this leads us to an interesting hypothetical - what if we wanted to publish an interactive movie, but without the interactive bits?
|See! Look how dynamic and interactive this scene is!|
Possibly hidden away in the Dreamcast's Software Development Kit (SDK) is a reference to a propriety disc format known as DcVD – Dreamcast Video Disc. If someone who is more technically skilled and resourceful than I am can confirm this, I'd really appreciate it, as there is very little information about it online. Assuming that this is true, the idea was to encode movies or films using the custom Sofdec format and publish them on GD-ROMs, resulting in a brand new digital video standard for Dreamcast as an alternative to DVD. The following table compares the digital video formats of the time, and where the DcVD would've ranked in comparison, based on fairly typical NTSC settings.
As you can see, the DcVD compares very favourably against the CD based formats, and is just a stone's throw away from DVD quality. I don't know if the format may have even benefited from the Dreamcast's inherent filtering and anti-aliasing techniques to help smooth out the compression artefacts that are found in many first generation DVD releases. The only downside is the limited capacity of about 1 hour per disc. This could be overcome by using multiple or double sided discs (which was a common solution in the VCD and Laserdisc era) or by trading lower quality against higher capacity and reducing the bit rate and/or resolution to squeeze a typical 2 hour-ish movie onto one disc. These 'Compressed' Dreamcast Video Discs would be known as CDcVDs (try and say that acronym 5 times fast!).
So far, I have to yet to find a single movie commercially released on Dreamcast Video Disc, which is hardly surprising. It's laughably unlikely that Sega would've convinced any film studios or publishers to support the format's rather specific and limited market share (although not inconceivable). Most likely it was merely intended to be used for demo discs and non-interactive gameplay videos. One example might have been the non-playable, 'White Label' demo disc of Half Life – I don't have a copy myself, so I'm not sure whether it was a DcVD or not. Another piece of weird Dreamcast paraphernalia that I do actually have is this credit card sized demo disc that featured non-playable video demos with a navigation menu, although in this case the format seems to be designated 'DC&WinCE' on the security ring.
In any case, I can't even find any official announcement about the format, or in fact any acknowledgement of its existence by either Sega or CRI. Most references to the format online look a bit questionable and amateurish. I even emailed an inquiry to CRIWARE, to see if they could shed some light, but they haven't responded yet. So, with all cards on the table, this could all just be completely unfounded rumour and speculation, with no actual basis in reality - but it feels like it could be true (investigative journalism at its finest).
Sega would flirt with the idea of providing DVD playback to Dreamcast owners at some stage in its projected lifespan, although it was never really clear whether this would be achieved through a Mega CD style add-on, or just a new replacement model. At the 2000 E3 trade show, Sega displayed a Dreamcast branded DVD player as proof of the concept, although it was later revealed to be a non-functioning shell, and this is probably as far as the idea ever went. Sega of Europe bundled new Dreamcasts with a multi-region DVD player in the lead up to the 2000 Christmas season in a valiant effort to stem the tide against the rampaging PS2 juggernaut. With this in mind, there probably wasn't a lot of faith in the DcVD format, if indeed it was ever even considered as a viable option.
This is an extreme example of a very poorly encoded DVD, highlighting the
A mini GD-ROM in 'DC&WinCE' format. This is the closest I could find to a DcVD.
|Would this monstrosity have made a difference to the Dreamcast's (mis)fortunes?|
Industrious hacker OVERRiDE would pull apart the Dreamcast SDK to make these ADX and Sofdec tools accessible to us mere mortals, and crafted some software for making self-booting movies using the hacked MIL-CD format. The imaginatively titled 'Dreamcast Movie Creator' is still kicking about online, although it only works in Windows 98 (or XP in 98 compatibility mode). At the maximum bit rate of 3.2Mbit/s, a 700MB CD could hold up to 38 minutes of near DVD quality video (with 480p progressive scan available via VGA output). To squeeze a 2 hour movie onto one disc, the recommended settings were 352x288p with an average variable bit rate of 0.66Mbit/s. I'm in the process of building a souped-up Win98 machine, so I'll be sure to give this a go once I get a chance.
|Where did you want to go yesterday?|
Nowadays, there are a number of unofficial software packages and some dubious Chinese hardware available to playback VCDs or CD-Rs loaded with videos encoded in modern codecs such as DivX, Xvid, MPEG4, and AVI. Ultimately, this is all a bit of a useless frivolity, as we have plenty of devices today that can playback movies without resorting to our humble Dreamcasts. However, there's something romantic about the idea of the DcVD though, using the Dreamcast's native architecture and SDK to create a video format that was on par with the unfairly expensive to license DVD. In some wacky alternative universe, we'd be thumbing our noses at the PS2s inferior artefact-riddled DVD library while we all basked in the glory of our Sega-licensed, gold standard, pixelisation-proof DcVD movie collection.
|Haha! You backed the wrong pony, sucker!|
I have half a mind to do a kickstarter to bring the DcVD format to life, using OVERRiDE's self-booting MIL-CD method and getting them pressed professionally instead of burnt to CD-R, just to show that it could have been done and that the concept was sound. There are a number of public domain films out there that could be used, most of which are in black and white, so with optimum bit rate settings they might even compress favourably to fit onto one CD. Some suggested favourites below:
|Three top-rated public domain movies, and Robocop, because Robocop is awesome.|
What do you guys think? Worth considering?