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The Future for Interactive Television

Geoff Vincent & Franni Vincent

A paper given at iTV '96 conference at the University of Edinburgh (see note re conference name)


ship imageThe idea of 'interactive television' was launched in a blaze of glory. It sparked thousands of column inches of media comment, led to the investment of millions of dollars in trials and tests, and caught public attention worldwide.

Such activity is remarkable in a field where there is, still, no clear and agreed view on what 'interactive television' really means - and no consensus on when this new medium will become a reality for ordinary users. Perhaps the only comparable area, where there is a similar explosion of activity and a similar problem of definition, is the Internet. The two may be more similar than they appear.

The media spotlight - exciting and glamorous, but tending to produce false colours and artificial highlights - has now moved on to other things, including the wonders of the World Wide Web. Without this intense focus, and the commercial pressure to deliver results, now, it is possible to take a more considered look at interactive television, and perhaps to take a more realistic business view.

This paper takes a clear look at what we have learnt from two years of intensive experiment and speculation; and projects these lessons into the future. It considers the uses of interactive television, and how it is likely to evolve. It also examines what can be learnt from elsewhere, and in particular from the Internet, which is not television, but it is certainly interactive. Can we gain any insights from the recent spectacular growth of the Net, created not by planned commercial investment, but by spontaneous and individual experimentation? Where is interactive television going?

What Is Interactive Television?

interactive tv image

Television has become part of our lives. It has helped to shape the twentieth century, has become deeply entwined in commerce and politics and continues to shape our personal views of the world.

So what is interactive television? The phrase brings together two of the most powerful ideas of the past century: the interactivity made possibly by the digital computer, and the most powerful communication medium in history. The name represents convergence in action. But what does it actually mean?

There have been many interpretations. One is simply to allow viewers to press buttons in response to broadcast programmes. They can, for example, select additional information (broadcast along with the TV signal in a similar manner to teletext), register their views in debates, or take part in quiz shows. Technically, this is relatively easy - and cheap - to do. With more advanced technology, such as digital broadcast, viewers can exercise more control, even selecting different camera angles in a sports broadcast.

There is undoubtedly a demand for such things. They will happen, and are happening. There is no doubt about their technical feasibility. But these are incremental developments, rather than anything radically new.

Then there is video-on-demand (VoD). Compared with some of the wilder ideas that have been proposed, VoD has the advantage of being a simple and easily understood concept, addressing a proven demand (the rental of video films) whose size is known and measurable. It adds one thing - convenience - to an established business. Instead of going to the video store, you simply press a button and select what you want to watch. There are even established price expectations. As an investment proposition this is attractive; and it was VoD, primarily, that turned interactive television from a nice idea into a practical experiment on which businessmen were prepared to risk money.

Undoubtedly, VoD is technically feasible. Reasonably accurate predictions can be made of implementation cost. However, there must be some doubt whether VoD alone - at least VoD based solely on access to films - is sufficient to justify the infrastructure investment needed to deliver it.

Then there is interactive shopping, and interactive banking: both applications which have already been tried, using previous technology.

But none of these things do full justice to the idea that is inherent in the term 'interactive television' - or the possibilities that are now emerging from trials and experiments. We suggest that one of the things we have learnt is that although we have proved interactive television can do all of these things, its true value is that it is a fundamentally new medium, whose potential we are only just beginning to explore.

Study after study has concluded that the true potential of digitisation is not in improving what we already do, but in finding new and better things to do. In exploring this, we have only just begun to scratch the surface.


The Box and the Web

box and web image

If we want a glimpse - a very imperfect glimpse - of what the new medium of interactive television can do, then one place to look is not at television at all but at the Internet, and specifically at the World Wide Web. It is on the Net that a vast range of experimentation is taking place into new uses for digital media. The Net has the advantage of millions of users willing to participate in global experiments. Experimentation is cheap, and brings immediate feedback. Net users are not slow to give their views. What is happening on the Net can provide some insight into the destiny of television, when the potential of digitisation has been fully realised. One thing the Net has taught us is that users do not just receive: they participate, and they create. It is that participation - millions of users not just using, but contributing material - that has driven the exponential growth of the World Wide Web.

