Archive for November, 1993

Interactive Television

Tuesday, November 16th, 1993

(This column first appeared in the November 16 & 30, 1993 issues of PC Graphics Report)

For many months now, we’ve been reading and hearing about "convergence" – a generic term used to describe the coming together of several technologies. In particular, it refers to a combination of cable, television, multimedia, PCs, network programming, and perhaps a few other things mixed in. Add to that the on-going acquisition efforts of Paramount by Viacom and QVC (currently at over $10 billion and rising!), and Microsoft’s commitment to invest $100 million a year in developing this market, and you have a situation with lots of potential, providing you can understand it.

I had the opportunity to attend a conference on this topic a short while ago, entitled Convergence ’93 Interactive Television, and I must say the whole experience was rather fascinating. I’ll try to provide a broad overview of the convergence/interactive television (IT) market in this week’s column.

500 Channels, And There’s Still Nothing To Watch…
Convergence is supposed to bring us to a whole new plateau of information access from the home. In the process, the carrot dangled in front of us is that such information will be distributed through a 500-channel medium – imagine what new metaphysical experiences today’s couch potatoes will be able to experience with a 10-fold increase in channels!

The first question that always gets asked is: Seeing how difficult it is to get decent content on todays 50-60 channels, how can anyone fill 500 channels? There are several answers to this, as well as more problems raised by this concept.

First, we could probably fill at least 30-50 more stations with popular topics and ideas: the cooking channel (with cooking shows), the scenery channel (with soothing music and images), a 24-hour a day infomercial channel (scary thought), the computer channel (non-stop computer talk shows, how-to’s, etc.), the instructional channel series (home repair and improvement, auto mechanics, etc.), the golf channel, the games channel (for when some level of interactivity is available, or for downloading games into your game machine), the SEGA channel, and the list could go on.

Second, if you care for more international programming, you’d probably be able to access a large number of existing satellite channels, currently not supplied by your cable operator.

Next, even more channels could be filled with local access – the cost of production in such a situation, thanks to many of your companies, is almost negligible. You get a Video Toaster, Matrox’s Studio package, or similar hardware and software combinations for as little as a few thousand dollars, combine it with Animator Pro or one of dozens of other animation packages (for titling, graphical segues, or even full presentations), add a camcorder with video-out capability, and you can have your own channel too. Being a little creative would help as well.

So, that still doesn’t get us even half way to the 500 channels the new cable systems are purporting of supporting. Enter Near Video-On-Demand (NVOD). Many of you probably already have the ability to get pay per view (PPV) events on your cable systems. The problem is that you’re beholden to the cable operator’s show schedule. By taking those movies and offering them at 15-minute start intervals (i.e. each with its own channel), the average movie would consume six to eight channels. With twenty movies available, for example, somewhere between 120 and 160 channels would be consumed.

Based on all this, it certainly does look possible to use all 500 channels, but how will these become available via existing cable systems? The answer is compression, digital compression to be exact. If you can achieve a 10:1 compression ratio, you can supply 10 times as much actual information. With normal coax cable being limited to about 50 channels or so, digital compression could produce the explosion to 500 channels. It’s a rather simplistic explanation, but I think it brings the point across that digital compression is being counted on as the Rosetta Stone which will unlock the next major step in cable television.

While it became rapidly apparent during the conference that none of the companies could agree with any of the others on industry standards – the gist was "Our company believes in a single, industry-wide standard… providing it’s ours" – all the companies did agree that MPEG was the only real solution for digital compression and real-time decompression. An added benefit of using MPEG (or any other CoDec, for that matter) is that when or if we make a transition to HDTV displays, then a digital transport medium can be easily made to work on HDTV. The target device characteristics for digital television are a lot less critical than with NTSC, PAL, or SECAM broadcasts.

So, Which Channel Was That On?
One major problem surfaces, however, when looking at the plethora of possible channels, and that is channel navigation. With 300+ channels, in addition to PPV movies, how do you find which out which channel has what on it?

A number of companies at the conference presented their views of how things should work. One solution was to show four channels at once, one in each quadrant of the screen, with sound enabled for one at a time – certainly the ultimate in high-speed channel surfing! This has the same drawbacks that single-channel surfing has, including not knowing what’s on during a commercial. This latter item, could be resolved by having program information available with a given channel, but that require standards for encoding such information.

