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Convergence Confusion @ AFI
by Jon Leland
Originally published in Videography Magazine, January 2001

Streaming video, interactive TV (iTV), enhanced TV (eTV) and digital TV (DTV) have all laid claims to the predicted promised land that is collectively called convergence; but there’s nothing simple about trying to make video truly interactive.

Of course, convergence brings together the dynamic communication power video and the interactive interfacing of the world of computing. But, just as some people wonder about the Web, if there is a “there there;” I wonder if anyone really knows what it means to produce effective video communications for these new media types. And, then, to make matters somewhat overwhelming, there are not only an array of the different kinds of digital video, but there are also a full assortment of competing interactive video-computing convergence “platforms” — including PC’s, set-top boxes, personal video recorders (PVR’s) and digital TV’s.

At the invitation of Intel, I recently traveled to TV’s holy land, Los Angeles, and visited one of its most creative enclaves — the American Film Institute — to preview some eTV prototypes that will be made public soon as part of the AFI-Intel Enhanced TV Workshop. These prototypes are what inspired this column, both because of the challenges that were made obvious and also because seeing eTV in action broadened my understanding of how the eTV platform is different than streaming video on the Web — for better or worse.

As I watched the eTV prototypes at AFI, I was both excited and dismayed to discover an emerging new world of TV programming being "enhanced," extended and in some cases diluted by interactivity.

For your reference, I’ll use the unusual term “interactive video” as a catch all for all of these different approaches — on the Web, on digital TV, via cable set top boxes, eTV or whatever.

The first challenge is to begin to sort out these different “styles” of interactive video (and I don’t claim to be able to do that completely in a few short paragraphs). And I think the first question that producers who are either participating in any of these pioneering efforts (or who are considering jumping in) must ask is: “Have we really faced up to how many competing technologies there are?” Also, remember that I’m not even discussing video for DVD, CD-ROM and the web extensions of each of these formats in this discussion.

The first distinction that might be drawn is between video for the Web and video for the various forms of interactive TV. But wait, there’s a third increasingly popular option. Those viewer-users who are already having what participants at the AFI-Intel Enhance TV Workshop called the “dual screen experience.” These are media enthusiasts who are watching TV and using a computer at the same time. Research shows that this is happening more and more. Call it convergence in the living room, albeit not in the same “box.”

Of course, one assumes that these users are using the computer, not to watch streaming video, but to take advantage of other interactive features that are sometimes related to what they are watching on the tube and sometimes totally unrelated. Having both screens on does make it easier, of course, to respond to a URL (a web address) on TV. Otherwise, you have to wait and try to remember it later.

eTV Extreme Rides 200

DTV, iTV/eTV (which are basically the same thing) and the various set top-boxes attempt to integrate computer-level interactivity with video within one interactive video technology.

For example, Intel’s new eTV format which complies with the SMTPE approved ATVEF specifications opens up an huge new channel for digital information. FYI, this form of DTV is also sometimes called “DT” for digital terrestrial because the signal is embedded into terrestrial broadcast TV signals. Other forms of interactive video including cable set-top boxes and streaming video on the Web use their own networks for distribution of the data that supplements the primary programming.

According to Intel, this new format goes way beyond the old days of enhanced TV that used the vertical blanking interval because their new format delivers 4 to 6 Mbps (megabits per second), or plenty of bandwidth for complimentary video streams or to download a whole web site into your TV (or computer) so that you can browse it later.

Intel’s major challenges are not only to get consumers to upgrade their TV’s to ATVEF compatible TV’s (or to add an eTV card to their computer) and to get TV stations to broadcast these new digital signals (using their format); but also to get producers to somehow find financial models that will make this complex style of production as demonstrated at AFI viable. Sounds like some of the same challenges that we’ve been facing on the video Web.

As I watched the eTV prototypes at AFI, I was both excited and dismayed to discover an emerging new world of TV programming being “enhanced,” extended and in some cases diluted by interactivity. However, this was clearly not Internet video where one constantly has to deal with quality issues. This was TV “plus.”