Organisations around the world are racing to implement the World Wide Web on a TV screen, by adding a digital box, called a Network Computer or a Web TV, to a conventional television set. This will bring the Net, as it currently exists, to millions of people in their living room.

However we would like to look beyond this, to what we think is an even more interesting possibility: the combination of the interactivity and global networking available today on the Net, with the communicating power of television. What will a world be like in which the power of interactive television is available not just in a few homes in Cambridge or Colchester, Orlando or Redmond, but to anyone who wants it; and when the ability not just to receive but to create audio-visual material - television and more - is available not just to professionals, but is as widespread as the fax and mobile phone are today?

Schoolchildren will be taught to write multimedia essays, including clips from current news programmes, material researched from online libraries and video servers around the world, and add their own commentary, with hyperlinks. Families will send records of baby's first footsteps or the twins' new bikes to relatives across the world. Friends will exchange clips of their favourite bands, films and TV programmes, together with personal footage. Work colleagues will send video memos: faster than typing, and easier - just point and speak, rather than composing a literary masterpiece. Multimedia attachments will supply everything needed to understand and act on what is said.

Customers' comments will be filmed and transmitted direct to the design team. Retailers will video problem products and send to the manufacturer, in place of a fax. The intermittent knocking noise that happens just occasionally when the car is doing 50 will be recorded as it happens. There will be multimedia brochures available on demand, downloadable or accessible online: with instant ordering by clicking on the appropriate item.

Users will be able to tag particular news items that interest them and follow stories as they develop over several days, collecting reports and background information as they appear. They will specify their individual interests - eg "anything to do with Manchester United" - and systems will learn preferences from repeated use.

Fans will follow the daily schedules of their particular obsessions, whether pop stars or footballers, receiving broadcast messages and other information at carefully planned intervals. Anyone prepared to make their lives 'public' will probably acquire a following - but also risk unwelcome attention. There will be new problems of privacy and regulation. The Internet camera recently pointed at UK Defence Secretary Michael Portillo's front door, broadcasting his comings and goings to the Net, was censored by BT - but almost immediately reconnected through a site in Canada. Providers will choose where in the world to source and route their information, on the basis of cost and regulatory freedom: the digital equivalent of a Liberian registration.

Anyone who wishes to learn a new skill - for work or fun - will find all they need available on line, with support groups, tutors, progress checks and opportunities for formal qualifications available to those who want them. Interactive television will transform education, taking what the Open University has done several steps further, and making learning accessible to all. Seminars on the most specialist subjects will be available nation-wide - even worldwide through the ability to overcome geography in bringing teachers and students together. International gurus in every field will give regular lectures, and respond to instant feedback from a worldwide audience.

Interactive television will create a new breed of academics, reviving the peripatetic teachers of Ancient Greece, without the need to travel. The rate of knowledge advance will accelerate dramatically, through putting the world's experts in any field in direct contact with their most vociferous critics - who may be their 18 year old students in countries on the other side of the world. No longer satisfied with meekly taking notes in an overcrowded lecture theatre, students - with online access to the best of the world's knowledge, and the experience of talking back through electronic bulletin boards - will challenge those used to hiding behind print, or a set of recycled lecture notes. Academics will learn, as business people already have, that stale ideas do not sell.

Goodnight stories and nursery rhymes will be available on demand, as will more adult items. 'Channels', or multimedia stores, will develop tailored to every specialist interest, and serving every niche group and community.


Active Devices

Passive receiving devices (TVs and radios) will gradually give way to active digital devices. Receivers will become 'media processors', selecting from the hundreds of broadcast video streams transmitted continuously around the world, and the thousands of hours of video (and other multimedia) material stored on servers in every country, to construct a personal selection tailored to the individual user.

newspad imageMedia processors will come in many shapes and sizes. Some will be based on personal computers; some will be built by adding a digital box to a conventional TV set; some will consist of integrated intelligent televisions. Some devices will be portable, or even wearable. Many will have a CD slot, for a Digital Video Disc. Some will include a magnetic disc, with sufficient capacity to store several minutes, or several hours, of digital video. Users will gradually acquire, in their living rooms and even in their hands, hardware and software that will provide all the facilities of today's most advanced TV studios, and more.

