The Blu-ray tail is wagging the UltraViolet dog

While watching The Daily Show the other night, I saw a commercial (I hadn't had a chance to DVR past it) for the impending release of the Denzel Washington starrer Safe House in a Blu-ray combo pack.

According to the ad, the combo-pack gives you three ways to watch, anytime, anywhere: a Blu-ray disc, a DVD and a digital copy "PLUS all-new UltraViolet."

Uh, wouldn't that be FOUR ways to watch anytime, anywhere? While Universal's viewing arithmetic may be faulty, what may be even more off is the fourth billing given UltraViolet.

What's UltraViolet? Possibly the future of all home video — if the powers-that-be can smooth out some start-up kinks.

UltraViolet is an effort by the five biggest Hollywood studios — Warner, Sony, Fox, Universal and Paramount, along with little major Lionsgate (the Twilight series, The Hunger Games, and TV's Mad Men) and around 75 other hardware and movie streaming companies — to let us buy the rights to a copy of a movie and watch it on a variety of devices and apps and services such as Flixster, Hulu or Vudu at home or away.

The catch is, this all-access UltraViolet version — which can be streamed from the cloud or downloaded — is free as long as you pay for the original disc copy.

How UltraViolet Works

It's funny that Universal is touting UltraViolet for Safe House. Even though there are only around 50 Blu-ray movies with UltraViolet, nearly every new release from Universal going forward will be UltraViolet-enabled.

In other words, UltraViolet will be the new normal.

To watch your UltraViolet movie, you have to first sign up for an UltraViolet account at the service's Web site. On an iPad or Android tablet, you have to download the Flixster app and create a second account. (Little tip: I'd use at least an eight-digit password for both — the Flixster site won't accept a shorter one.)

Inside an UltraViolet-enabled Blu-ray jewel case is slip of paper with a 12-digit UltraViolet code. You have to go to the Flixster Web page and "Redeem Your UltraViolet Digital Copy." You enter your movie's UltraViolet code to activate the cloud-based UltraViolet copy of your movie.

Generously, you can include up to five family members in your UltraViolet account. This is handy if you're visiting family or to let your offspring access your library.

At some point, you'll be able to access your UltraViolet movies via the program guide on your TV; Cox and Comcast are among the cable companies who are members of the UltraViolet group, for instance.

But why you need two accounts and can redeem the UltraViolet code only at the Flixster site and not at the UltraViolet site is dumb. And I suffered all manner of account issues as a result.

Once I had the UltraViolet and Flixster accounts all set up, I was able to download my UltraViolet movies via the Flixster app on my iPad to watch on a plane and in other non-connected locales. It actually proved to be quite handy, as long as you remember the movies are located within the Flixster app, not in the iPad Video app.

UltraVioleting Your Current Location

But if you're like me (and God help you if you are), you probably have a lot of DVDs and Blu-rays at home you'd love to get UltraViolet access to.

Any minute now, Samsung will start selling new Blu-ray players with disc-to-digital capabilities to create UltraViolet editions from your old DVDs (not Blu-ray discs — yet). These UltraViolet editions will run you around $1 to $2 each for a DVD-quality copy, maybe more for an HD version. Other Blu-ray players are likely to add this DVD-to-digital capability later this year.

If you don't want to buy a new Blu-ray player, you can schlep your DVDs to Walmart to have them UltraViolet'd — just make sure you check with Vudu, which is handling the logistics, to see if your movies exist in UltraViolet form. According to the UltraViolet folks, there are around 3,000 UltraViolet digital catalog titles available.

Fortunately or unfortunately, there are no Walmarts in Manhattan. So a compatriot of mine, Shelby, went to her local Walmart in Dallas, Texas, to try turning some of her DVDs into UltraViolet copies.

How'd it work out? Not well. After a couple of hours and having to creating a second Vudu account, her movies — and only her Harry Potter movies qualified — wouldn't play.

If you don't want to buy a new DVD player or schlep your DVDs down to Walmart, I've been told one of the UltraViolet partners is preparing software that would let you convert your discs on your PC. That makes a hell of a lot more sense and I anxiously await its arrival.

UltraViolet Tail Wagging The Blu-ray Dog

Even if the varying UltraViolet vehicles ran flawlessly, one thing nags at me — why do we need to buy a disc to get the cloud version? Why not just let us buy the UltraViolet edition on its own? This is like being forced to buy the hardcover copy of Fifty Shades of Grey in order to get the e-book version.

Apple and Amazon, of course, already let you buy and watch movies on your PC or mobile device anytime, anywhere — no silly disc necessary. This, to me, seems like the right idea, and it's not exactly a new one.

We're in the midst of a transitional period where music, books, TV shows and movies on physical media are the dog with a digital tail.

But inexorably, physical media will virtually disappear, replaced by the virtual. Hollywood will eventually understand that UltraViolet is not the tail, but the dog. But the UltraViolet folks still have some work to do to get that dog to hunt.

Full Disclosure: DVICE is owned by Syfy, an NBCUniversal property.

This article uses an image asset courtesy Matthew Jacques/Shutterstock.

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