Beyond the screen: the digital TV revolution

Interactive digital television is coming to a set top box near you

Interactive digital television is coming to a set top box near you

One million homes already have digital TV and it's predicted that three million people will have it by 2002, and a quarter of the population will have access to interactive TV by the year 2003.

The idea of the family using their television to order food, arrange travel or just buy films is one we are all familiar with, but few of us have real experience with. As interactive digital television is launched in the UK, are we about to see a revolution that will force us to take on yet another marketing medium?

Will digital TV bring about a new avenue of communication for those who aren't confident about computers, or who don't have access to the Internet via a PC? If so, businesses are again going to have to reconsider their advertising strategies. Is digital TV going to lead to information overload, or will it take so long to take off that it will be just absorbed into our daily mix of media.

Digital TV is aiming to bring us clearer pictures and better sound quality. It will also allow us to have many more channels because the bandwidth used is so much smaller. This will, in theory, provide greater choice for viewers, and allow them to use extra (interactive) services to change their TV from the box in the corner into a communications device.

In order to keep abreast of developments, it's necessary to understand how the technology works. One of the first things to grasp is file formats. Like the Web, it's necessary to keep bandwidth down. To do this, a file format called Moving Picture Experts Group (MPEG) is used. MPEG is an organisation established in 1988 by the Joint ISO/IEC Technical Committee, who are trying to expedite the move from M-JPEG (moving JPEG) to MPEG.

The MPEG file format is a type of compression of digital data where the data is transformed into a series of images that appear as moving pictures (like analogue TV or animation). As a standard-form, MPEG allows users to synchronise audio datastreams with the video stream, thus giving both audio and video together in a compressed digital format.

MPEG and its various forms can be used on your PC. However, unless you have a Pentium PC and a good PC VGA card, the results are likely to be too slow to view to compare with analogue TV.

However, the needs of the PC user (or web surfer wanting to view video clips) and the broadcaster are different. The PC user requires quick downloads so that he can view quickly, but is not expecting such high quality. Broadcasters, on the other hand, require instantaneous viewing, without the pixellation experienced when file size compromises quality.

Digital satellite broadcasters are attempting to transmit more channels into the same bandwidth used by their satellite transponder. Old style analogue TV uses between 27 and 36 MHz of bandwidth for its FM video and audio FM subcarriers, for each channel. Digital TV allows you to put about 15 channels in the same space.

MPEG still suffers from "noise", as you can't compress it with current MPEG schemes, although future versions of MPEG should tackle this problem.

Once we have considered the constraints of the technology, we can look at the opportunities that digital TV presents to us. The main thing is that instead of your television purely being an output device, receiving and representing signals from the aerial as television pictures and sound, you will be able to use your TV as an input device. You will be able to send email and send information both to the cable company and across the Web.

This is only available in some areas. But companies that are pioneering the service in Britain are offering diverse services. You can even take part in interactive games through your remote control. The idea behind giving interaction for the viewer is, of course, to encourage us to part with our cash for services (pay per view programmes and shopping services).

Some companies (Sky in particular) are looking at the whole online picture. Instead of offering just television services or an ISP, they are offering a complete package incorporating subscription TV services, an ISP and savings on phone calls. Whether or not this will all seem so attractive if and when BT drop their call rates to ISPs is another matter.

The experience of actually using interactive services is not ideal at the moment. One company, Domino's pizza, are working with ON digital services in order to sell pizzas via the TV remote control. A great idea, aimed at professionals who arrive home late from work and don't want to cook. Their research indicates that if they promote themselves to the right people at the right time (in this case around 8pm), then people will order pizzas from them.

The new styles of commerce (for example Internet banking) have caught many companies on the hop. Egg, Prudential's financial services web identity, have had terrible problems coping with customer demand. It is imperative that companies considering selling or offering services via digital TV are ready to cope with massive increases in customer demand if and when it comes.

So does this mean we once again have to rewrite the marketing books? It's an interesting proposition. If, for example, we are able to target customers, either in specific areas or using the information we have about them from the digital services organisations, then we could push information directly to potential customers. The problem of improving stickiness on the web is erroneous if we can get all the information we need from customer profiles.

We have seen an emergence of digital set top receivers that are offered "free" with a subscription to the service providers (much like the "free computers" with subscription to an ISP's debacle). We may soon receive offers of free subscriptions in return for viewing a certain amount of advertising. This may expedite the take-up of this new technology or it may just create a similar situation to that of ISPs at the moment, where free ISPs are linked to certain companies or organisations who then direct content, and where paid for ISPs offer superior or free customer services.

Whether or not this information will remain private and not be disclosed by the digital services companies is, of course, a mute point. Those arguing for protection of privacy would abhor the disclosure of this information, but, as we see on the Web and with all forms of media, consumers are willing to trade this information for worthwhile services (or the chance to win a prize).

But before you start investing in analysis services, consider this: it took decades for people to accept the concept of satellite or cable television, as was the case for the Internet. It may take just as long for people to get their heads around digital TV.

Rachel Hodgkins

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