Much of the material on offer will be free. Many things will be sponsored, in exchange for display of an advertising message, or the supply of personal details: a source of non-monetary value which everyone possesses. Already, Net service provider Geocities supplies free Web pages, and now free email in exchange for giving personal details for advertisers. How long will it be before people are paid to watch, or to interact? In the digital world, time and attention have real value. Already, prizes are offered to visitors of Web sites.

Some items will require payment: anything from fractions of a penny to several pounds, transferred by a secure automatic mechanism. Users will specify transactions limits and daily totals not to be exceeded without explicit approval. Those who set their software filters to allow it will receive advertising and special offers, triggered to respond to particular circumstances - such as people of a specified social profile who view financial programmes more than once within 24 hours. Users will be enticed to reveal more about themselves - creating new regulatory dilemmas. Some may be willing to pay to avoid advertising or sponsorship messages. These financial relationships already exist in the present world: digitisation exposes them, and creates new opportunities for trading value.

Online marketing will be a growth industry, with companies offering to put together buyers and sellers with minimum aggravation and maximum chance of a sale. Some will accept payment by results. A wide variety of online markets will develop, from share selling and second hand sale/exchange to baby-sitting circles and the exchange of gardening tips. Each will have their own ethos, and will attract particular types of people. Filters and intelligent agents will become ever more sophisticated in selecting messages, and programmes, and organisations, and people that are of interest, and rejecting those that are not.

None of this, we should stress, is technically difficult. All of it could be demonstrated today - and much of it is being demonstrated. Given sufficient volume of use, all of this could be made available to any consumer for the approximate cost of a video recorder; and for a monthly cost little different from today's telephone or cable bill. But digital finance is even stranger. As with mobile phones, the purchase of equipment may be subsidised by the service. Even telecommunications charges may, in the end, be subsidised by commercial organisations who calculate this is more cost effective than their current investment in conventional marketing, distribution and retail. The digital world has Alice in Wonderland characteristics. But it is becoming very real.


Television: A Universal Language

Television does not exist in a vacuum; neither will interactive television. We think of television as one medium, but it performs many different functions, from the viewing of sport to entertainment, from education and information to advertising; and it has come to play an integral part in the modern political process.

'Tele-vision' means, of course, 'seeing at a distance'. It has allowed us to see at a distance in time, in space and between cultures; into areas of knowledge once accessible only to specialists; and, through the minds of experts, at the natural world, at science, technology, art and a thousand other subjects. It has created new forms of theatre, new kinds of journalism; and placed eyes and ears, constantly alert, in every area of human life, to be reported as 'news'.

To do this effectively has required the application of resources on a national scale. The production of quality programmes - effective 'seeing at a distance' - requires a massive co-operative effort. We can see at a distance; but it is programme makers and schedulers who choose what we see, and when we see it. The only sources capable of financing the large sums needed for the production of television are the advertising budgets of large corporations, and public licence income. To hold the mass audience needed to justify these, much television output is constrained to the lowest common denominator of entertainment. Analysed in this way - and compared to the much more diverse uses, for example, of the written word - television is a strange activity.

But this picture is changing. Digitisation enables both technology and key elements of human skill to be packaged, encapsulated and reproduced in indefinite quantities, at minimal cost. Computers - devices which once filled a room, and required the resources of a corporation to keep them running - can now be built into a wristwatch, or given away on a magazine cover. This process of miniaturisation is now being applied to television: not just to the equipment involved, but to the entire process of 'seeing at a distance'.

The past thirty years has seen the inexorable rise of digital technology - of devices we still call 'computers', though computing is only a small part of what they now do. Digital technology has been applied to the computing of numbers; to the processing of words; and to the production of graphics. But the natural language of the binary digit is television. For most applications, virtual reality is a bridge too far. Total immersion in a virtual world leads to disorientation. But a colour screen showing animated graphics or a photorealistic moving image provides the optimum balance between communication of something not present ('seeing at a distance'), and awareness of the 'real' world. How else do we explain the fact that a large proportion of the human race spends much of its time glued to a television screen - almost irrespective of the quality of the content?

