Tools & Toys: Future TV Shock

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Interactive TV has always been with us, in a sense, but until recently our options were fairly limited. We can turn the TV on, turn it off, turn it up, turn it down and yell at referees. We want more, and we've been promised more. In the decades during which assorted agencies, and government bodies in the U.S. have pondered the best (or maybe the worst) possible way to give us high-definition TV (HDTV), the world has taken a few turns on its own and now, thanks to Al Gore, we have the internet. As it turns out, we want the internet on our televisions more than we want HD, so we can shop, play games, search for information and then shop some more. As the internet has expanded, the demand for advanced services via television has also grown, and several significant trials are underway. But, in the high-tech U.S., as usual, nothing seems to be happening too quickly.

Taking a trip across the Atlantic can bring the picture into much clearer focus. At the International Broadcasters' Show (IBC) in Holland in September, there was plenty of evidence of the fast advance of digital television worldwide. U.K.-based analysts Strategy Analysts estimates that there are 34.4 million homes getting digital TV content worldwide. In contrast, mass adoption of digital TV in the U.S. has been slowed because it has been tied to HDTV - and broadcasters, vendors and consumers have been struggling with a chicken-and-egg problem ever since. There's not a lot of impetus to spring for HD-format programming when so few TV viewers own hi-def sets to watch it on. In contrast, Europe, the Middle East and much of Asia has embraced the Digital Video Broadcasting (DVB) standard, which approaches digital TV more cautiously. The DVB standard specifies Standard Definition TV (SDTV) with the assumption that HDTV can be accommodated when the time, and the installed base, is right. Another factor driving the acceptance of digital TV outside the U.S. is the prevalence of satellite broadcasting, which is digital by definition. Of the homes getting digital TV, Strategy Analytics estimates that 77 percent have satellite services, 21 percent have cable, and 2 percent are getting terrestrial broadcasts. Two factors: the security of a broadly accepted standard and a strong installed base of viewers, is advancing the cause of interactive TV outside U.S. boundaries.

There is one more key to the puzzle, and that is, naturally, yet another standard. One of the most important milestones in the progress of digital TV evident at IBC this year was the broad acceptance of the Multimedia Home Platform (MHP) standard for DVB. The MHP standard is actually a combination of accepted standards, including Java, MPEG-1 and MPEG-2 video, MPEG-2 audio and HTML, all of which enables software developers to create interactive TV applications that will work predictably on all platforms. In practical terms, it means that all MHP applications run on MHP-compliant set-top boxes. The door is wide open to development, and MHP-compliant authoring products are already appearing on the scene. All the major set-top box manufacturers have enthusiastically endorsed MHP - in fact, most have begged for a standard.

Likewise, the major software platforms for interactive TV have already been busy building MHP-compatibility into their products. These include OpenTV, MediaHighway from Canal+, Navigator from Liberate and PowerTV (which is working with Scientific Atlanta) as well as, unsurprisingly, Microsoft, which has its own platform, Microsoft TV. All this software will run on set-top boxes and act as a gateway to interactive programming, be it closed applications like electronic program guides for PVR (personal video recording) applications; car ads that click to Peugeot's or Mercedes' website; or baseball games that link to additional stats, as well as open applications that take users out into the wide open web.

In the U.S., there is a counterpart to MHP called DASE (digital TV software environment) that is under development through the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). However, it has been a victim of self-interests, as various 500-pound-gorilla companies still hope to push their technology forward as a standard. (Maybe the fact that U.S. standards bodies can't even come up with catchy names for the new tech sheds some light on the problem.) There are some who believe the example of MHP will drive U.S. broadcasters to push for DASE or, even more sensibly, just push for the adoption of MHP.

Another shift very evident at IBC is that North American broadcasters in all industries - satellite, cable, and terrestrial - have made some important decisions. They're buying equipment, lots of it, for digital TV, and by and large they're opting for SDTV. Like their international counterparts they've decided to let HDTV take care of itself for awhile. Satellite operators are already preparing to offer a variety of advanced services, and they're pushing cable operators, which are much more prevalent in the U.S., to do the same. The U.S. is fast catching up in digital TV services and is expected to take the lead by 2005. We might be slow learners, but the U.S. has momentum on its side.