TV Guide demonstrated an interactive, on-screen TV Guide for navigating, which included an interface for handling parental restrictions, NVOD, PPV, and even program descriptions. A few other companies had similar user interface concepts but with different implementations. One company (my notes don’t indicate which one), even went as far as to propose a radical change via use of their user interface – pay per each viewing. For example, if you missed the regular free network broadcast of Seinfeld last Thursday night, you could ask to see it again at any time for a small charge (sub-dollar). Same would apply to any movie, talk show, sitcom, news reports, etc. While the logistics of both making the content available on demand and processing the billing for such a mechanism are overwhelming, it’s a really interesting concept – paying for content that you select, because you select it when it’s convenient for you.

The problem with the channel navigation schemes currently being evaluated here is a more innocuous one, however. Based on recent studies, a startling number of Americans are functionally illiterate (I believe the number was between 30-50% – not a misprint). Being functionally illiterate means that while you might, with moderate difficulty, be able to read text from the newspaper or book, you could probably not balance check books, order from a restaurant menu in a timely manner, read bus schedules, interpret assembly instructions for a toy, set the timer on a VCR, etc. Now imagine placing a complex remote control in the hands of a functionally illiterate person, and having them use a text oriented (or even partially graphically oriented) user interface on their television. That’s a sure way to create animosity towards the concept of future television, and thereby raise the level of technophobia undoubtedly already being experienced by many people. Perhaps the so-called Generation X, who have grown up with Nintendos and MTV, will be able to cope, but there are a whole lot of people that will shun such new technology, if it’s not intuitively easy to use for a wide range of differently skilled people. The convergence industry has a lot of work ahead of it to design truly intuitive interfaces that won’t alienate a significant number of consumers.

The Missing Link: The Set-Top Box
Now, I’ve described some of the possible worlds of wonder in the multi-hundred channel environment, but how do we get from today to then? Obviously, existing cable converter boxes, known as set-top boxes, can’t handle digital decompression, nor can they cope with intelligent user interface software. But, expect new breeds of set-top boxes to be just around the corner. Jerrold and Scientific-Atlanta both described their plans for set-top box evolution at the conference I was at, and SGI, Amiga, and 3DO indicated they would like their technology to be considered as well. Jerrold plans on incorporating 386 or 486 technology into their set-tops, running Modular Windows as the base OS. Scientific-Atlanta, on the other hand, is targeting the PowerPC as its CPU of choice, and would not (or could not) disclose its operating system choice. There was also some talk at the conference about being able to remotely upgrade set-top boxes via automated microcode downloads.

In any case, the set-top boxes would need a fast CPU, MPEG hardware, enough memory to run some pretty complex programs, and store at least one frame of decompressed video (and maybe more), as well as some well-integrated graphics display technology. Want to sell several million graphics chips? Here’s a market just waiting to happen.

Set-top boxes won’t just be for channel navigation and viewing, either. Expect the ability to have games and simulations downloaded into the set-top for additional entertainment value and functionality (and cost, of course). There will probably also be a PC option in some cable systems, so you can use your home computer as a primary or auxiliary set-top box.

While the 500-channel systems are still a few years away for most cable markets, at best, early next year anyone who wants to will be able to experience 150-channel digital TV with the purchase of an $800 or so investment. The investment would include a set-top box and an 18-inch portable satellite dish from a company called DirecTV. Funded in large part by Hughes, DirecTV has a satellite distribution mechanism, and even offers PPV via a small smart-card you have to order from them. The smart card gets inserted into their custom set-top box.

For ground-based cable systems, expect the transition from full analog to full digital to occur in several steps over next 5 years or so. Numerous technology trials are being conducted in key cable markets around the country, and the results of these tests will determine exactly how everyone proceeds into the future.

Where’s the Data and What About Interactivity?
With the exception of the pay-per-content concept, everything I’ve described so far can be achieved with a near-mono-directional cable system, just like the ones most of us are using today: cable programming comes in, and your box can be enabled for PPV events or movie channels from the cable operators central location. One major issue, though, relates back to standards – there are only two ways data can currently be broadcast on existing cable systems: 1) during the vertical blanking interval (VBI); or 2) on a totally separate channel. Since cable systems are not point to point, information for a single box has to be broadcast back to all set-top boxes in the system. The dedicated separate channel for data concept is proven and works, but it is bandwidth limited (you can only have so much information about so many channels, for so many set-tops, before there’s no space left). VBI is better for specific channel content, but because its use is unregulated, the VBI is already being used for vast numbers of things by the channel content providers. FNN, for example, passes stock-market information in the VBI. Close-captioning sucks up additional VBI space. Some channel providers, such as C-Span, rent their VBI space out to companies who want to broadcast messages to remote sites over the airwaves. In Germany, and now in Endland, the VBI is filled with TeleText (the best use of the VBI I’ve seen so far).