Digitisation is gradually making the resources of television - the ability to create television, to 'see at a distance' - available to almost anyone who wants it. Within less than a decade, and at consumer levels of cost, it will be possible for anyone to capture a televisual experience; edit it, together with libraries of resources available locally or online; add links and commentaries; and transmit the whole to anyone in the world. With the tools available, this process will be easier than writing, and could be accomplished in less time than it takes to read this paragraph. The effect of this on everything we do will be profound.

The tools and technology of television will be provided in digital form, and there will be a global race to supply them. Teaching the language of television - of televisual communication - will take longer. But children will take to it with ease, because it is easy: in fact it is far more 'natural' than reading and writing. Television is a universal language, which crosses cultural boundaries - and is even accessible to those who cannot read and write.

The medium of television formed gradually over a period of years, as the new technical possibilities led to applications which met a real need in a new way, or in some cases the emergence of an entirely new need. Over the last thirty years entire spheres of human activity, from sport and entertainment to politics, have redefined themselves around the medium of broadcast television. Interactive television will no doubt evolve in the same way, developing in step with new applications and new uses. However digital technology will mean closer interaction, and will have an even greater effect on how things are done; and it will evolve very much faster. Digital technology is cheap, and easy, and reproducible by the million. It will bring the power of television to areas previously inconceivable.


Digital Business

Applications of interactive television will develop because they allow things to be done better - in some cases dramatically better - than any previous method. Sometimes the benefit may be difficult to see because it crosses several existing jobs and functions. Sometimes existing ways of doing things will be changed or even eliminated - which is unlikely to be seen as a benefit by those involved. But competition, and fresh faces, will deliver the change.

Image: digital business

One of the most significant interactions will be with business of all kinds. In the changes that we will see in the coming years, it is difficult, and perhaps artificial, to separate the effect of television from other interactive media: particularly since, as noted above, there will be an increasing blurring of the boundaries between interactive television and media such as the Internet. Inevitably, easy to use digital media will affect the way business is done. The first effect will no doubt be to improve the links within and between businesses: to allow organisations to seek the best sources of supply from around the world, and to improve the range, quality and cost of what they have on offer. Networks of companies, seeking the best sources of component supply on the global market, may well find they can compete more effectively than the giant, vertically integrated corporations that have dominated industrial life for the past half century.

But new media will also affect the way organisations communicate with, and sell to, their end customers - that is you and me. This is a historic change. In the pre-industrial age, craftsmen and other suppliers knew their customers, and knew what they wanted. Goods were customised for each user. Industrialisation brought economies of scale, and offered to everyone commodities that were once available only to the élite. The cost was a distancing of suppliers from their customers, and the standardisation of products (Henry Ford's 'any colour you want as long as it's black'). Industries have become vast machines turning out large quantities of identical goods, with a strong incentive to persuade customers that this is what they really want. And increasingly the industrial machines are becoming automated, with less and less need for the armies of people they once employed.

Information technology, which is causing or at least exacerbating some of these problems, also offers a way out. Digital business can produce basic commodities, even complex ones such as computers, in unprecedented quantities, and at extraordinarily low cost. But it can do other things as well: it can produce high value products on demand, to custom specifications, assembling parts to order and delivering them just-in-time to whoever has made the request. On-demand delivery can be applied to videos and TV programmes or to cars, or to anything in between. No doubt, during the coming decade, it will be. This continuing process of innovation in how business is done offers both dramatic cost savings, and extensions of what is on offer. It allows organisations to communicate directly with their customers, and enables designers and marketers to test their ideas on Mr and Mrs Average in any region or on any subsector of their market. Online market research will give feedback of unprecedented detail at every stage in the development process.

The digital web of multimedia information, delivering anything from text to television, is critical in enabling these things to happen. Conversely, the economic forces driving business innovation will give a powerful impetus to digital communications - of all types.

In the process the distinction between the Net and interactive TV will blur considerably. The distinction is based on history, but the binary digit is a great leveller. There will be a demand to transmit televisual images via the Web, and also to bring the interactivity of the Web to television. The Cambridge Trial already shows how these media can be intimately mixed, with video sequences called up on demand by clicking on Web pages, and the text of news programmes available on the Web - with indexing back to the TV programme source material.

