The Computerization of Television

(This column first appeared in the November 12, 1996 issue of PC Graphics Report)

As I write this column, I’m sitting in front of my 35-inch television, watching typical Sunday afternoon mindless, but nevertheless entertaining, TV drivel.

That brings to mind something that’s been bugging me for a while. Earlier this year, I had a chance to play with Gateway 2000’s Destination system – the first PC to integrate a Wintel machine with a television. It was interesting. Interesting enough to others, apparently, that several major PC manufacturers are coming out with similar TV/PC combo systems — several of which will be on display at COMDEX next week.

These new products are all part of an on-going trend of convergence of computer and television technology. Back in 1993, in my first Richter Scale column for PCGR (see PCGR, 16 November 1993, p.750), I reported on the state of interactive television (IT). IT was the original concept that the term “convergence” was applied to. However, thanks mostly to the Internet, IT in its original form has pretty much gone by the wayside, to be replaced with PCs and NCs connected to the Internet and TVs in one way or another. Which brings us back to the Destination and its newer brethren.

Convergence
Convergence is the new holy grail, as companies ranging from Intel, Toshiba, and Compaq, to Sony, Zenith, and Sega will all attest to — if not by words, then at least by actions. While convergence happy companies are churning out products, technologies, and standards at a feverish pace, there appears to be great disparity in their offerings and implementations. Everyone knows that convergence offers enormous market potential, but no one knows exactly how or where. The only common factors they all seem to agree on are that convergence involves the Internet, a CPU, and a display.

Just as implementations vary, so do the end results. Some companies feel that the TV is going to evolve as an extension of a PC. Others see convergence as a means to guarantee on-going use of specific computer components. Still others see computers evolving into a new type of A/V component, in the same vein as a VCR. Many of these companies have done market research on what consumers are looking for in a combined computer and TV, and it appears from the results that they are getting a lot of conflicting answers.

Let’s take a look at a few of the different implementations of this so called convergence:

The PC as TV Tuner
The Gateway 2000 Destination is an excellent example of the “PC as TV Tuner” concept. The Destination features a 31-inch monitor, which acts as the system’s PC display. The Destination is a PC first and foremost, and a TV second. This results in a powerful PC limited by a measly 640×480 display (I’d expect at least 1280 x 1024 on a 31-inch display), and a TV with artifacts resulting from a perpetually digitized image.

As best as I can figure, the Destination is targeted at the same people who buy A/V components based on which one has the largest remote control. In this case, the remote is an entire PC, along with the heat and power consumption of a PC, and all the pitfalls of a PC. Imagine not being able to watch TV because it won’t boot. (I wrote a humor piece on this very topic a couple of years ago –you can find it on my new Richter Scale web site (see  http://www.richterscale.org/humor/tvboot.htm).

Another limitation of a system like the Destination is that not everyone wants a 31-inch TV. Some folks want 20-inch TVs, while others want 35-inch or larger sets. Gateway would have been better off selling the PC component of the Destination as a standalone item, letting consumers buy their own TV. However, that points out another flaw of the current state of convergence – today’s TVs can’t even clearly display the paltry 640×480 resolution the Destination’s PC requires.

Perhaps the biggest drawback I see of Destination-like systems is that the focus is on the PC and not the TV. I know that when I sit down on my living room couch to watch TV, I’m there to vegetate. I do not want to have to boot my TV. I do not want to have to enable TV mode. I want to just turn it on, surf some channels, and relax. However, if I want to pull up a Web page, switch over to a video game, or something my TV can’t currently do by itself, I’d like the ability to enable the required device, change my TV’s input source (or better yet, using my Picture in Picture (PIP) feature) and get the results I’m looking for. This still means that my TV is the center of my living room universe, and not a PC.

The PC as TV Companion
A more plausible approach towards convergence is a PC acting as companion to a TV, which is the pitch Intel is making with its Intercast technology. Intel is trying to get users to plug their computers into their TV transmission stream (cable, DSS [Digital Satellite System], antenna, etc.) so that at the same time they are watching TV, their computers can be pulling up all sorts of viewing program specific information from the Internet. Examples Intel provides include real time sport statistics during a football game, up to the minute news coverage, and most importantly, automatic downloads of information from advertisers.

As with everything Intel does, Intercast stresses the requirement for a PC, preferably one with an Intel Pentium or better processor, and lots of hard disk space to handle all the downloads of excess information from various networks and advertisers. The need for the hard disk for caching such information, as well as the implied requirement of a Pentium grade CPU is what Intel claims will prevent Network Computers from being able to support Intercast properly.  In my mind, that’s a great argument in favor of an NC.

The Intercast approach is compatible with both the Destination model of convergence, as well as that of the PC as an A/V component (see below). The PC can also be used completely independently from the TV. This approach allows for greater flexibility in terms of PC usage and integration with the TV.

However, I’m still not sold on Intercast itself — I have absolutely no interest in having my hard disk filled with advertisements. It’s bad enough I get a bunch  of unsolicited spams via e-mail each week.

A/V Component
The direction I’m most comfortable with convergence taking is in making the computing device just another A/V component of the entire entertainment experience. The TV acts as the main output device, allowing you to switch between the regular TV transmission stream, and specialized A/V devices like VCRs, video disc players, video game consoles, and now, Web enabled devices.

