I want my DTV!
(IDG) -- After more than a decade of interindustry planning and politicking, digital television (DTV) is about to hit your living room. Hailed as the most significant television innovation since color TV arrived in 1953, DTV will usher in a new era of convergence between home electronics and computing technology that will change the way we entertain ourselves, work at home, and communicate with each other. You'll view what you want, when you want, and compute where you want -- blurring the line between work and play.
Right now you can choose between two very expensive types of PC/TVs. Computer vendors are beginning to offer full-featured PCs with a television tuner card, whereas television manufacturers are introducing unbundled sets: full-featured receivers with at least a processor and a digital video disc (DVD) player, and the rectangular, sofa-size display that may sit on the floor or come down from the ceiling. Both camps offer e-mail, Web access, and high-resolution picture performance, but they don't yet meet digital television standards. As advanced as they are, these first-form PC/TVs only are intermediary devices heralding the rise of the ultimate digital data center.
Fight for Face Time
The big guns in three of the United States' largest communications industries -- technology, consumer electronics, and entertainment -- are jockeying for a place in front of your couch. Computer vendors, including Gateway, Compaq, and Microsoft, are hoping to use their PC-based PC/TVs to steal away some of the TV market from home-electronic vendors such as Sony and Philips Electronics. Added competition from low-end cable-box companies will only expand the market by whetting consumers' appetites for a more robust experience.
"The growth of Internet features on televisions is great for new vendors moving into this space, [such as] Scientific Atlanta, General Instrument, [Tele-Communications Inc.], etc.," says Sean Kaldor, vice president of consumer device research at International Data Corp., in Mountain View, Calif. "But PC vendors don't necessarily lose out. When it comes to digital products, `A rising tide can raise all boats.'"
The consumer-electronics companies, with their widely recognized brand names and hard-won knowledge of customer preferences and ease of use, are likely to win over users. Perhaps realizing this, some of the heaviest hitters in both industries are teaming up to combine strengths and get their share of the lucrative DTV market. Earlier this year, Zenith and Intel paired up to build DTV receiver chips for PCs. And Compaq and Thomson Consumer Electronics formed a partnership for the $5,000 PC Theatre -- Compaq developed the system's box, which boasts a DVD-ROM II drive, a 56Kbps modem, a wireless keyboard, and a remote controller with a trackball; Thomson built the 36-inch picture tube in the system's monitor.
Flexibility is key to the future home media system. If you want to build a digital data center grander than a multimedia PC on steroids, you'll be able to buy separate components. For example, you can pair Philips' $5,000 DVX8000 receiver, which offers impeccable DVD digital output plus PC functionality, with a high-end 64-inch rear-projection screen, such as the $6,000 model from Pioneer Electronics' Elite line.
When industrywide standards finalize, you will be able to choose the display that best fits your home, such as Fujitsu's $14,000 42-inch Plasmavision gas-plasma display. Even though a high-end tuner device can accommodate digital television, current large-format screen technology cannot. To get a screen with digital television specifications, you'll need to trade in your 60-inch set for a 32-inch digital television unit.
The cost of the latest in digital devices is astronomical, and consumers may see PC/TVs as technology that's too advanced to bring home anytime soon. But the Federal Communications Commission wants to jump start the DTV revolution with an aggressive conversion timeline for broadcasters. In April 1997, the FCC gave broadcasters $70 billion of spectrum for transmitting digital programming. The catch? The stations must give back their analog space and be fully digital by 2006.
"I think there may be a turbojet effect from people wanting Internet access, as well as e-mail capabilities, as well as pretty pictures," says Anita Wallgren, legal advisor to FCC Commissioner Susan Ness, in Washington. "Maybe these things together will cause me to make the investment. Altogether, it's fundamentally different than previous technologies [such as VCRs and compact disc players]. It may have a much more rapid acceptance."
In line with the FCC's extraordinarily condensed schedule, ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, and PBS are committed to begin digital broadcasts on Nov. 1 of this year to the nation's top 10 markets, including New York, San Francisco, Dallas, and Washington. PBS plans to be in the forefront, televising its first digital television shows from Nov. 9 to Nov. 12. In April, it announced a collaboration with Intel to create digital content: Frank Lloyd Wright, which will air with hundreds of Weblike interactive pages, is the first show from that partnership.
"We see digital TV as an opportunity; our commercial brethren see it as a problem," said Robert Coonrod, president and CEO of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, in Washington. "It will give us the possibility to do things we've wanted to do for a long time, but were constrained by technology. We're finding that technology is catching up to our mission."
If technology is already catching up with PBS' vision of educational programming, it will soon surpass most viewers' expectations of home entertainment. The PC/TV will evolve into a digital data center composed of a TV, a computer, a telephone, and a camera. And it will enable integrated communications functions that developers only are beginning to imagine.
The digital data center will combine and enhance several familiar home devices to become the hub of the home network, interacting with heating, cooling, lighting, and security systems. As the market matures, consumers' demands will drive the development of a variety of hybrid products, with flexibility at the forefront. So if you only wanted a home theater, you could choose a device that was more television than PC -- the PC functionality will be hidden, used only to interface with TV settings and run the components. But if you work from home and need to videoconference with colleagues, you could choose a data center with expanded video-phone capabilities. Road warriors who needed to retrieve e-mail and monitor their homes from the road could opt for a cellular phone equipped with a Web browser.
Wherever you fall on the spectrum, your digital data center will entertain and inform you as never before. Large, rectangular screen displays already in development offer crystal-clear resolution and enhanced picture performance. The receivers -- or hard disk, depending on your perspective -- will have a built-in DVD-like player and jacks for additional components, such as a video-gaming system. And you'll be surrounded by wall-mounted, coin-size speakers pumping out digital-quality audio. Every show and movie you watch on your PC/TV will look and sound like a big-screen blockbuster.
As easy to use as a traditional set, the home digital data center also will give every resident access to an e-mail account, the Web, and a word processor. A built-in camera will turn your PC/TV into a video phone or filming device. And voice-recognition capabilities will let you control the device simply by speaking to it. All of this expanded functionality can be preset to your preferences and expand or contract based on particular uses. And the guts will hide in a shelved control center.
"We're sensing that you wouldn't have to be a technophile in the digital era," Coonrod says.
But how will people react to these technologies? The futurist camp is split. The doomsayers insist that advanced communications devices will further isolate us, trap us in our homes, and create a nation of people incapable of personal contact. Worse, they say these pricey technologies will further widen the gulf between the haves and have-nots.
On the other hand, the optimists say that video phones, interactive television programming, online shopping, and on-demand movie and audio services will only make our lives easier, freeing up time for leisure and making family interaction more fun.
Whether you are a gadget geek or a technophobe, there's no question that home entertainment and enhanced communications are positioned to intersect. How far they will cross over and what direction they will lead us will depend largely on a careful combination of price-accessible devices and services and features tailored to consumers' everyday needs.
Associate Editor Leslie O'Neill (firstname.lastname@example.org) has been a high-tech journalist for several years and currently edits Test Center Comparisons of Web and Internet-related tools. Senior Analyst William Ginchereau (email@example.com) has 11 years of IT experience, specializing in back-end solutions, operating systems, and Internet/Web products.
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