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Imagine you are engrossed in a crucial Word Cup match broadcast on a top-quality high-definition screen this summer. The phone rings.
Do you ignore it, pause the TV to pick up the phone – or look at the unobtrusive caller ID that’s popped up on screen to decide whether it is someone you will to talk to despite their interrupting you at this supreme moment?
If it is the perfect moment to share your feelings on the last penalty kick, would you rather pick up the phone, or put a video call in the corner of the screen and shout at the TV and your best friend at the same time?
TV has traditionally been passive entertainment: something you sit back and enjoy, compared with a PC screen where you sit close, lean forward and interact. But more of us are plugging in a gaming console or “pressing the red button” for basic interactive services on digital TV.
Big events such as the Olympics or BBCi’s Quiz the Nation get us interacting. According to analysts Strategy Analytics, a third of the digital TV audience regularly uses interactive TV.
We’re getting used – if not to leaning forward – at least to “sitting towards the front of the couch”, says Philips chief technology officer Johan van de Ven.
Gaming makes us treat the TV as more than something to watch programmes on and pushes demand for higher quality screens. By comparison, interactive TV isn’t that impressive at the moment.
Dan Marks, chief executive of BT’s Television Services, believes broadband will make the difference. “At the moment the problem is that it doesn’t do very much and it does it very slowly,” he explains.
He is convinced that viewers want “more content, control and convenience” and this autumn BT will launch a service combining digital HDTV with a broadband connection for downloading pay-per-view content.
You will get a Microsoft TV set-top box with a hard drive that can record 80 hours of TV plus communications services such as instant messaging and video calls. You can see the numbers of incoming calls on the TV screen – and divert them to voice mail if you don’t want to talk.
BT plans more services, from online gaming and shopping to uploading your own pictures and videos to share with other viewers. You can connect the set-top box to your home network to play your digital music or look at your photos on TV.
These are services we’re used to on the PC. Microsoft is working with Intel to put PCs in the living room, connected up to your TV set. Intel’s Viiv dual core PCs use less power, so they do not need a noisy fan. They are designed to turn on and off quickly – “in about two seconds” says Intel’s Steve Shakespeare – like a TV rather than a PC.
They run the Media Centre version of Windows; driven by a remote control rather than a keyboard with a TV-style interface that mixes watching and recording broadcast TV, listening to MP3s, seeing your digital photos onscreen and playing video downloaded from the internet as well as DVDs.
By the middle of the year Viiv PCs will support HDTV. There are interactive news programmes from Reuters, movie download services – including Lovefilm and a version of Sky’s video on demand service – and music services such as Napster, all designed to work in the Media Centre interface.
You can also switch back to the normal Windows view and do anything you could do on any other PC.
It is a mix that offers all the services promised for interactive TV right now, so long as you are comfortable with setting up a PC in the living room.
Many models look more like set-top boxes or DVD players than something you would use at a desk and there will be new designs at CeBIT. Certainly PC buyers are leaning this way; half the PCs sold in retailer PC World come with a remote control and Intel expects up to 20 per cent of PC sales to be Viiv systems by the end of the year.
But Viiv is not just about PCs. Also by the middle of the year, a Viiv PC in one room will be able to share movies, music and pictures with a digital media adapter connected to a TV. In the US, LG has a TV with a Viiv digital media adapter built in; Mr Shakespeare says we will see Viiv DVD recorders, hifi’s and gaming consoles, so you can link home entertainment and enjoy digital content around the house.
Making those connections is where Ed Graczyk of Microsoft TV sees the real future of entertainment in the home: “The goal isn’t to have as many services as possible; it’s to break down the barriers between devices.”
He doesn’t expect the PC to be the only high-tech in the living room. It’s going to sit alongside interactive set-top boxes, next-generation DVD players that will connect to your home network, gaming consoles and media extenders that let you see content from the PC in the study on the TV in the living room.
“We don’t think there’s a ‘one-size fits all’ device for the market; probably there isn’t even a one size fits one individual in all circumstances. Will the PC or the TV be the device in the home? We think: all of the above.”
As well as more devices, expect a lot more content. It will be more economic to provide niche content on demand and more content will be presented as individual shows and movies rather than as channels.
Confident in the digital rights management that protects content on the new systems, the entertainment industry is not dragging its feet on video downloads the way it did for digital music.
Prices on the Lovefilm service are close to DVD rental costs at £4 a movie.
BT’s Mr Marks puts it frankly. “The suppliers understand that, unless they give people a legal way to satisfy the demand, they’ll suffer badly from piracy.”
The advantage of a legal service is that it simplifies what can be a complicated process for downloading content and getting it on to the TV. Mr Shakespeare wants Viiv to be “associated with simplicity”. Connecting devices to a home network will be as simple as typing in a four-digit PIN.
But no matter how many programmes and services are on offer, if it is not as easy as turning on the TV and choosing a channel, it’s possible that many of us will not bother.