Exactly which technical solutions are finally adopted, and what the new media end up being called, is perhaps only of academic interest to the user - although critical, of course, to the business fortunes of companies proposing different options. It is not difficult to define the desirable features of a system that would best meet the needs of digital business; and only a short additional step to predict that, sooner or later, and by one route or another, it will be delivered.


Why Participate?

Both the Internet and the trials of interactive television now being conducted are dress rehearsals for a world in which widespread and low cost digital communication - in any medium - will be a part of everyday life, as the postal service is today.

We have enough information from trials and tests to conclude that many things - in every area from family life to business, from education to politics - can be done significantly better (in ways that are cheaper, faster, more convenient, more flexible, more responsive) by this means. Specific predictions are hazardous; but whatever the outcome of current technical and commercial battles, there is little doubt that the facilities needed will be made available, and that they will be used. We can also predict with some confidence that, over time, this will not only improve what we already do, but will change the way things are done - including the structure of entire industries.

Given the degree of uncertainty which still exists, there is a strong temptation to stand back and wait for the picture to become clearer. However this is unlikely to be the right answer. The overall picture is not likely to become clearer: in fact it will become more complex. Uncertainty - or to put it another way, dynamism - may be something we have to learn to live with. In any specific area, the best way to clarify the picture is to participate.


A New Medium

Interactive television is a new medium in the process of formation. It is evolving new purposes, and new relationships between those who use it. Given the nature of the medium, the boundary between producers and consumers will inevitably blur. Users will co-create their own experiences, and talk back to producers, whether of advertising, entertainment, journalism or artistic material.

The technology to create television will no longer be available to only a few; the making of television will be taught in schools, and evening classes, and will spark a hundred magazines and multimedia channels devoted to this newly democratised activity. It will be used to communicate experiences, and to build communities that cross traditional boundaries of geography and culture. It will be a focus for identity - individual and cultural - as well as for commercial transactions that cross the globe, in complex and changing patterns.

In the UK we have a unique opportunity to participate in shaping this many-headed medium. It needs technology to support everything from individual access at minimum cost, to the creation, editing and distribution of material; the management of multiple links and relationships; and for both producers and consumers, navigation through a dynamic and shifting sea of digital choices. Equally important, it needs imagination and creativity: not just to produce packaged content, but to define and create every aspect of the medium itself, and to forge the human relationships - one-to-one, one-to-many and many-to-many - on which any successful medium relies.

Television as we know it was formed by shaping the technical possibilities into a medium, that continues to meet the needs of all involved. Interactive television is likely to consist of many media, interacting in complex ways. Defining and creating these media, and applying them to every sphere from business to politics, is the task for the next decade. The UK has, within a relatively small geographical space, all the skills needed to forge this new industry - and a head start in some key aspects of technology and application. The film industry was formed in Hollywood, which now defines the hopes and fears, the lifestyles and the products to which much of the world aspires. Interactive television does not yet have a home. More than film, it will be the defining medium of the twenty-first century.


The Internet gives some inkling of what the media of the future will be like. At present it is a mix between playground and laboratory: a home for individual enthusiasts prepared to dedicate their time while investors persuade themselves that digital media are, in fact, here to stay. What is already clear, however, is how much can be achieved by the combination of individual efforts, even without conventional corporate investment. Digital media - one indication of their power - provide ways of organising collective effort that can bypass conventional financial structures. It may be that new methods of finance arise from the new possibilities of digital media. Governments are already concerned that digital relationships - creating new value without the exchange of money - will bypass conventional tax regimes.


Although both the Internet and interactive television will be 'under construction' for many years to come, this will not prevent their active application in many areas. Digital highways can be used - and are being used - even while they are being built, and construction will continue even when the network is fully deployed. There is at least one school in the UK - Netherhall School in Cambridge - which is already both using and creating interactive television as an integral part of its learning programme.

image:head in the sand

The future is exciting, though it is not for the faint hearted. There are two options: to cling to the past, in a world which is being torn apart and reassembled, piece by interactive piece. We can place our heads in the sand and hope for the best. Or we can embrace the future, and accept the challenge of learning what it takes to survive and prosper by new rules. The rewards, for those who take this step, are there for the taking.


