The Computer Chronicles
PBS had a television show called the Computer Chronicles which ran from 1981-2002.
There is a particularly interesting episode and one that relates to my recent post “When Technologies Collide“. The title of the episode is Smart TV 95 and it was recorded in 1995. It is a pretty amazing piece of history which was captured by the Internet Archieves. It is about 25 minutes long and is worthwhile watching especially for those interested in Interactive TV.
In 1995, most people in technology were convinced that the TV would be the interactive device in the home. Well things turned out very differently. The PC became the interactive device. Now we are pretty much at the end of that road and entering the period of ubiquitous computing. Finally the TV is joining the world of interactivity, seventeen years after this TV show was made.
Vertical Blanking Interval Goes Nowhere
The first company interviewed offered a board that could be plugged into a PC. It had an antenna and could receive television signals. It was designed to use the Vertical Blanking Interval (VBI) that existed in analog television. It was a small amount of video signal that ironically could not be used for video for reasons I will not discuss here. A number of companies tried to use this capability, including a project at Intel (not one of mine), and they all failed.
Convergence 95: A conference of losers
Then there is a discussion of a conference called Convergence 95 where a bunch of companies dealt with the concept of Interactive Television. In attendance were equipment suppliers who had hoped to provide interactive set top boxes and OS companies that wanted to become the Microsoft of the set top box. Even cable channels like Discovery were present, talking about how to offer interactivity along with their programs. Frankly, most if not all the companies present were losers. Some of the concepts did not make sense and some have still not been implemented 17 years later.
HP demonstrates a set top box and cable modem and fails at both
Next, HP demonstrates a set top box that ended up going nowhere. They also demonstrated a cable model which was based on the technology that we developed under my direction at Intel. HP failed to take advantage of their early lead in cable modems but then again, so did Intel.
First Cable Modem Trial a Major Success
Next there is a discussion of one of the first cable model trials which was done in Castro Valley CA. The trail was done by Intel and Viacom who at that time owned some cable companies. Video of a school in Castro Valley is shown. The class is using a cable modem to retrieve high quality images of earthquake faults at high speed.
One Person Got it Right, Guess Who
At 16:45 minutes, I am interviewed . You can see this clip here where I make the case that the PC is designed for interactivity, not the TV. One of the more important points I make is about the poor resolution of TVs at the time.
High Resolution Video on a PC makes its debut
Finally there is a discussion of video on computers. In 1995, it was very difficult to display high quality video and synchronized audio. That is pretty hard to imagine now in the era of youtube and Netflix. I can remember the efforts of the Intel Architecture Labs (IAL) to be able to render video in real time just using the CPU of the computer. This project was called Native Signal Processing. It was the holly grail for the labs. It was not many years later that we began to experiment with real time encoding/compression of video. Seeing that for the first time, I realized that it would be possible to record and store television just as we were already doing for audio and that would allow advertising to be stripped out of video and change the nature of the TV industry.
Smart TV 2015
Since 1995, there have been many attempts to develop interactive TV. With the exception of game platforms like Wii and the xBox, they have all failed. Periodically, some company tries again. Google is the latest to fail with Google TV. Companies with the more modest goal of providing linear content over the internet like Apple TV, Roku and Netflix have had success.
There are many rumors about a TV from Apple. Steve Jobs talked about figuring out how to do to the TV what the iPhone did to the cell phone but no one is sure what his brake-through idea was.
We now have the concept of the the second screen. The idea is that you use your smart phone or tablet to interact while you watch linear television. Zeebox is an example of this concept. While I think this will happen, I don’t think it is the real breakthrough.
It is now possible to clone your iPad display using the Apple TV. Maybe the winning architecture is just to keep the display the display but make it open to getting its content from many devices.
It is interesting to think about the role of key computer companies as this evolves. I believe Google, Apple and Amazon will be come the domineer players in Interactive TV. They are the new media companies. The current networks/studios will see their roles reduced. Note, I did not even mention Microsoft. They could have a role but given their current leadership, I doubt that they will have any importance in shaping the future of TV. As for my alma mater, Intel. There will be no Intel Inside the Smart TV.