For those of you who are not familiar with it, TeleText is a continuous information stream measured in pages (001 through 999). The low number pages usually contain menu listings, referring you to another page number. When you enter a page number you want to see, the TV (many new German TVs have TeleText support built in) waits for the selected page to be sent in the VBI, captures it, and displays it. Each station has its own TeleText data, including the latest news, sports information, weather information, and program listings. TeleText compatible VCRs allow you to use a primitive cursor on the program listing pages to select a program to record, and some VCRs will periodically rescan that page to see if the program time has changed, and adjust their programming if so. This is technology that you can purchase in Germany, as a consumer, today! And here in the U.S., we have to resort to VCRPlus…

Anyhow, what this all boils down to is that the emerging convergence industry needs non-proprietary information-broadcast standards that they can all agree on and use. However, even the lack of standards won’t prevent Interactive Television from becoming a couch potato staple item.

The whole issue of interactivity with your television is being attacked in a number of ways currently. The long term plan is that you select something from a menu/interface on your TV, and your set-top box sends your request back to the signal distribution point for immediate processing. Getting to this point, however, will require that networking standards be set to handle networks with tens of thousands of subscribers, and may require some serious topology changes as well, including point-to-point mechanisms, such as what the telephone companies already offer today (i.e. your normal phone line), albeit with limited bandwidth. It’ll be interesting to see what happens now that the FCC has given the green flag to phone companies to enter the cable supplier game.

In the meantime, several companies are using a range of ways to manage interactive television. Zing has a remote control sized device (with a small LCD screen), and a box that is placed in-line with the set-top, to track data passed in the VBI. With the Zing device, you can play interactive football (guess the play being made by a team you’ve selected as it’s happening live on TV), or play along in game shows. To manage feedback to the central Zing location, you need to plug a phone line into the set-top addition, and a local TYMNET number or 800 number are called. Cost is planned for under $100 for the initial investment, and a $25/yr subscription fee. This should be available soon. The VBI encoding for several game shows and sports events is also in progress.

NTN, the developers of QB1 (the interactive football game described above) use a different approach, which focuses mainly on bars and other places people gather in large quantities. Multiple users of the NTN device compete against one another for points (and even prizes) on a local and nationwide basis during live football broadcasts. Using some infra red or FM transmissions, data is passed both ways in the bar – to and from the handheld units and the collector. The collector will then also send information to the NTN HQ for national tallies, again, via phone line. This system has been in operation for about a year already, and plans are underway to expand coverage.

Finally, Interactive Network (which may be familiar to those of you in the Bay Area because of their infomercial advertising there) has a handheld unit to play QB1 and Jeopardy (other interactive items are on their way). In addition to providing a set-top add-on to read VBI, and possibly return information, IN also uses a local FM signal broadcast to send information to the hand held units. Again, after the game is over, you can plug a phone line in to have your scores sent in for national tallying. Each quarter, point leaders will meet for a play-off to win prizes of some sort. Pricing is a little higher ($149) than Zing’s, but the handheld (held in two hands, really) is more capable, partly as a result of its larger LCD display, and partly because of the retracting QWERTY keyboard incorporated into the unit. The IN device is available in some geographic markets now, and plans are in place to cover most major metropolitan areas in 1994.

In any event, as you can hopefully see, all this is starting to come together now, and the business opportunities are still there, but partnering is a definite requirement for market entry, because of all the big players involved. The partnerships that can also provide quality content programming, both for viewing and interactive participation will be much better off.

For PCGR readers, the areas I can see for targeting are: graphics chips for set-tops, LCD controllers for hand-held interactive devices, MPEG decompression silicon (should be silicon for 30 fps full screen), real-time MPEG compression systems, ergonomic user interface designs (both visual and handheld), infra-red and other local transmission technologies, sound and video clip libraries, NTSC/PAL/SECAM overlay/capture/output, HDTV hardware, digital video storage and retrieval subsystems, low-cost modem silicon, and phone privacy switches (not a graphics task, but necessary nonetheless to prevent the interactive devices from interrupting a voice call and vice versa). I could probably go on and on, but those are the most obvious to me. The market size is phenomenal, easily equal to the entire PC market today (i.e. 100+ million), so this market is something that shouldn’t be taken lightly. As for me, I’ll be playing Jeopardy interactively, while trying to pin down some markets for my company.