IIMS 94 contents
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Interactive television: The excitement awaits

Jeff Brown
Interactive Television Australia Ltd

Rick D Anderson
Interactive Systems, Oregon

Imagine if ... you could guess who'll score the next goal during a live footy telecast, or who'll hit the next six in cricket, and immediately win a major prize. Imagine... matching wits with the studio contestants, live, in the privacy of your own home.

The room is dark except for the flicker of the television set. On the edge of your seat, you firmly clutch the remote control. You're in charge. As the TV host asks each question, you quickly press a button. Time is running out. Only four more questions to go. In the next few seconds you could win a new car...

This is the world of interactive TV, a new technology that will revolutionise television, and the lives of those who use it. The concept of audience participation, until now a narrow one, is about to expand dramatically. It means an explosion of choices. Suddenly you become your own program manager. You have access to a stunning array of information and entertainment. The television set becomes your entertainment console, your shopping trolley.

For TV networks and pollsters interactive television will bring a new immediacy to public opinion polls and ratings. Moreover the ability to judge the effectiveness of new product launches and advertising campaigns in select target audiences will have a major impact on the corporate world.

The emphasis is on "active", forget the image of the jaded couch potato. Interactive Television gives you options. Remember when colour television was new , and you couldn't wait to get home to watch the latest mini-series? Now television becomes a fresh experience, a social event, a family activity.

Well hold your breath, interactive television is about to be introduced into Australia by Interactive Television Australia Ltd (ITVA).

How does interactive TV work?

Interactive Television provides you with a remote control which communicates with a small VCR-like box attached to the television set. Your remote control is your tool to talk back to the TV. If you play a quiz game, your remote control allows you to answer the compere's questions by pushing a button.

It's very simple. Just as easy as changing the channels on your TV. The In-Home-Unit (IHU) connected to your set has its own printer. If you are in the running for a major prize, the IHU automatically communicates the viewer's score back to a Call Processing Centre (CPC). A coupon - or 'viewpon' as it's known - will print out from the IHU. You can then redeem your prize - including cars, overseas trips, household goods, right along to free pizzas - using the viewpon as evidence.

Functions of the In Home Unit

The interactive technology

The patented VEILTM (Video Encoded Invisible Light) technology embeds the interactive signal in the normal TV broadcast using a dedicated encoder called a Video Encoding and Transport System (VETS). This encodes information directly onto the actual videotape supplied by the networks or the programs' producers, or added into live transmissions from a small console in the TV studio. These messages are then fed into the 625 lines that make up the TV picture.

The return signal from the home to the CPC to arrange prizes etc, uses the viewer's telephone line. These calls will not interfere with normal telephone usage because most are expected to be very short (15 secs) and the few longer ones (3 mins) will be made mostly in the early hours of the morning. In any event it is planned that these calls won't cost any more than a local call.

The IHU contains a fast computer type central processing unit, sufficient memory for 1 million characters of text (1 MB of ROM and RAM), a 40 column thermal printer, a 2400 bps modem, an infrared receiver (to receive remote control signals), a custom on screen display (for displaying text and graphics on the TV screen), a TV tuner and a proprietary receiver that splits out the interactive signal that is embedded into the broadcast or cable signal.

Functions of the Call Processing Centre

The CPC is a large computer 'switchboard' capable of accommodating the large number of incoming calls from viewers, particularly at peak times, collating scores and advising winners.

Tandem Computers has been appointed the supplier of ITVA's CPC and has taken a key role providing early funding and expertise. Tandem's computers provide the fault tolerance and high transaction throughput required. The software developer, Computer Power, has been appointed developer of the Australian version of the applications residing in the IHU and CPC.

What type of TV shows?

Viewers will be able to actively participate in game shows, news polls and sports programs such as Family Feud, Wheel of Fortune, Nightly News, Real Life, Australia's Most Wanted, The Great Outdoors, Rex Hunt's Fishing World, Sportsworld, Football and Tonight Live. As more networks sign up further program opportunities will become evident.

Viewers will also be able to shop from home, order holiday brochures and other types of information and perhaps in the future, buy theatre tickets, or participate in Government approved lotteries and gaming. "I don't think we've even begun to think about the sort of applications that this technology might make possible," said Jim McKay the MD of ITVA.

Game Shows. There are over 30 games shows each week on metropolitan TV, and together they offer prizes potentially totalling several million dollars. Imagine being able to win some of these prizes by answering the questions and solve the puzzle along with the studio contestant.

Sports Programs. This technology is going to have an extraordinary impact on the way television broadcasts sporting programs. Never before have the channels been able to involve the viewer. For sports fans, it could mean being able to indulge their wildest fantasies. Think you know which team will win the cricket match? Or will it be a draw? What will the run rate be? How many sixes will Border score? When will the next wicket fall? Will Merve get a hat trick on the next ball? You will receive a score based on how accurate you are.

Polling. Participate in local, regional or even national polls simply by pressing a button on the remote control. The results are quickly tabulated and shown on the screen with hundreds and thousands of others.

Coupons and Product Information. Interactive TV promises to make those dull commercials more interesting. How would you like to be able to print a $1-off coupon when a particular commercial plays? Or how about answering some questions during the commercial, for a free sample, of course? Have you ever wanted more information about that product you saw in a commercial? Simply press a button on the remote and your printer gives you the information.