All of the prototypes were based on real TV programming, some of it based (hypothetically) on programs to be released in the next year, some of it based on existing TV shows. These prototypes included everything from PBS efforts (including a Hispanic drama called “American Family;” a history show, “The Roman Empire;” and an educational music show, “Music from the Inside Out” with The Philadelphia Orchestra); as well as a “voyeuristic” syndicated series from Universal called “Blind Date;” a sci-fi thriller called “Day One;” a dramatized game show from Denmark, “The Perfect Crime;” and a series featuring roller coasters and their “over the top” riders from Discovery Channel, “Extreme Rides 2000.”

OK, it was TV, not streaming video; but I’m not so sure if that was the bad news or the good news. First of all, these were longer format programs — half hour or one hour in length. And they were all professionally produced. You know, edited programs with beginnings, middles and ends. Well, mostly.

In fact, the program and eTV application that I thought held up the best was “Extreme Rides 2000.” First of all, this program’s interactive features more like an application, rather than some sort of extension of the program that — while offering more in-depth information — tended to get in the way. This program’s interactive features were supported by the fact that the program itself is a set of segments featuring profiles of various coasters, so jumping out of the program flow to see other content didn’t hurt the flow of the program. By its nature, it lent itself better to “jumping around.” And the features including the ability to ride a coaster using different camera angles and to build your own coaster, were something beyond the capabilities of just “TV plus more interactive stuff.”

Fundamentally, TV is a very different medium than computing, and too many of these applications seemed to end up in a 'nowhere land' that was neither here nor there.

Fundamentally, TV is a very different medium than computing, and too many of these applications seemed to end up in a “nowhere land” that was neither here nor there. Thus, I think that it’s really important for interactive video producers to remember that computer users are really different than TV watchers. Computer users tend to sit forward and want to participate. TV viewers are generally sitting back like the cliché couch potatoes wanting to be entertained. I, for one, am not certain at all that the TV audience (as opposed to the Web audience) wants to extend its experience beyond the show.

The impact of eTV technologies on the world of TV, as illustrated by the Intel-AFI eTV prototypes, is also further diluted by a current increase in the TV industry’s use of production values that “enhance” TV programming — without any new interactive technology. For example, “Blind Date” uses graphics both lower-third as well as cartoon-style balloons as an integral enhancement of their program in the same way that news shows now frequently run headlines and stock quotes simultaneously on the screen with other content.

With Blind Date, for example, the viewer is already watching at least two layers of narrative simultaneously; and this is, in fact, clearly part of what makes this program quite entertaining. (According to my personal, highly subjective internal audience meter, “Blind Date” got the biggest audience response of any program shown during the day-long AFI event.) To suggest that the viewer might want to watch more content at the same time as such a highly produced program seemed to me to be going too far.

On the other hand, a demo preview by Dale Herigstad and hDesign Inc. which was not part of the AFI-Intel workshop, but which was shown prior to the main event, included an interesting technique that designer, Herigstad called “living text.” This technique used animated text along side a talking head interview to enhance the communication. Of course, this is something that can be done on a conventional video screen as well as part of a digital enhancement.

The biggest problem that I had with many of the demos was the need to “loop out” or “stop-out” of the produced program for side trips that really ended up being interruptions to the program’s narrative. As one AFI-Intel eTV prototype producer admitted, this broke the “linear integrity” of her program.

To me, it seems that generally good TV means good story telling, in one form or another. On the other hand, web browsing (including the watching of streaming video programs) is done with a much shorter attention span and in a medium where people are expected to be “jumping around” between information segments. With TV, the production values and the program’s narrative integrity (at least with anything that’s well produced) is more commonly an essential component of the medium.

As you can tell, we have just begun to scratch the surface of these new mediums; and, it is not easy, simple or obvious how these new technologies will find a committed, regular audience. It’s sad, but true, that interactive video will probably get messier before it gets better defined. And interactive video may find itself with its own Internet-like shake out along the way. We seem to be getting further away from standards, rather than closer.

Stay tuned.

Jon welcomes feedback and suggestions via e-mail at [email protected]


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