©1996 Geoff Vincent and Franni Vincent

Paper originally presented at the conference iTV 96 , Edinburgh University , September 1996. **

** (June 2007: We have been asked to point out that this conference was on Interactive Television, and despite the conference title, had no connection with the British television company ITV plc. )

return to start of paper


About this article:

Update written in 2001

This article was written five years ago, in the wake of the Cambridge Trial of interactive television. With broadband services now beginning to reach homes and businesses worldwide, what it says is even more relevant today than in 1996.

In the intervening years the Internet has taken on the role of 'testbed for services' that the Cambridge Trial pioneered - on a larger scale, and with the investment of billions. Some services have survived; many have fallen by the wayside. The learning process, and particularly the recent crash, has been expensive. Many organisations, have spent billions learning some of the lessons that were already clear from the results of the Cambridge Trial.

In 1996 many people, especially in mainstream television, doubted that digital technology would have a profound effect on the media landscape. There are no doubters now. The only question left is: how?

Some of the applications predicted in this article have already happened, many through the Internet and the Web; others are still embryonic. The emergence of the personal video recorder - devices such as TiVo and Microsoft's Ultimate TV - was correctly predicted, as were portable multimedia devices, the growth of online markets, the economic impact of online systems, the growth of online learning, and widespread access to affordable video production and editing equipment. The restructuring of industries predicted here can be seen in, for example, the merger of AOL and Time Warner, and in the dramatic effect of MP3 on the music industries. But these are only the preliminary skirmishes in a process of restructuring that will continue for many years to come, and will have an impact far beyond the 'information industries' themselves.

Reviewing this article in the cold light of day, some of the cultural references clearly come from another era which now seems more than five years distant (for example, Michael Portillo as UK defence secretary). But everything predicted here has either already come true, or now looks even more likely than it did in 1996.

The topic of convergence between television and the Web which this article raised - controversially at the time - has become extremely current. But the true marriage of the Box and the Web has, in our view, still to happen. As we pointed out in 1996, inevitably this goes along with the reinvention of 'television', in its broadest sense of 'seeing at a distance'.

What has changed since 1996 is a widespread recognition that this reinvention is necessary, if not yet agreement on how it should happen. If there is not yet a date for the Box-Web wedding, at least the engagement has been announced. The formal announcement can perhaps be dated to the public recognition by the BBC's Chairman, Sir Christopher Bland, that the Internet is the 'third medium'. Programme makers at the BBC and elsewhere are routinely creating productions which combine broadcasts with online Web interaction, in ever more creative ways. Increasingly, TV and Web production is seen as part of the same process, and is handled by the same production teams: cohabitation, if not yet formal union.

As we predicted, the UK is now widely recognised as a global centre - if not the global centre - where these developments are taking place. The process is still very much in the melting pot, but it is more advanced here than anywhere else.

Britain now has digital satellite, terrestrial and (soon) cable television, and all of these offer some form of interactivity, and some kind of Web connection. Through Sky's Open TV, and ADSL connections from a number of sources, different forms of 'interactive television' are available to most if not all of the population.

The British government has recently announced it will offer free TV channels, Internet and email to selected 'digital neighbourhoods', in an effort to understand the factors that will cause users to switch to digital TV. The government has set aggressive targets for migrating all users to digital TV, and for providing the British population with 100% access to the Internet.

The Bush Internet TV, using technology originally developed by Cambridge-based Acorn and now owned by Pace, offers a 'one box' solution for TV and Web browsing. A variety of set top boxes are available from different manufacturers, offering various combinations of digital channels, interactivity and Internet.

What we do not yet have is a common platform or common standards for these developments - something that would promote both the development of content and services, and the availability of low cost equipment. We see this as a productive area for co-operation, and a subject we are discussing with leading organisations, public and private.

The conclusions of this article are, we think, even more relevant than when first written.

Geoff Vincent & Franni Vincent

April 2001

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