Saturday, February 9, 2013

Ultraviolet: the movie industry's concept of streaming service

So, I recently bought a dvd that came with a code to get the same movie on an online service for streaming. I figured I'd give it a try, and I've been toying with the streaming services since then, and I thought it's time to share.

The movie industry is trying to come up with a way for you to buy your videos as streaming service rather than as physical discs. Most (not all, but most) of the major studios are participating in one system, called Ultraviolet. The way it works is, you get an Ultraviolet account, which stores your "owned" right to watch a video in streaming service, and then you also get accounts with providers of your choice which actually allow you to watch the movie either streaming or as a download. Example providers are Vudu (a subsidiary of Walmart), Flixster, and Sony.

You can end up "owning" a video on Ultraviolet in three ways: you can buy a disc (DVD or Bluray) that comes with a code that you enter into a provider's system to unlock ownership of the video, you can purchase it directly from the provider, or you can bring your discs to Walmart and pay them to unlock the videos for you on Ultraviolet.


There are reasons to use several different providers with one Ultraviolet account. They don't all have exactly the same movies available, different ones work with different devices (for example, only Flixster works with my Android devices, but only Vudu will stream to my Roku box), and if you get unlock codes with your DVD the unlock code may (or may not) require you to use a specific provider to get your video. This is all intensely stupid, since the whole point of Ultraviolet was to allow you to use your collection with whatever provider you want, but okay, whatever, get accounts with all of them, use them specifially as needed, but do most of your watching with the one you like best.

So, I first set up an Ultraviolet account, then tried to sign up with both Flixster and Vudu. That was easy... but Flixster went and created a new Ultraviolet account for me, while I already had one. Now I had two, and they had different movies on them, and that's not what I wanted. Ultraviolet handles this gracefully... you can merge accounts and it's easy to do. Great! Except, once I'd done that, Flixster had a meltdown and wouldn't let me correct my Ultraviolet account information. Repeated attempts to get help from Flixster customer service resulted in them repeatedly giving me inapplicable or outright wrong directions, and when I tried to make clear that no, they hadn't understood, and to clarify what was wrong, they just ignored me and gave me more bad advice that clearly indicated they hadn't actually looked at my account. In the end, I was forced to close my Flixster account and start a new one... but you can't start a new one with the same email, so I had to use a different email address to start a new one. It's a big pain and really soured me on Flixster.

Vudu handles everything much more smoothly, but I don't like their user interface. It seems to be Flash based, you can't sort your videos (you can sort the videos you don't own in their store but you can't sort the ones you paid for), and it uses non-standard scrollbars which don't work well. It's pretty but not as functional as it should be.

My advice: If you want to use these services, sign up with Flixster first, let them create an Ultraviolet account for you, get the UV account info from the account screen on Flixster, and then use that UV account to sign up for Vudu. (In both cases you can get a new account and indicate that you already have a UV account and use it, but Flixster makes it very easy to miss the interface elements to get it right and impossible to recover if you get it wrong, while Vudu doesn't.)

I later had to sign up with the Sony store to claim the UV code for a Sony movie I'd purchased. Sony required I update Silverlight software and restart my browser, which was a big pain in the ass, and then after doing so and signing up with their stupid Silverlight form (which really could have been done better with plain HTML) they just redirected me to Vudu to claim my video in the end anyway. Really stupid.


Both Flixster and Vudu give you some free movies for signing up. With Flixster, they gave me one movie for starting, then several more for performing certain actions, such as adding several movies to a wish-list or installing their software in my phone. Poke around their user interface and they have screens (one on the web site, one on the phone) that tell you outright how to get them to give you several more movies. Vudu just gives you 10 movies outright when you sign up, and then when I added them to my Roku box they gave me a $5 credit, good for rentals or purchases.

You don't get to pick your free movies, they choose them for you. They gave me a mix of garbage ("Wrong Turn 2 Dead End Unrated"), old stuff ("Lethal Weapon", "Big Trouble in Little China"), and good stuff ("The Producers", "Austin Powers"). Overall, a nice enough free perk, considering that I didn't really have to do much of anything to get it.


Both Flixster and Vudu also allow you to rent videos for streaming. With the Vudu software on my Roku box, this means I can rent videos whenever I like in high definition without leaving home and watch them on my TV. Of course, lets me do that too, and Amazon lets me see a lot of videos for free since I have their Prime service. If you have Prime anyway, Amazon is the better deal for rentals. If you don't have Prime, it's a tossup.

