Telly gets personal, interactive

Web TV was a bust, says Jeremy Corfield, Australian digital strategy manager at equipment rental firm Thorn. People don't want to watch TV on their PCs. But people clearly want access to interactive services such as shopping and email through their TV.

Web TV was a bust, says Jeremy Corfield, Australian digital strategy manager at equipment rental firm Thorn.

People don’t want to watch TV on their PCs. But people clearly want access to interactive services such as shopping and email through their TV, as shown by demand in the US and UK.

Sky in this country is promising these later this year. Expect services such as video on demand and gaming, banking and travel bookings before long. A wild prediction has already been made, by Deutsche Banc’s Alex Brown, that “t-commerce”— for television commerce — will overtake e-commerce by 2004.

TV will become as web-like as it needs to be to offer these services, and of course the PC will increasingly become more multimedia-friendly. Corfield, talking at a recent digital TV presentation run by local subsidiary DTR, notes the technical difficulties as well as cultural habits: the web format is not suited to TV, and “repurposing” a web page for TV is difficult. Another service that will drive the move to interactivity and true digital TV will be education, he says, along with online gaming and real-time betting. Interactive ads will help; viewers can buy with a few clicks of the remote.

Think for a moment about the broadcasters. Last week we noted that Forrester Research said the multichannel viewing that digital TV (offered by Sky and promised by TVNZ and TelstraSaturn by the end of the year) offers was chipping away at ad-funded mass audiences. Former Australian prime minister Paul Keating said the government had botched the introduction of high-definition and standard-definition television by giving too much of the spectrum to the commercial free-to-air networks. Viewers were abandoning free-to-air television in droves and the government was protecting a declining technology, he told a consumer electronics convention in Sydney. In that country, 7MHz of spectrum had been given away at the expense of the Australian taxpayer “to buy off a couple of media friends.

“And for what? The capacity to watch the existing free-to-air dross more expensively in cinema-style quality and perhaps order a takeaway pizza at the push of a button,” the Australian reported. Forrester agrees that interactive services such as email and shopping are drawing viewers away from broadcasts, and personal video recorders (PVRs) are allowing consumers to skip ads.

PVRs also go by the name digital video recorders or DVRs. These devices, the first of which were the TiVo and ReplayTV, have been around for about 18 months in the US. They can be bought in the US for about $US400, and will let a surfer scan through a four-hour programme in four minutes. ReplayTV even has a single-purpose button that allows you to zip 30 seconds ahead — about the same duration as most TV ads. You tell them what you like — favourite programmes, actors, sports teams or even keywords — and they record everything under the sun (or satellite) about it. Of course, in doing that, you tell TiVo lots of things about you and what you like. You can press the Thumbs Up and Thumbs Down keys to remove any doubt.

The fact that TiVo has landed in considerable trouble from the US’s Privacy Foundation for gathering far more information about subscribers than it said it would, underlines the potential danger of a company knowing your every button-click. Any PVR or digital set-top box (STB) that has a phone line link to the internet has the potential to capture personal viewing information.

This is because advertisers and programmers want to know what you love and hate. And devices like TiVo and ReplayTV are really only the first generation of PVR. Even so, they are already changing the way people watch TV; more particularly how and if they watch ads. That’s why some of the major broadcasters in the US have invested in them.

PVR companies are evolving by working with other companies, offering their software as “engines” for developers to build into TV sets and STBs, such as the one you get with Sky TV in this country. Thorn’s Corfield can’t see TiVos or the like coming to this country as they exist in the US; as with STBs, they demand a separate phone line for exchanging personal information and programme details. Sky’s technical people are happy to go on record as saying the company will incorporate PVR technology into its next STB sometime in 2002 (email and other interactive services are being trialled for launch later this year).

One technology Sky is looking at is XTV — Xtended TV — from NDS. (UK-based NDS says more than 20 million subscribers — including more than half of the world’s digital satellite pay TV subscribers — receive programming protected by its “conditional access” systems. Its largest shareholder is Rupert Murdoch-owned News Corp.) Sky in the UK, a Murdoch company, which is already offering interactivity via the OpenTV standard, is readying an XTV-based set-top box. Even Microsoft is involved. It claims its UltimateTV service (see story opposite), which also provides email and interactivity services, can record two live programmes at the same time. UltimateTV has developed from the technology of WebTV, a company Microsoft bought in 1997.

While the technology develops, and consumer demand rises in response, what stands in the middle becomes more important. Interactive digital TV interfaces may become a major area of interface design in the near future. At first, digital TV interfaces will be designed by the television makers themselves. But TVs are likely to become capable of downloading software from vendors of electronic programme guides (EPG) and the like. PVR software firms and even local ventures such as are heading along this route.

Meanwhile, US encryption specialists like SecureMedia, which sprang from Auckland firm RPK, recently reported that it had developed a security system that protects broadcast-quality MPEG-2 and MPEG-4 media streams delivered to digital set-top boxes over IP networks. It has also signed a deal with RealNetworks to encrypt similar streamed multimedia for PCs.

This is how the convergence of TV and PC will really happen.

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