Talk of interactive television continues to outstrip actual delivery, but it looks like many of the interactive- television–related companies at NAB will be talking business rather than technology. Applications such as video-on-demand or PVR functionality through the set-top are recurring trends, as is the ability to surf or chat through the television. Here's a look at what some of the interactive-television manufacturers will offer at the show.
Target marketing of TV advertising promises to be one of the key advantages of the digital era. ACTV's SpotOn service will go live in 40,000 homes in Denver later this year. Once realized, the system may save both viewers and advertisers from wasting time and effort. "It means that if I'm a young household with a family, my TV isn't going to get ads for Fixodent," says Richard Yelen, ACTV's senior vice president, marketing. "Media buyers now are buying television shows trying to reach the dominant audience viewing. Here, you're actually buying the audience that's viewing."
Advertisers will also be able to target narrow audience segments that would otherwise be overlooked. "You could actually have Fixodent ads in a Nickelodeon show if there happen to be senior citizens watching."
ACTV believes implementing SpotOn may change many core dynamics in the TV industry, particularly as TV metrics could undergo a fundamental change. "We can account for spots aired in each individual home," says Yelen. "These ratings are no longer based on sampling but whether it was actually on that channel." Getting such in-depth information does raise privacy concerns. Yelen appreciates this as well as the potential for additional business concepts. "The advertiser isn't going to know personal information. On the other hand, this product also offers permission-based marketing possibilities. If you click for a coupon, the advertiser is obviously going to have to know your address for fulfillment. Beyond that, Big Brother is not watching."
ACTV's SpotOn is designed to work with any set-top converter and any middleware provider. It is both direct-to-home as well as cable-TV friendly. Already, ACTV has signed a distribution agreement with AT&T broadband. ACTV will demonstrate the technology in the Motorola booth.
Chyron's Interactive Division will hit the show floor with one goal. "Two years ago, we started working on making iTV content creation routine," says Bill Hendler, Chyron interactive division vice president. "Most of the work done, even in HTML, was non-standard." Visitors at Chyron's booth at NAB will see content authoring and production tools with Lyric's iTV enhancements. According to the company, these enhancements save having to invest the time and cost of installing and mastering entirely new tools. "This takes advantage of the installed base, typically systems that are up to 12 years old. All we need to do is perform a software upgrade and put a PC on site to work with existing Chyron equipment," says Hendler. Perhaps even more important, the translations to iTV maintain production values. "A lot of iTV looks very bad. We really felt we had to create content-creation tools that maintain a consistent look and quality."
Other Chyron iTV offerings at NAB include the DCC Interactive solution. This integrates interactive content with Pro-Bel and other automation systems. Also, the character generator (CG) interactive software upgrade for Infinit or Duet hardware allows synchronous iTV linked to on-screen graphics. CG Interactive allows automatic deployment during a live event with no interruption of TV production workflow. "A lot of the attractive scenarios for iTV have to do with news and sports. In the live environment there's no chance to take recorded material and do the voodoo to make it interactive." Automation has added benefits. "There's no need to reproduce the efforts of the television graphics production team. This saves effort and limits the opportunity for error," says Hendler.
Intertainer will arrive NAB on the heels of signing a number of important deals with content providers to distribute movies, music videos and other programming through the company's digital cable and broadband Internet video-on-demand platforms. These agreements with A&E, Universal Studios and Warner Music Group add depth and breadth to its library of some 65,000 hours of programming from 70 content providers. Intertainer is also deploying its VOD service to 40,000 DSL subscribers in Cincinnati. The systemwide rollout through a broadband subsidiary of Broadwing follows a year of joint testing.
"The technology is catching up with the (VOD) vision both in terms of the infrastructure options, quality of video at reasonable bit rates, and the number of platforms available in the home," says Bruce Anderson, Intertainer's senior vice president, Technology. That means that consumers will soon be adding VOD to their home entertainment options. "We're going to be seeing an explosion in the number of IP-enabled Windows Media-capable set-top boxes." Intertainer will demonstrate a service similar to the Cincinnati deployment at the Microsoft booth that will serve up content via DSL to a uniView set-top box.
The proliferation of information appliances seen in and around NAB 2001 comes from a tremendous amount of cultivation of the technical infrastructure. Liberate Technologies has spent the past four years sowing seeds as a middleware provider for set-top boxes. For Charlie Tritschler, Liberate's vice president of marketing, the first fruits will come from video-on-demand applications built on top of their platform. "The focus this year is VOD. It's been our focus this past year and I think you'll see a lot more companies moving into this space," he says.
Why is VOD poised to take off? "Last year, the concept was interesting. People knew there would be consumer demand, but the technological and business challenges were greater. Since then, the cost per stream has dropped and the technology has matured. We've integrated it into the platform and that makes it that much easier for a network operator to roll it out." At the end of March, Charter Communications selected Liberate's software to enable interactive services with Motorola DCT5000 set-tops. This follows a pilot program in St. Louis. Full deployment is planned by the end of the year.
Adopting open standards and a common architecture has cleared the way for mass implementation of VOD. "Extending that platform into a VOD gateway allows different providers to write to the same API," says Tritschler. "That makes it easy for them because they don't have to deal with technology infrastructure issues and it gives network operators a much broader choice of VOD suppliers."
Liberate Technologies will be demonstrating its product offerings at the Tandberg, Pace and Philips booths.