Vudo has separate rental prices for different resolutions. So, you pay more if you want to rent in high definition. Be careful to pay attention to the actual resolution of your devices before renting: For example, while I have a 1080p television, my Roku box through which I watch Vudu movies is actually only 720p, which is SD resolution, the cheapest... so there's no sense in me paying extra to rent higher resolution.


Many new videos that you buy on DVD or Bluray come with an Ultraviolet unlock code. This is a code printed on a piece of paper enclosed in the box with the disc. You go to a specified URL, type in the code, and you get the video added to your Ultraviolet account. So far I've had: one video that required I unlock on Flixster, one that required I unlock on Vudu, one that allowed me to unlock on either, and one that required me to go to Sony to unlock but after signing up and jumping through hoops Sony just sent me back to Vudu which unlocked the video anyway.

My advice is, if you get one of these Ultraviolet codes with your video, apply it to your Ultraviolet account! You paid for it, you might as well have it! (And if you don't want it, email the code to me...)


As I mentioned, you can get a video by purchasing it outright from a provider. This is a little weird. Some movies on the providers can't be purchased, only rented. (This is a minority.) When you can purchase, there are three to six different prices, and you have to pay attention to what you're paying for: videos come in three different resolutions, which are SD, HD, and HDX. These resolutions aren't really explained. SD, I figured out, is supposed to be equivalent to a DVD. HDX is supposed to be equivalent to a bluray. So what's HD? I don't know. Reading the help section on Vudu didn't help me much, they tell me HD is 1080p at 24fps and HDX is 1080p at 24fps, so I don't understand what the difference is. Anyway, the higher the resolution, the higher the price. There may also be three prices (at different resolutions) for rentals. Be careful not to accidentally rent if you intend to purchase or vice versa.

Prices for purchasing the videos are not good, and often it's cheaper to go buy a DVD or bluray disc. This seems immensely stupid. The industry wants us to adopt this system as standard, but they make it more expensive than buying discs? I'll stick with buying discs. I "bought" one video only, because I had my $5 signup credit and with that and the movie being on sale it was the same price for me to "buy" it or rent it, so I bought it on the grounds that if I like it now I can watch it again. Barring my having credits, I don't intend to spend my money outright buying movies on the service.


You can bring your DVDs or Blurays to Walmart, pay a couple dollars, and they unlock those videos on your Vudu account. The experience:

Start by going to your Vudu account and selecting Disc To Digital -> Convert DVDs from the menu. Enter your video's title in the search box. They don't have every video (they have a lot of popular videos but not so much the obscure ones), and not every video they have can be converted (for example, no Disney video can be converted), so if your video isn't listed, give up and try another. If it is listed, you may see it listed twice, both regular and Bluray. Select the one you have, not the one you want to have. (If you have bluray, select the one that says bluray. If you have DVD, select the one that does not say bluray.) You're then presented with a screen to "choose a resolution". If you have a DVD, you can choose standard definition (SD) or high definition (HDX). It costs $2 to convert a DVD to SD, or $5 to convert it with the upgrade to HDX. If you have a bluray, the only choice is high definition, which is $2. (In other words, it's $2 to convert at the resolution of the source material, $5 to upgrade.) Anyway, once you select your resolution the video is added to the list. This is just a list, you're not actually buying anything at this point. You can change the list before you do anything you're committed to. Make sure you get the videos you really intend on the list. I accidentally added a video with the right title but it was the wrong movie, so now I have a childrens' cartoon instead of an artistic costume drama.

You then print the list from Vudu (select "print list" in the middle of the Disc To Digital screen) and take the list, with the discs, to Walmart to the Photo Center counter and tell them you want the Disc To Digital conversion. They then wander around looking vaguely confused and finally find someone willing to help you, who may or may not know quite what they're doing. You give them the printout you made from Vudu. They sign into the computer, select the service, and look up your account - make them look it up by your email, which is on the printout you gave them near the top left. (Looking it up by other factors didn't seem to work well.) Once they successfully look you up, their computer already has your list. (Remember, Walmart owns Vudu.) Then, for no apparent reason they have to fill out a paper form - or not, depending on who is helping you and whether or not they know about the form. They have to see your discs - one guy just looked at the boxes and said "okay", another insisted on removing each disc from the box and stamping the rim of the back of the disc to indicate that it had been converted and couldn't be converted again. I suspect they're supposed to do the stamping but I had one guy who didn't know about it, and I wasn't going to waste my time by explaining.

