Intel Corp. this week unveils a new computer and telecommunications platform called Intercasting that will enable TV viewers toobtain additional data such as World Wide Web pages, sports statistics and advertising information.
If all this sounds like the rudimentary interactive TV systems of recent years, you're right. The system incorporates some of the same technology-the TV signal's vertical blanking interval-to send information, only this time it's directed to the PC, not the TV.
While users must watch TV on their PCs for the system to work, that idea is no longer so far-fetched. CNN is working with Intel to deliver news to office computers; NBC's Desktop Video unit has a similar venture. And most agree that TVs will become more PC-like in their capabilities.
The first PCs for Intercasting won't be on the market until the second quarter of next year, but Intel has formed an Intercast Industry Group to promote the concept and develop applications.
"What we are doing is combining broadcast or cable TV signals with significant additional information that can be downloaded to the computer's hard drive along with the TV signal," said Avram Miller, VP-corporate business development at Intel.
At least three marketers, including Packard Bell Electronics and Gateway 2000, have agreed to sell Intercast-equipped PCs, and major TV programmers including NBC, Turner Broadcasting System and Viacom are developing applications for programming and advertising that they believe will appreciably enhance the TV experience for viewers and marketers.
With NBC's "Homicide," for example, a viewer could simultaneously watch the show and use online information to try to crack a case.
"The viewer can use that information to begin solving the crime alongside, or even before the detectives in the show," said Ken Bronfman, VP-NBC Cable and Business Development and general manager of NBC Data Network.
The Intercast platform equips a PC with a conventional TV set tuner and a special circuit board that can decipher data from the vertical blanking interval.
The bandwidth is not robust enough to transmit a separate full-motion video signal, but it can handle most current multimedia applications, including text, graphics, photos and sound.
Intercast computers initially will cost slightly more than non-Intercast counterparts, but consumers won't have to pay additional fees to receive data transmissions via the VBI. Accessing Internet content requires a user to have an account.
Just as in the interactive TV systems, proponents are touting Intercasting's potential for advertising. Marketers can use it to provide electronic coupons, local dealer listings or additional product information.
An NBC demonstration of the system includes a coupon for parent General Electric Co.'s Profile dishwasher. The coupon can be printed out and redeemed at a local retailer.
"What that coupon will really be showing is information for the marketer about who watched the TV show, when they were watching it and how they responded to their offer," said Mr. Bronfman, noting the database marketing implications of the technology.
Part of the goal of the Intercast Industry Group is to establish the protocol as the U.S. industry standard and work with overseas regulators for applying it worldwide as well.
The effort is not intended to be the be-all and end-all of TV and PC convergence, however. Intel and its partners continue to pursue other routes.
CNN and Intel are partners in a CNN-At-Work service that distributes CNN programming to local area networks in offices. NBC has launched NBC Desktop Video and is partnering with Microsoft Corp. to develop an interactive TV service. And Intel simultaneously is working with cable operators to develop cable TV converter boxes equipped with high-speed computer modems that can automatically link to a variety of online services.
"These things are complementary," said Intel's Mr. Miller. "But the thing about doing this with broadcast TV is that everybody can receive a broadcast TV signal today."