Simply put, UltraViolet is a bridge technology between physical media like a DVD or Blu-Ray disc, and pure digital media that only arrives as streamed playback on your device. What it does is effectively give you both viewing options for your purchase. In addition to your physical disc, UltraViolet gives you a copy of the same movie in the cloud, ie, in a secure digital "locker" somewhere on a remote server. When you want to watch the movie on your home theater, you can pop in your disc. When you want the kids to watch the same movie in the car on your iPad, smartphone or other device, you simply retrieve the UltraViolet copy and there it is.
Once you have the UltraViolet copy of a film, you effectively "own" it, and are able to watch it whenever or wherever you want for no additional charge. In truth, you don't actually own the movie, you own a license to watch it, but that's another story better told by copyright attorneys with magnifying glasses for fine print.
In theory, UltraViolet is a win-win for everyone -- consumers get "buy once play anywhere" value, and content studios get the digital rights and authentications that they demand. It's backed by 70 members of a consortium called the Digital Entertainment Content Ecosystem (DECE), which is made up of movie studios, consumer electronics manufacturers, cable companies, ISPs and other parties that have a vested interest in making sure content is accessible but secure (and paid for).
How Does UltraViolet Work?
You begin by creating an UltraViolet account, which is, unfortunately, still easier in theory than in practice. Even though your account will actually "live" at the UltraViolet site, different movie studios require to you sign up at their sites as well, so there are actually two signups (and two user names and passwords) involved. Once you do this, all the sites for the different will link together, but for now it's still an extra step.
For Warner Brothers titles you need to use www.Flixster.com, for Sony Pictures it's www.ultraviolet.sonypictures.com; for titles by Universal Studios it's www.UniversalDigitalCopy.com; and for Paramount titles, you use www.ParamountMovies.com. As you can see, this system is still in its early stages and not terribly convenient to get started with.
Once you've got an account set up, up to six household members are allowed to use it. The account gives you access to a digital locker where the licenses for purchased content are stored and managed regardless of where the content was initially purchased. Account holders will be able to stream UltraViolet-enabled content most places they can connect to the Web.
You'll be able to use up to 12 UltraViolet-compatible media player apps or hardware devices, and copy UltraViolet download files directly to any of them. Interestingly, the system works in both directions. You can buy a disc and have the streamed content made available to you from the cloud -- or, you also have the option of watching streamed content, and if you decide later that you also want a physical copy, the UltraViolet system will let you download the content onto a recordable disc or a secure flash memory stick. Up to three simultaneous streams can be transmitted, so different family members can watch different movies at the same time, and not necessarily in the same place.
UltraViolet doesn't actually keep the files. It coordinates and manages the rights for each account, but not the content itself, which is stored in the cloud on servers run by UltraViolet-compatible retailers (like Wal Mart or Best Buy) and streaming providers (like your cable company). In theory, this makes the streaming experience faster and more future-proof. There's also no problem with compatibility -- UltraViolet compatible content will play the same on any compatible media player or device. Both standard definition (such as DVD) and high definition (such as Blu-ray) are supported.
Obviously, only a high-definition player can play high definition content, though it is possible to upconvert standard video to high def through an extra service.
Wal Mart has already signed on with the studios to provide UltraViolet conversion for your existing DVD and Blu-Ray titles. Surely other providers will follow with the same service.
What's In It For You?
In theory, the UltraViolet solution unlocks all the potential of your many playback devices (TV, phone, tablet, PC, etc.) and lets you watch what you've paid for any way you want. The additional steps to do so are still tedious at this point, but it's a fair assumption that it will get better over time.
The interesting addition, in my opinion, is the ability to convert your existing content library (DVDs, etc.) to UltraViolet access and get the same "play anywhere" capability for investments that you've already made. At this time, the cost of transfer seems a bit high, and eventually, it's likely that users will be able to do this process themselves, instead of having to bring it to a third party like Wal Mart. But the idea of letting my existing film library live on any of my devices is an enticing one.
We'll be following the progress of UltraViolet over the course of its development -- stay tuned for more details. For the complete technical white paper on UltraViolet, click here.