The Internet and television are looking more and more redundant, which is why it's not surprising that a slew of companies seek to consolidate the two devices—not in the WebTV, your-TV-can-be-a-computer way, but in a sense that will fulfill the meaning of the term "interactive."
At last week's South By Southwest Interactive conference in Austin, Tex., executives from some of the companies pushing for this convergence speculated about the benefits of the merger between these two machines.
"We absolutely believe that TV will change, and it will be a very different media than it is today," said Cathy Hetzel of Concero. She and others on an interactive television panel outlined some of these changes, citing the ability to "time shift," or pause programs and restart them at your convenience, and to digitally record. You'd also be able to purchase items shown on TV—say, a sweater worn by Jennifer Aniston's character on Friends, to use an oft-cited example at the conference—with the click of a button.
The main impetus behind interactive TV is, of course, money, and analysts predict that cash will pour into this sector as broadband improves—a familiar refrain in every business, to be sure—and they estimate that "t-commerce" will outpace e-commerce by 2004; Forrester Research puts the future figure at $25 billion.
Leading the way in interactive television is—who else?—Microsoft. Their UltimateTV, currently in development, would merge DirecTV, digital video recording, Internet access, interactivity, and live controls such as pausing or a "30-second skip" for pushing past those pesky commercials. Microsoft's Mark Mullen, the senior director for Ultimate TV, told the Austin audience, "It's about better television."
Perhaps. But the early stages of convergence are fraught with the same corporate pitfalls as many other emerging technologies. The various companies working on interactive TV projects are confronting the question of standards—how to make machines and technologies work together—but thus far have made scant progress. (For more information, go to tv-anytime.org.)
I-TV resounds with a lot of ifs, and the scramble to capitalize on it presents a host of seemingly insurmountable problems. Leaving aside the difficulties and business questions, however, there is something hopeful about these developments besides convenience, the carrot on a stick that leads to much progress in America. Interactivity would broaden the scope of what television could do, bringing us closer to information and making the experience more engaging. Sure, some people will still choose to turn their minds off when the TV's turned on, but at least we'll have an option not to.
Richard A. Martin is Seattle Weekly's technology editor.