Visitors to the NDS booth will find that much of what was in the idea stage at last year's show is now ready for prime time. "At NAB 2000, we were showing concept," says Beth Erez, NDS' vice president of marketing. "We told people that these were being worked on. This year, a lot of what's being shown is actually available for on-air use." The centerpiece is Value@TV, an open and scalable suite of interactive TV applications. Highlights of Value@TV include QVC, Discovery and SportsActive. The first two applications are designed specifically to complement the cable channels. QVC enables impulse buying while Discovery allows Discovery Channel viewers to embark on in-depth explorations of the science, technology and nature subjects referenced by the programming. SportsActive is one of two interactive sports applications offered. One targeted for the South American market runs on the NDS Core (the equivalent of Microsoft Basic TV Digital), the other on OpenTV.
Looking ahead, NDS will also feature what Erez predicts will trigger a ground shift in the consumer experience. XTV and iXTV are personalized TV systems. XTV is a third-generation PVR that is integrated with the set-top box and conditional access systems. "The idea is to open numerous revenue opportunities through targeted advertising and video rental," she says. "It lets consumers create personalized listings and get targeted offerings based on their profile." iXTV is billed as the next step beyond XTV, a full convergence of iTV and personalized TV. Based on individual preferences, content is cached to enable true interactivity. This avoids the need to serve up bandwidth-intensive material in time.
OpenTV comes to NAB to demonstrate the company's robust integration and implementation of established iTV technologies. "We have an audience for broadcasters and content companies to target as well as the technologies to facilitate reaching that audience," says Anup Murarka, vice president of strategic product marketing. "The challenge is not building new technology, but to have these work seamlessly together. How do you integrate these effectively? Currently, OpenTV reaches some 13.9 million digital set-top boxes in more than 50 countries, although deployment here in the U.S. has yet to hit the cable MSO level.
Beyond OpenTV's software and infrastructure platform to enable digital interactive television, new prospects are opening to bring on-demand content to other digital communications devices.
One of the latest offerings being demonstrated at the show is Spyglass Prism 3.3.0. The server-based content-transformation solution is designed to improve performance of Web-enabled devices. Many of the latest features are driven by the demand for wireless content in Asia. This includes conversion of all Web-image types and their mobile-phone equivalents for iMode, WAP and MML services as well as transcoding from HDML to WML and among all versions of WML.
PowerTV will demonstrate VOD applications and an Internet suite that unites TV viewing with online functionality. "It's not just the Internet thrown on TV," says Chuck Kaplan, PowerTV's vice president of marketing. "It's a blended experience rather than a series of disassociated experiences on the same monitor. Creating a two-screen environment by windowing on the single screen is easy. The more interesting part is looking at what the viewer is actually doing with this."
Kaplan says that the technology is ready for rollout. The remaining issues have more to do with marketing. "The content providers and advertisers are interested but they're waiting for critical mass."
Numerous cable operators will be conducting field trials in the coming months. "These are not technology trials," adds Kaplan. "The cable operators will be evaluating how to price, package and position it." They will also be looking at how it can improve retention. "The early results are that it has a significant impact on retention. People who start to interact with these services find it lifestyle changing. That makes it extremely 'sticky.'" These initial results seem to repeat similar findings with VOD. "We have more than 600,000 subscribers using the PowerTV VOD applications. Not only have their buy rates gone up, but the retention rates, too. That's because it has changed their lifestyle."
Veil Interactive's message is to look beyond the box. "Most interactivity coming from the TV has been relegated to the set-top box," says Ted Koplar, the company's president and CEO. "We'll be introducing new concepts in interactivity that are far more global than anyone would imagine. These give new ways to go cross media with more impact for both the advertised message as well as what comes from the content provider."
Such versatility stems from the company's core technology. VEIL (Video Encoded Invisible Light) information is integrated into television broadcasts and even home video recordings in the vertical-blanking interval. This makes the data potentially ubiquitous and virtually impossible to strip out. There are two versions of the encoding software to support different data rates. VEIL I delivers data at up to 60 bits/sec to simple optical readers. VEIL II achieves 100 times that rate to infrared or RF receivers as well as Bluetooth devices. Visitors to the booth will see six different VEIL-enabled devices including PDAs, remote controls, wireless phones and even toys. VEIL chips can also be added to set-top boxes, allowing for delivery of coupons and other value-adds to programming. The technology also can serve as a watermark for video.
For Koplar, the wireless dimension can better connect audiences. "We can take the viewer from in-home to theme parks and supermarket kiosks. We want to take them through a lot of different experiences on the way to the point-of-sale."
VertigoXmedia's NAB offerings will highlight what the company sees as a move beyond graphics automation. "We're not just talking about graphics automation anymore. It's grown into content automation. That's the ability to repurpose content to allow broadcasters to distribute it over multiple delivery channels," says David Wilkins, VertigoXmedia's president and CEO. The company's recently released Producer On Air 2.0 is an open platform for automating and formatting content delivery. "We have a real value proposition with tangible benefits for broadcasters today and open opportunities for tomorrow." According to Wilkins, adopting Producer On Air 2.0 as a standard can realize enormous savings over custom solutions. Another attractive feature is the products' bi-directional capabilities. "We can take input from the Web audience and turn it into real-time viewer polling and interactive games."
A key design element of Producer On Air 2.0 is the ability to add functionality to meet individual needs. "We have a standard product with 80% of what everyone needs and then offer modules and scripting. The broadcaster can graduate to these new delivery channels as needed. First, use it for live TV graphics, maybe a Web page. When you're ready for iTV, just add a new module." Two modules are already available: Producer Interactive for iTV and Producer Mobile for wireless phones and PDAs. Producer Interactive is an authoring and control tool compatible with all current set-top-box standards including ATVEF and MHP.
Unlike earlier versions, Producer On Air 2.0 is also a platform for third-party developers. "If you want to build custom implementations for this, it is a completely open platform. We are looking for development partners," Wilkins says. The VertigoXmedia booth will be located in eTopia at the Sands.