ITV shrouded in the mist

The world of digital media seemed to materialize before our eyes in 1994. Personal computers were moving from the office into the home. Microsoft bet heavily on the home entertainment PC as a game machine that could also run its Office software. Apple was floundering, thanks to management missteps, including the pronouncement that the Mac was not a game machine. AOL, having passed the million-member milestone, was telling the world, “You have mail.” And the cable industry proclaimed that the future was interactive TV (ITV), delivered via their full-service networks (FSNs).

This was the year a new genre of interactive games — delivered via CD-ROM — burst onto the stage, with the release of “Myst” by Cyan Worlds. “Myst” and its sequel “Riven” sold more than 12 million copies, placing them among the top-selling games in the history of personal computing. Consumers were becoming comfortable with the idea of sitting at a computer to interact and play. The entire Internet phenomenon was just beginning to emerge from a primitive digital world.

More than a decade later, the world of ITV is still shrouded in primordial mist. The mass media pundits tell us that TV is a lean-back, passive experience. Then again, the mass media would like to keep it that way. (It would also like to return to the good old days before remote controls, hundreds of channels and TiVo.)

The PC is where you go when you want to lean forward and interact. But now, the PC pundits want to turn their boring beige boxes into home media centers, connected to that big-screen HD-capable display in the family room.

Could it be, after all these years, that the pundits of convergence, this author included, may finally see the mist lifting as the distinctions between the world of video and PC are rendered meaningless?

Control freaks

I still remember that bright sunny day in December 1994 when Time Warner invited us media pundits to a suburb of Orlando for the unveiling of the first FSN. The air was filled with unreality, but this was just a prototype, a multi-billion dollar test bed to develop the future of whatever you want to call that appliance in the family room. The operations center was filled with exotic gear: the first deployed ATM switch to route bits to individual homes via a hybrid fiber/coax network; Silicon Graphics (SGI) servers to store the on-demand programming and support the interactive games and commerce that the FSN would offer to subscribers; and the set-top box, an SGI computer that reportedly cost about $3,000.

Several years later, I spoke with a colleague who worked at Time Warner until the FSN project crashed in 1997. He talked about dumpster diving, as much of this gear was unceremoniously disposed of when the project was written off.

What went wrong? From a purely technical perspective, the FSN was launched well ahead of its time. From a technical perspective, the FSN was heralded as a success, as it provided a wealth of information about real world implementation issues, not to mention information about consumer behavior and the potential demand for services. From a more global business perspective, however, the FSN simply was not ready.

The entire concept was based on the notion that consumers would be comfortable living within the walled garden of the FSN. Also, Time Warner hoped that the third-party businesses providing products and services would be willing to develop these products using proprietary technologies and tools, while giving Time Warner a cut of each transaction.

In more simplistic terms, the Internet and the World Wide Web happened. Instead of cable control freaks becoming the tollbooths of the information highway, companies such as AOL and Microsoft tried to turn the Internet into a toll road. It is ironic that years later, when it looked like the Internet was winning the war, Time Warner and AOL merged. But the culture clash that followed provides an informative case study about how easy it can be to stifle innovation when powerful business interests seek to maintain the status quo and when they choose to maintain control at any cost.

In April, this column examined the world of content management and the extreme measures that the content conglomerates and their co-conspirators in Washington, D.C., are taking to use the transition to digital as a means to extend their control over consumers. These measures place a handful of special interests in the world of content creation and distribution in the position of dictating the design of virtually any product that may touch a digital entertainment bit. And the politicians seem only too happy to enforce these requirements based on the premise that every citizen would be little more than a common thief if technical innovation were not regulated to control piracy.

Enabling interactivity

Fortunately, consumers may hold the real content management keys that will determine the future of digital media, whether it is enabled via the TV in the family room, the PC in the den, the mini theater system in the car or the Swiss Army knife of the digital age — the ubiquitous cell phone. We still have the power to “just say no.”

The FCC mandates regarding digital television receivers serve as a prime example of consumer power. Despite requirements that new digital sets have integrated ATSC receivers, most consumers are electing to purchase HD-capable monitors rather than integrated receivers.

