INTERACTIVE: HOME ENTERTAINMENT; The digital sitting-room arrives ten years early

Couch potatoes will soon be able to choose from a plethora of hi-tech media. Stovin Hayter investigates

Couch potatoes will soon be able to choose from a plethora of hi-tech

media. Stovin Hayter investigates

Media are getting mixed up. Computers, the telephone system and

television are becoming indistinguishable. It’s possible to watch

television over a phone line. Computers can talk to each other and allow

access to the latest news, reference material, company brochures or

magazines. Televisions and computers enable consumers to go shopping

without leaving home. Telephones themselves have become interactive

entertainment devices.

This convergence has brought with it a deluge of information and choice.

Videos are available on tape, video CD or by downloading on demand to a

set-top box. Terrestrial, satellite and cable TV stations offer 50 or

more - soon to become hundreds - channels. Surfing the chaotic

information bazaar that is the Internet is a viable alternative to

reading a newspaper or magazine.

This choice is about to be extended with the introduction of digital

interactive television, which will be the catalyst not only for an

explosion of programming, but also new interactive services and

applications. Consumers, for example, will be able to take part in quiz

shows from their sitting-rooms and navigate their own way around

shopping channels.

But the digital explosion is not just an information revolution. It is

also an ‘experience revolution’. Look at today’s multimedia gadgetry,

laid out for inspection at next week’s Multimedia ’96 show. Big-screen

home cinema brings the filmed world closer than any conventional

television set ever could. Computer games are virtual worlds in which

you can choose which actor you would like to be, and your point of view.

Any child will now learn more from a CD-Rom-guided tour of the human

body - looking at it from multiple views, watching computer animations

of the work of viruses or white blood cells, perhaps even travelling

through it like a particle suspended in the blood stream - than from any

conventional teacher and blackboard.

As Dr Peter Cochrane, head of advanced research at BT Laboratories,

likes to point out, there are ten-year-olds today who have flown more

combat missions in more aircraft than most military pilots. They have

done it by proxy, in a virtual world with their hands on a keyboard or

games console rather than real controls.

It is Cochrane’s job to bring the future a little bit closer. ‘Imagine a

virtual reality interface with your visual cortex flooded by information

from spectacle-mounted or active contact lenses, augmented by

directional audio input, tactile gloves and prosthetic arms and fingers

that give you the sensation of touch, resistance and weight,’ he


‘Imagine also the prospect of a surrogate head that can allow you to be

teleported into environments anywhere on the planet with great accuracy

and reality.’

The technology to do these things is already available, Cochrane says.

And each advance in processing power and bandwidth, and each improvement

in interface design, enables virtual experiences to become more

compelling and believable.

The computing power in the average desktop machine doubles every 18

months. Pocket calculators given away as promotional gifts are now as

potent as desktop computers were ten years ago. The ability to move

information is increasing at the same rate. And the cost of both is

decreasing. In 1956 a transatlantic telephone call cost pounds 2.80 a

minute. It now costs around 50p a minute.

It is not such a very big step to the commercial that lets a potential

customer test drive a car - in their preferred model, with a choice of

colour and extras, and then compare it with the equivalent models from

competing manufacturers - at any time of day from the comfort of their

own home.

In the deluge of information and choice of ten years’ time, however,

families will gather around the television set far less than they do

now. The multiplication of screens and personal media devices means

advertisers may have to find new ways to reach consumers in substantial


Of course, the media service providers will be there to help their

advertisers, logging details of the quiz show that Mrs Average watches,

and the news items that her husband has programmed his agent software to

seek out and send back to him. They will know which game their son

downloads while their daughter, at the same time, chats with friends in

a virtual, online coffee bar.

This is not as far-fetched as it might sound. Sian Davies, joint editor

of the Henley Centre’sÿ20Media Futures report, believes that the shift

from broadcast to more direct media will force advertisers to think much

more carefully about how they spend their money than they do today.

‘Interactivity will be the key to reaching people more directly,’ she

says. ‘We will see a convergence of advertising, entertainment and

transaction. It will be possible to be far more efficient, to know

exactly who you are reaching with your advertising.’

The digital sitting-room will be on show at next week’s Multimedia ’96

exhibition at the Business Design Centre, 18-20 June. Timings and

details on 0171-359 3535

The sitting-room in 2005

* Fewer wires. Communication between digital storage and processing

devices will be by radio or infra-red links, with the only wires being

needed for power.

* More screens, fewer boxes - all digital information storage and

processing could take place in one device, with wireless links to a

variety of interfaces.

* Fewer keyboards and remote controls. By 2005, voice control and

input/output of computing devices should be a reality. There is no need

to program the VCR when you can simply tell the media centre what you

want to save for later.

* Software ‘agents’ will seek out the information you want, when you

want it - whether it’s a price comparison or news items on topics you

are interested in. They will do transactions for you, carrying digital

money to pay for the information.

* Information will be both targeted and selective. Software will enable

you to get just what you want, when you want it, out of all the news and

information sources available.

* You used to watch TV; tomorrow it will watch you. Service providers

and their advertisers will know the interests and consumption habits of

every subscriber.

1 TV and Speaker system

The pounds 2,300 117cm Philips home cinema pictured here is close to the

state of the art in home visual entertainment at the moment. But not

only are TV and video getting bigger, they have higher definition

screens to make them more compelling. TV is also getting digital and

interactive. Scheduled programming will be joined by services and

applications that consumers can interact with in much the same way as

they can with an online information service.

Just as visual displays are evolving to become higher resolution - and

so keep the viewer’s attention - so is sound, with up to five speakers

in a room now giving cinema-quality surround sound. In the digital

living room, voices will emanate from the lips of TV stars on the

picture-window-sized high-definition screen that the viewer talks to and

not from the speakers or ‘somewhere’ in the room. Viewers will also use

speech to control the various media and computing devices around the

home. No more agony of having to learn how to program the remote


2 Multimedia player

Multimedia players such as the Philips CD-i are games machines,

teachers, Web browsers, video disc players and more. The portable 370

model shown here is being marketed at around pounds 1,300 apiece as a

business presentation tool. Such devices will evolve into the personal

communicators and virtual reality mediators of the not-too-distant

future. More functions will be combined into fewer devices. Your laptop,

pager, mobile phone and fax modem will become a single device small

enough to wear.

3 Digital Camera

The digital camera allows you not only to take photographs but to

download them to computer immediately, crop and retouch them on screen,

and transmit them elsewhere, or use a colour printer to produce a copy

on paper. For pounds 850 (for the Kodak DC50 shown here) you no longer

have to wait for the film to be processed or fork out for reprints. If

advances in storage continue at the current pace, the camcorder will go

digital too. Why bother with holiday snaps when you can let your friends

see with your eyes and hear with your ears?

The digital sitting-room will be on show at next week’s Multimedia ’96

exhibition at the Business Design Centre, 18-20 June. Timings and

details on 0171-359 3535