Commercials and Home Shopping. Products shown on commercials could be purchased directly by pressing the 'buy' button on the remote. Of course these activities will be password protected so that junior cannot go wild. A mechanism will be available to charge the item to your credit card and a receipt will be printed on the spot, complete with delivery information. Already in the United States, the concept of home shopping is being viewed as the next wave of retailing. Interactive television fits neatly into one of the most powerful marketing phenomena identified by international authority, Faith Popcorn. According to Popcorn, the market is moving to "cocooning", where people increasingly want to be able to reach services from their homes.

Distance Education. High on the list of growing TV services is education. The freedom to take classes on every imaginable subject in your lounge room is creating an entirely new industry. Tutorial notes could be down loaded (maybe to the student's PC if connected), followed by interactive participation in the session and at the end the student's score could be printed with comments.

General Information. It's in the area of global information services that interactive television will probably have a large impact on our future lives. Marshall McLuhan's concept of a global village is fast becoming a fact of modem life, but the complexity of hooking up a PC to a telephone line has until now severely restricted the use of online information services. With Interactive Television, the information highway that President Clinton has outlined for the United States suddenly passes through your front door, with a much more familiar interface, in the form of your TV.

There is no profession, hobby or enterprise that will not be enhanced by access to international information in time. You'll be able to print out your weather report, or your morning traffic report, airline timetable or the details of your personal stock portfolio. Further down the track your morning newspaper may no longer be dropped into the puddle on your front lawn. And that newspaper can be personalised in a way that the newsprint version simply doesn't allow.

How soon and how much?

Interactive TV will be in Australia within the next nine months. ITVA plans to run a shakedown Alpha test in Adelaide in 500 homes during the second quarter of 1994. A preproduction Beta test in 5000 homes will be undertaken in the fourth quarter 1994. Full scale rollout across Australia will commence in the second quarter 1995. The first 210,000 IHUs will be "given away" through normal retail channels to people who buy electronic or white goods to a nominated value. A total of 400,000 units are expected to be in place within the first 12 months.

The typical IHU will cost about the same as a middle of the road VCR, ie. $450. A $3 fee for access to interactive shows will be charged for each day a consumer wishes to play. Specialised services, such as information from life style programs, will involve a small surcharge.

Who is introducing interactive TV in Australia?

Active Marketing is a prominent Melbourne based company, which has pioneered sports marketing for the Australian Football League and will be responsible for the marketing of the venture throughout Australia. The Managing Director of ITVA, Mr Jim McKay, who in 1980 was voted Australian Marketing Man of the Year, has negotiated with Interactive Systems Inc, for the Australian rights.

ITVA has former Telecom MD, Mel Ward on its board along with the former MD of Kerry Packer's Consolidated Press, Trevor Kennedy, the President of Grundy Television, Ian Holmes and Jim McKay.

Jim McKay said, "ITVA has so far signed TV network agreements with the Seven Network, SBS and Prime. At present ITVA is offering equity to selected investors, media interests, electrical retailers, communications companies and other compatible investors."

The setting up and running of the business is expected to provide about 300 jobs in administration, sales and operations.

According to Interactive Systems Inc President, Jack Galmiche, Australia's enthusiasm for electronic technology like fax machines, colour televisions and VCRs - the highest in the Western world - indicated that there would be a rapid adoption of the new technology. "ISI is absolutely delighted to be at the forefront of the introduction of Interactive Television into Australia," he said. "The Australian market, with the enormous advantage of a simple telecommunications carrier environment and relatively few TV networks, is an ideal environment in which to launch a system such as this.

The future

In the immediate future ITVA is concentrating on making successful Alpha and Beta tests as noted earlier, and then launching the service throughout Australia.

In the longer term as interactive television progresses, viewers may be able to "tune in" to special channels where participants from different parts of the country come together in a huge fantasy game or sit around a table playing blackjack. Or consider the case where the movie or soap opera stops the action at a key point and then allows the viewers to determine the direction the program will head. Looking five to ten years out into the future brings video on demand which will allow the viewer to choose what they want to watch whenever they want.

Interactivity will increase the ratings of programs utilising the technology, because viewers will be more actively involved in those programs and channel hopping will be reduced.

Advertisers will benefit from the increased ratings but more importantly they will he more attracted to television as a media because they will be able to make their own commercials interactive. Advertisers can thereby gain instant results from sales and promotions, as well as obtain highly valuable, demographic and audience data, never before so instantly available.

Interactivity will increase direct response and retail advertising revenue to networks. Television will gain revenue from advertisers who previously relied upon coupon style advertising, without cumbersome clipping, addressing, stamping and posting of coupons. Because Interactive commercials will involve viewers, the tendency to zap commercials will be reduced.

Those networks which do not run interactive commercials will lose business to those which do. This will lead possibly to a change in revenue shares between the networks.

Interactive television will revolutionise the way we watch TV. The viewer will become immersed in the program - participating in some or all aspects of the program as if they were actually on the show. A completely new type of programming will evolve to take advantage of this added interactivity. Entertainment will be taken to another level and when all is said and done, interactive television will surpass all previous advances in the history of TV as the most important. And who knows, maybe you'll answer those last four questions correctly and will win that car.

Authors: Jeff Brown, Technical Director, Interactive Television Australia Ltd, 1/620 St Kilda Rd, Melbourne Vic 3004. Tel: 03 521 3233.

Rick Anderson, Manager of Software Development and Quality Assistance, Interactive Systems Inc, Beaverton, Oregon.

Please cite as: Brown, J. and Anderson, R. (1994). Interactive television: The excitement awaits. In C. McBeath and R. Atkinson (Eds), Proceedings of the Second International Interactive Multimedia Symposium, 45-48. Perth, Western Australia, 23-28 January. Promaco Conventions. http://www.aset.org.au/confs/iims/1994/bc/brown.html

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