Ghost In The Shell promo UMD

Weird Formats: What Is UMD And Why Haven’t You Heard Of It?

Happening upon a something in the database that’s familiar in title, yet foreign in format is still a great source of joy for many of us in the database communities. You get so used dropping the needle on a record, or a DVD into the drive, you kind of forget about the history and stories of each format. The hard-fought battles for ubiquity, and the degree of luck and good business sense of a few suits could (and did) make or break certain formats. And yet, as collectors and enthusiasts, they’re such a big part of our lives. They’re the vehicle.

We got this rush when discovering CED in the Filmogs database; the strange and short-lived phenomena of video on vinyl. We recently spotted a new format of interest that’s entered the top 10 most contributed formats on Filmogs: Sony’s UMD. Turns out there are also a few UMDs in the Discogs database too.

UMD, or Universal Music Disc, is an optical disc format, introduced in 2004 for use with their handheld gaming device, Playstation Portable (PSP). It looks similar to Sony’s MiniDisc, though the MiniDisc only held music.

Despite what the name suggests, the PSP was not just for gaming. While the UMDs were primarily made for PSP games, Sony issued a pretty impressive catalog of film releases on UMD between 2004 and its ultimate demise in 2011. At some points, the PSP’s UMD film releases even outnumbered its game titles. This included new release films, TV shows, stand up, music and concert footage (see a comprehensive list of UMD releases).

UMDs In The DBs

Blockbuster film titles on Sony's UMD format for PSP

UMD – The Technical Details

UMDs hold up to 1.8gb of data (for reference, a standard CD can hold up to 700mb, or a single layer DVD can hold about 4.7gb). Video is encoded in the H.264/MPEG-4 AVC format, with audio in ATRAC3plus. Video is typically encoded in 720×480 resolution, but is scaled down when displayed on the PSP.

DVD region coding has been applied to most UMD movies and music. Games, however, are region free as regional lockout doesn’t apply.

Special Releases on UMD

Sony secured a few special titles in an effort to buoy the UMD format; The Offspring released their Complete Music Video Collection on UMD. Over in the UK, several BBC programmes, like The Office, The Mighty Boosh, Doctor Who, and Little Britain got UMD releases.

Meanwhile in Japan, took the adult-content route. While some questioned whether porn was a good approach, others remembered the format war between Betamax and VHS, which proved adult-oriented material can impact the expansion of a new media format.

Got Films On UMD? Add Them To Filmogs!

The early rise sharp decline of the UMD

UMD film releases enjoyed some early success. Sales cracked 500,000 within a few months when they launched in 2004. It took DVDs about a year to sell that many when they were first introduced in 1997.

However, it was a not a long-lived success. As early as 2006, two major studios had stopped releasing titles on the format, with others not far behind. Retailers also started to back away from UMDs around this time. Walmart dropped them completely in 2006 and were followed by other big chains.

Some of that early success for UMD films was attributed to the lack of blockbuster PSP games, leading retailers to give more prominent shelf space to films. With around 240 film titles released or in the pipeline within the first five months of the UMD’s launch, it was significantly more than the number of games being released. Some say it was too much too fast. It may have been confusing for consumers, who thought they were buying a gaming console — only to be marketed film titles.

Why didn’t UMD take off?

Sony is notorious for its proprietary formats. The problem is that it’s basically the same as a DVD — but less convenient, was more expensive for the consumer, and didn’t have the additional features and bonus material DVDs often come with. But if you need more reasons, here are a few:

– It’s a very niche product. The target market is restricted to Sony PSP owners — a device that appeals to a pretty specific demographic.

– You could only watch them on the small PSP screen, at least until Sony tried introducing an additional accessory so you could play them on a TV. That essentially turned the PSP into a DVD player, which many people already had anyway.

– Apple’s video-capable iPod surfaced around the mid-2000s, which obviously didn’t require carting around a bunch of discs.

– PSPs were painfully slow-loading, much of which was down to the device reading the disc.

– Many early buyers found the plastic housing for the disc would split apart and let the disc fall out, rendering them unplayable.

– They’re an awkward size. Handheld gamers of the era were used to cartridges.

Sony stopped releasing films on UMD in 2011, and the PSP was discontinued in 2014. We can’t be sure how many music or film titles were issued on UMD — the most comprehensive list we’ve seen put the estimate at around 650, but it could be a lot higher than that. With only 100 releases catalogued between the Discogs and Filmogs databases, we need more UMD submissions! And what better time than the September Pledge Initiative to get involved?

Got a music UMD that isn’t on Discogs, or a film UMD not yet on Filmogs? Add it now and score your way onto the leaderboard for S.P.IN.!

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