While the cable industry continues to try to keep subscribers from wandering outside of its walled garden, it is enabling consumers to do just that through the tremendous success the industry has had deploying broadband cable modems. The e-commerce that the cable industry sought to control is blooming on the Internet, where vendors have total control over their e-commerce sites, using widely deployed standards that have emerged for Web authoring.

And now, the stage is set for new forms of interactivity on that big-screen display in the family room. One of the key enabling factors is the long-delayed demise of CRT displays and a legacy compression scheme known as interlace. Virtually all of the new display technologies use progressive scanning techniques.

Even more important, the computer industry and the TV industry are converging around the same affordable display technology: LCD panels. Panel displays in the 20in to 30in range can be used for up close personal interaction applications or viewed at a distance, filling the shoes of the ubiquitous 25in to 27in CRTs they are replacing. With large progressive displays, it is relatively easy to support interactive applications using the same tools available for computer and Web applications.

And the computer industry is beginning to address dual-use functionality in current and next-generation operating systems. The current version of Apple's Mac OS X includes a user interface called Front Row (see “Web links”), and several of Apple's new computers ship with a remote control, allowing users to navigate and play digital media files at TV-like viewing distances.

OS X includes a feature called widgets that allows users to create small information windows that are continuously updated via RSS feeds from the Internet. Widgets can place weather maps, sports scores, stock quotes and other information around a screen that is primarily being used to view a video program. Microsoft's next-generation OS — Vista — will include many of these same features and full support for the HD-DVD format that it is developing with Toshiba and others.

All this is not to say that more traditional forms of TV interaction have failed completely. NDS, a technology subsidiary of News Corporation, and OpenTV both have a wide range of interactive TV deployments around the world. (See “Web links.”) And the BBC has been a leader in developing interactive TV applications. NDS supplies interactive software features to BSkyB in Great Britain and DirecTV in the Untied States.

DirecTV recently reported that almost two thirds of the subscribers to its NCAA Mega March Madness package with interactive receivers took advantage of the on-demand interactive features during the first week of the tournament. Among the interactive features, half of subscribers used the Game Mix channel, which offered as many as three live contests on the screen at one time; one-third pulled up on-screen scores; and more than one-third accessed the tournament bracket feature to make and follow their picks.

Perhaps the most successful technology that has consumers interacting with their TVs is the now ubiquitous standard-definition DVD. The menu systems for DVD, including the visual scene guides, make navigation of disk content much easier than fast-forward and rewind buttons. And titles that include a wide range of additional interactive features have proven to be quite popular.

But DVD interactivity generally stops at the boundaries of those disks. Attempts to develop Web-linked applications have generally failed because of the inability of set-top players to connect to the Internet and the limitations imposed by the interlaced TV receivers to which most are connected.

This limitation is being addressed by both of the proposed next-generation standards for high-definition DVDs. The Blu-ray contingent is promoting an interactive software layer based on the Java-interpreted language BD-J. This spec allows the development of sophisticated interactive applications that can take advantage of online connections.

First-generation Blu-ray players will only permit Ethernet connections to the Internet because the content management moguls are concerned about allowing protected bits to travel across the wireless Wi-Fi data links now used in many homes.

The HD-DVD camp is promoting an interactive software layer based on the XML mark-up language used extensively on the Internet. Microsoft has been involved in the development of this language and will provide full support for it in Vista.

There have been many reports that the differences in the interactive layers may be as big a hurdle to harmonize the formats as the physical differences in the way the disks and players work. And all of this is being influenced by the Content Protection Racketeers (for more on this group, read last month's column), who are trying to limit the ability of consumers to share the content of these discs across the devices that may be attached to an in-home network.

Bottom line: The prospects for interactive TV appear to be linked intrinsically with the medium that has brought interactivity to the masses — the Internet.

Craig Birkmaier is a technology consultant at Pcube Labs, and he hosts and moderates the OpenDTV forum.

Web links

Apple Front Row user interface

Interactive TV showcases:

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