The latter category includes things like the Web TV-branded units from Sony and Philips, rumored DVD/Web machines, the Sega Saturn with NetLink, and a number of other products in the development pipe. In terms of volumes, International Data Corp. (IDC) predicts that these types of devices are going to out  sell all other types of Internet-enabled non-PC devices. Sales in 1997 should hit 1.2 million devices, and 4.6 million devices in 1998. Note that IDC separates set-tops into a separate category, so those units are not included in these figures.

As I pointed out above, PCs can be A/V components, as long as you’re not having the PC act as the device controlling what you see on your TV. There’s nothing quite like playing a first person game like Duke Nukem 3D or Hexen on a large screen TV, with full surround sound blaring around you.

Set-top Box
I’m personally not sure where my designation of A/V component ends, and the designation of a set-top box starts, in terms of convergence, but let’s assume for the sake of discussion that the difference is that the set-top box combines the management of the TV signal feed with Internet access. Simply said, you take your existing cable or DSS box, and add Internet access capabilities to it. Outside of some cable trials, I haven’t come across any such devices.

These devices are the progeny of yesteryear’s concept of Interactive Television. Since set-tops are generally provided by cable companies, the access to these devices by consumers is dictated less by consumer demand than by individual cable operators. Nevertheless, IDC expects that 160,000 Internet enabled set-tops to be sold by the end of this year.

I think the set-top box convergence solution is also quite reasonable, as it leaves consumers with an existing paradigm (the cable box) imbued with new features (Internet surfing). Its success depends heavily on how soon cable companies get these devices into the market – and there’s some question as to how willing they are to do so, since they cost a significant chunk of change relative to normal cable boxes, and cable companies normally subsidize such boxes with monthly fees for programming.

TV Integrated
The ultimate type of convergence, one that several TV companies have been working on, is the integration of TV with an Internet compatible computing device — all in a single box. While the aesthetics of an integrated Internet TV are appealing, I would have some concerns about being able to upgrade the Internet access component of the TV to keep up with the on-going revolutionary changes occurring on the Internet. The benefit of external devices is the ability to upgrade them, either piece by piece or by complete replacement.

It is interesting to note that in this area the U.S. is woefully behind the times. Our TV has only recently started offering closed captioning (one form of an additional data feed on a TV signals) as a standard feature, and then only because of an act of Congress.

In Europe, in the meanwhile, most TVs have been offering Teletext for many years. Teletext is a perpetual data feed during the Vertical Blanking Interval (VBI) between image frames on TV. The data feed sends a new page of text information each frame. The TV doesn’t need any serious data storage because each page is repeated every few seconds. For example, when visiting my brother in Germany, I was able to check out the ski conditions at Val D’Isere in France by enabling the Teletext menu on his TV for a popular German TV channel, entering the page number for the menu of ski conditions, and after a couple seconds once the right page had been displayed, selecting the page number for Val D’Isere. The wait was no longer than waiting for today’s Web pages. Teletext even offers simple graphics.

But, Teletext offers no bidirectional data traffic – it’s purely a polling system. However, each channel of TV programming offers its own Teletext feed, which greatly expands the content options. Even better, on channels where fixed programming was offered (such as a specific movie or series), you could use the Teletext interface (also built into German VCRs) to automatically record a program selected off a Teletext screen, and even self-correct the time in case the program was moved. This was three years ago. Heck, we still can’t do that here.

So why has Teletext worked so well in Germany and elsewhere? I’m not sure it’s government mandated, but because the technology has been built into the TVs and VCRs en masse, at basically no extra charge, it gets used and widely adopted. Can the same thing work here with the Internet? Maybe, if the price is right or TV sets are required to adhere to some basic Internet standard. Sure would be a lot better than that foolish V-chip requirement for content censoring.

But I digress…

The Meaning of TV
The reason I wrote this column is that I still sense that what many computer companies are missing in terms of convergence is that TV is part of a culture built around cheap, usually mindless entertainment. Expecting anything more of consumers (myself included) is a matter of self-delusion on the parts of  these companies. We want to be entertained in front of a TV – we don’t want to have to work or think much, other than during Jeopardy or a good mystery,  perhaps. And some of the proposed convergence solutions aren’t taking that into account. So, if you’re in a company trying to target the TV viewing public, follow the lead of a consumer marketing and entertainment expert like Sony, and not the lead of a computer, chip, or software company.

So Long, For Now…
Next week’s COMDEX may be my last one for some time. Following COMDEX, I’m going to be taking a couple months hiatus from the PC graphics industry while I try to figure out what I’m going to do for the next decade or two of my life.

I’ve been directly involved with the personal computer industry since 1979 – almost 18 years – and to be honest, I’m feeling a little burnt out. And thanks to the examples Microsoft and others have set for the rest of the computer industry in terms of never-ending product announcements, “standards”, and strategic redirection, I have recently started feeling rather overwhelmed by the sheer volume of knowledge I need to digest to stay ahead of the pack.

At this point in my life, I think I want to concentrate on raising my family (a 17-month-old daughter, and a new baby due in April), becoming a more rounded human being (mentally and spiritually – I’m already too round physically), and giving something back to our environment and society (stay tuned).

I’m not sure where my upcoming introspection will lead, and I’m not sure if I’ll be back in these pages as a regular contributor after the two month sabbatical I’m taking. However, many of you have made a profound difference in my life, and I hope many of you will continue to stay in touch, because I certainly intend to do so.

Regardless of what path(s) I decide to take, you’ll be able to track my on-going rants, musings, and activities through my two Web sites: Stroke of Color and The Richter Scale.

Your friend,

Jake