So don't holster your remote control quite yet. By the start of next year, TV may be getting a lot more interactive, everywhere.

Acronym City

Perhaps the best way to tell the viability of any new technology is by the amount of acronyms it spawns. By that reckoning, convergence is here and set to explode. The following guide to acronyms, some new, some old, will come in handy in this new era when PC technology comes home to live in your television.

ACL Agent Communication Language. A common language for programming intelligent agents for television programming applications.

CA Conditional Access. One of the key elements that must be defined to enable pay-TV services via digital TV. Ironically, because conditional access systems have been developed independently by service providers, the need for a cross-platform standard becomes obvious. Any software application standard like MHP or DASE has to be compatible with various CA systems (and also independently developed APIs).

DECT Digital Enhanced Cordless Telecommunications. A cordless phone standard used in Europe, based on the TDMA and the 1.8 and 1.9 GHz bands.

DASE DTV Application Software Environment. A subgroup of the ATVEF hard at work defining a standard for application development for Enhanced, Interactive and Internet TV. Like its counterpart being developed in conjunction with DVB internationally, DASE has a Java VM at its heart to enable compatibility across the wide variety of operating systems being developed for set-top boxes.

DTTV Digital Terrestrial TV. With its decreased bandwidth, DTTV requires higher compression and considerable ingenuity. The DVB Project has defined the DVB-T standard for DTTV.

DVB-RC DVB Return Channel. A standard developed for Return Channel via cable.

DVB-RCS DVB Return Channel via satellite.

DVB-T Many markets, including mobile television for cars and web pads are clamoring for free-to-air services. To that end, DVB-T trials are being carried out worldwide.

ETV Enhanced TV is commonly accepted as the first stage of extending services to the home via digital TV. Enhanced TV is a one-way channel offering capabilities such as near-video-on-demand, and programming information. The MHP committee has defined three profiles for the delivery of advanced services to the home and they are Enhanced TV, Interactive TV and Internet TV.

EPG Electronic Program Guide. A listing of current and future TV shows. In PVR applications, the EPG is used to schedule record times for programming. Currently, Gemstar claims to own the patent to the EPG, but there are several court cases to be heard before this issue is settled.

IDD Interactive Display Devices. A device, usually connected in some way to the internet, that enables basic functions through interaction with a screen-based device such as a web pad or a PDA. We first saw the acronym in connection with Pace's Home Networking projects, which will use IDDs as peripheral input devices in the home. Philips has outlined a similar strategy.

ITV Internet TV. The provision of internet services to the television set by a variety of means, including satellite and cable. ITV also stands for Interactive TV, a broader term that may (or may not) include Internet TV and also access to selected direct services such as online shopping, information, sports news, EPGs, etc., which are closed, keeping the viewer on the channel or the service rather than letting them roam the internet. The MHP defines three stages of delivery for advanced services to the home via the TV set: Enhanced TV (a one-way channel), Interactive TV (a two-way, closed channel) and Internet TV (a two-way channel granting access to the internet via the TV).

MHP Multimedia Home Platform. A standard for delivering next-generation content to consumers via broadcast technologies and television. The MHP committee is a sub-group of the DBV committee. Their counterpart in the U.S. is the DASE, a sub-group of the ATVEF.

PVR Personal Video Recorder. The ability to record television broadcasts to a hard drive for later viewing, currently inthe U.S. marketplace under the names TiVo and Replay TV. PVR capabilities can be added to a computer via software and/or hardware. In set-top boxes, PVR capabilities are added with a hard drive and hardware encoding. PVR is being recognized as an indispensable feature of next generation set-top boxes.

Kathleen Maher is an analyst and editor-in-chief of The Peddie Report, a publication of Jon Peddie Associations, a research firm in Mill Valley, Calif., that specializes in graphics, multimedia and convergence.

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