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Ins and Outs: Whatever happened to iTV?

Jeremy Toeman

Jeremy Toeman contributes Ins and Outs, an opinion column on entertainment technology. He is also the founder and editor of LIVEdigitally.

As a sophomore in college I wrote a presentation on "the next generation home" wherein I discussed topics I had researched, ranging from "the information superhighway" (this was 1992, before Mosaic was even in beta) to home automation to interactive television. The thinking was we'd have amazing, automagically working technology controlling our home and our media, it would all come soon and cheap, and work, for lack of a better term, like magic.

Here we are in 2008, and while technology's come a long way, only the rich have home automation and most of the time they spend using it involves rebooting their house. When it comes to interactive television, however, the vision of watching TV and doing cool things like seeing real-time sports statistics, selecting alternate viewpoints, or playing an interactive game just hasn't come to any home I know of. The only major improvements to TV technologies in the past 15 years are: the mainstream availability of HDTV sets and programming, on-demand movie watching, and DVRs. And these improvements are all evolutionary ones, not a single bit revolutionary.

So why not? What happened to "iTV" as the insiders call it? Interestingly enough, I think it's already arrived, just not in the fashion we all hoped/expected it would. But I'll get to that in a moment, let's go through a quick bit of history just to get up to speed.

In the nineties, various companies tried numerous approaches to introducing iTV services. Solutions tended to require a new, advanced (and expensive) set-top box capable of rendering pretty interfaces, serving up new applications, and generally doing much of what a computer had to do. Every service required a cable provider (or occasionally ambitious telco) to run a trial program somewhere in the country (Orlando was apparently quite the hotspot for iTV trials). In some cases huge infrastructure was needed (such as wiring fiber optic cable from the cable head-end all the way to the home), as high speed Internet was just a vision on the industry's horizon. Suffice it to say they all failed, and at quite a cost as well.

Part of the problem had to do with timing. TVs were all standard definition, and displaying cool, interactive menus not only looked ugly, but required huge fonts just to be legible on a 23" WEGA. As I stated above, the Internet was dial-up at best, meaning very little data could actually get sent down the pipe. The embedded hardware platforms at the time had little processing power, and making an interactive application required custom (expensive) hardware and unique programming skills.

Another part of the problem is the closed nature of the industry. I spoke with Mitchell Kertzman, former Chairman and CEO of Liberate Technologies (once the top iTV technology vendor), to get his insight on the experience. Mitchell's feelings are that the very nature of the structure of the cable industry require that a vendor "sell" to a big cable provider, yet those companies are highly unlikely and unincented to make such a relationship really work. It can take months to years just to get in the door, and even then a multi-year trial is a first step at best. Considering the scale of operations for a company like Comcast or Time Warner, this certainly isn't unexpected; if you were responsible for providing TV to millions of homes, you would put some pretty big hoops up as well!

Looking back on the past few years, one would wonder why iTV hasn't attempted a resurgence. After all, we have beautiful HDTV displays, big fat Internet tubes, and fairly inexpensive yet powerful hardware. I'd argue the timing was fairly bad in actuality, as consumers were just learning about the evolutionary technologies, buying their plasmas and their DVRs. Launching even more new features could very possibly have wrecked the adoption curve of these other services, each of which are netting significant cash proceeds to big cable.

So now I'll go out on a limb and hypothesize that iTV the way it was once envisioned still isn't coming to a couch near you anytime soon (although there are huge players still trying). And it's not because the boxes are too expensive or confusing. It's not because the screen is too small or too big. It's not due to the overly stated "lean-forward/lean-backward" argument against interactivity in the living room. It's because interacting with TV is already here, and millions of people are already using it.

Tens of millions of Americans interact with their TV using their cell phone. They do it by texting in votes to American Idol and other shows. Every Sunday from September to January, traffic on fantasy sports Web sites spike to accommodate people checking their team stats during the games. Shows like NBC's Heroes have real-time interactive chat sessions online as new episodes air, and we should expect a lot more like this popping up this Fall season. Political and sporting events cause massive usage of microblogging services like Twitter.

The reality is interactive TV has arrived, we're just using our cell phones and laptops for the interaction, not the remote control. The television may be the last true "walled garden" in consumer technology, but the openness and flexibility of the Internet put the power to click back in the hands of the people. I don't know when I'm getting my laser raygun, but I do know the "information superhighway" has delivered the interactivity I first researched about over 15 years ago.

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