When they're done with everything, they print a sticker from their computer. They stick this to the printout you gave them, scan it on the cash register, you pay, and then your videos are added to your Ultraviolet account through VUDU. I walked away feeling like it all took too much time and the process could have been designed much more efficiently.

MANY videos for sale at Walmart on DVD or Bluray come with two coupons for $2 (each) off disc-to-digital. This means you can bring the video back to Walmart and hand them a coupon and get it converted without paying anything. It's one coupon per purchase, but I managed to get them to accept four coupons at once (to convert four discs of course) by just asking nicely.

Vudu is testing software which would allow you to do disc-to-digital at home. You would run the software, put your video in the computer, it would validate that you own the video and then charge you the $2 online to convert it. This will obviously make it much easier. You'd need a computer drive that can read the video disc - so, if it's a bluray disc, you'd need a bluray drive.


This is the big question: why add videos to your Ultraviolet account if you already own them on disc? They haven't thought this through well and aren't giving good answers. Vudu says the answers are "store your dvds in the cloud" and "enjoy your movies on millions of devices", but I can store my dvds perfectly well on a shelf and I can enjoy them on a lot more devices by ripping the DVD than I can with their software. (Vudu doesn't let me use their software on any of my three relatively high end Android devices.)

The best reason I've come up with is quite different: sharing. I don't mean bittorrent, I mean completely legal, authorized sharing. You see, an Ultraviolet account allows you to create and authorize multiple users (up to six I believe), all of whom can watch your videos or contribute videos to the account. For me, this means I can let my father use my Ultraviolet videos, and if I have a movie I think he'll like I can get it converted and he can watch it without me mailing him a copy - it's both cheaper and faster for me to pay $2 to get a movie added to the account than it is for me to pay $10 to $20 to have a copy shipped to him. And, if he happens to buy any videos with Ultraviolet and add them, I get them too. It also means parents can let their kids continue to have access to the family video collection when they leave for college. To do this, sign into your Ultraviolet account directly at . From there you can add users to your account and adjust the levels of control you allow them to have (such as whether they can create other users). They then sign up for their own Vudu and Flixster accounts and use the Ultraviolet account info you gave them. This is better than just giving them access to your Vudu account directly because if you did that, they'd be able to buy videos with your credit card.

The other reason I have is the walmart coupons. If I get a coupon to let me convert a video for free, I might as well pick a video I think my dad might want to see and use the coupon. I don't often buy videos at Walmart, but if the price is the same as Amazon (which it sometimes is) and they have the coupons on the box and I happen to be at Walmart (that's the rare one), I can consider it. In other words, if Walmart wants to give me this service for free, I might as well take advantage of it.


My big concern about any sort of streaming system that implies ownership is whether the system will always be around. If I go buy a DVD, I own that DVD, I can keep it as long as I want to. If I "buy" a video on Ultraviolet, I really only have it as long as Ultraviolet is working and there's a provider that offers that video. If the system ever goes under, well, I'm out of luck, all the videos I "owned" go poof. And before you try to tell me "oh a big movie studio with a reputation to protect wouldn't do that", I'd like to point out that Microsoft - a big corporation with a reputation to protect - has done precisely that several times, closing down music services and leaving customers unable to use the music they purchased. And yes, they let you download the videos, but only for use in the context of their software, the videos are encrypted. So if they ever go out of business, you will only be able to watch the videos you already downloaded on the devices on which you already installed the software, and even that's assuming it doesn't have to phone the mothership for authorization to let you see your videos that you paid for.


Ultraviolet, as a system, is a good step for the movie industry, but they don't seem to have thought out the kinks of the system or the customer incentive very well. If they want it to catch on they need to make it all easier to understand and easier to use and they need to lower prices for purchases so it's actually cheaper to buy the video online than it is to buy a disc which you own and which has extra features the streaming version doesn't have. MP3s and ebooks both took off when they became cheaper than CDs and dead tree media. For something like Ultraviolet to take off, they need to make it cheaper than buying DVDs and Blurays. When it costs $8 to buy a bluray or $10 to buy the same movie on Vudu, my choice is clear. And, they need to resolve the ownership problem by putting in place actual guarantees such that I can feel confident that if I spend money on Ultraviolet, my "ownership" of videos won't someday go poof. Until then, it's a novelty that I'll toy with, but I won't spend any serious money on it.