Now That's A Smart TV
When you look at your living room TV set, the word "dumb" probably doesn't spring to mind. But ponder this for a moment: beyond allowing you to change the channel or shut the tube off entirely, your TV doesn't have the smarts to help you control the images and sounds that flood into your home. Your trusty TV is an unwitting recipient of the information--be it good and bad--passed to it by the airwaves or cable.
Now, imagine a TV that would allow you to create a personal "viewing profile" for every member of your family. You could pick the shows that interest you from hundreds of channels. That same TV would help you program your VCR to capture favorite shows as you sleep. It would let you surf the net and read e-mail. You could play DVD, CD-I and CD-ROM discs. If you have kids and want to restrict their access, you could have that too. You could even pull in late-breaking news and stock quotes from satellite.
Now that would be a smart TV.
Good news: you no longer have to imagine such a television. All of these capabilities are available today. A host of products can change your TV from a passive receiver to an active participant in your quest for quality programming.
In this article, we'll survey the products currently available, as well as those just around the corner. And don't think that new has to mean expensive--many of these products could represent a relatively small portion of your home entertainment investment.
High in the Sky
The first place to look for unlocking the potential of your television may be directly overhead--to the crowded ring of broadcast satellites that circles the planet. Local network affiliates have been "downlinking" national programming from satellites for decades now. In recent years, however, it's grown more common for viewers to receive television signals with their own dishes. Users have two styles of satellite systems to choose from, one using the older C-band technology and one the newer (and much more popular) direct broadcast satellite (DBS) technology.
C-band transmissions use a relatively low-power, analog signal that requires a large (8-foot or bigger) dish for good reception. For the price of a dish and receiver system ($800-$1500), viewers enjoy free movies, network news, specialty programming and foreign films, even the occasional unedited feed from interesting sources like NASA. Not all programs are free, however. Many C-band satellite broadcasters began scrambling their signal in the mid-80s, charging a monthly rate to subscribers for programming. Some C-band satellite channels remain unscrambled, but their numbers are shrinking. Manufacturers making equipment for C-band satellite reception include Toshiba, Sony, Zenith, Orbitron, Chaparral, California Amplifier and others.
Like most aspects of consumer electronics, the latest satellite technology has gone digital. Thanks to dramatically more powerful satellites, direct broadcast satellite (DBS) systems use dishes the size of a trashcan lid to receive high-quality digital video and audio signals. And whereas C-band users have to bounce from satellite to satellite, DBS systems permanently point at a specific "bird." This does away with the costly (and somewhat failure-prone) electronics and mechanics required to point traditional C-band dishes at a sky's-worth of satellites.
There are four main DBS hardware developers: Thomson's DSS (Digital Satellite System), EchoStar, Alphastar and Primestar. All of these companies sell their own equipment except Thomson's DSS. Manufacturers that offer DSS systems, include Sony, Toshiba, Panasonic, Hitachi, Hughes and RCA. (Now in its second generation, RCA's DSS system has been one of consumer electronics' best-selling products since its introduction in 1994).
Alphastar and Primestar provide their own programming packages. Programming for DSS is available through U.S. Satellite Broadcasting (USSB) or DirecTV, and programming for EchoStar is provided by DISH).
Similar to cable television, all the DBS networks boast an impressive mix of movie channels, news, sports, music video and specialty programming, with available channels numbering in the hundreds. Basic services start at around $20 a month. There are also "add-on" channels available. As with cellular phone service, DBS buyers can purchase hardware systems very inexpensively when committing to a period of monthly programming. Some DSS systems, for example, cost under $200 for the basic setup and a monthly commitment. One exception to this is the Primestar network, in which users can opt to rent the hardware.
To navigate through all the channels, most DBS systems include interactive on-screen programming guides that are easy to use. Some DBS receivers even allow users to set up personal preference files for each household member. In the future, satellite systems may tie directly into the Internet for easy-chair Web surfing. Hughes DirecPC, a high-speed, satellite-based Internet provider is already available. However, the current DirecPC system doesn't interface with DBS TV transmissions.
The main drawback to DBS is its lack of local programming. You'll need to use an antenna or cable to keep up on local events and news. Though not exactly local programming, the larger cable networks (CBS, NBC, ABC, FOX, PBS) are available in some programming packages. Satellite systems are beginning to address this lack. The EchoStar 5000 comes equipped with VHF/UHF tuners. It displays the local broadcast channels along with the satellite channels in its guide. Some companies also plan to uplink programming from all the nation's local broadcasters and spot-cast their programs back from the satellite to the communities they serve.
The Internet may be the decade's most talked-about technology. Never before has so much information, commerce and recreation come together in one spot. Thanks to the ability to view graphics, listen to sounds and play animations and multimedia-style videos on the World Wide Web, the 'net is a dynamic, highly visual resource that almost anyone can use. The Internet and the Web were once the sole domain of the "traditional" computer and modem; now your TV can bring them right into your front room.
Internet-capable TV systems fall into three main categories. First are the integrated Internet TVs. These televisions have a processor and modem built right into them--all you do is attach a phone line. Zenith recently introduced two Internet TVs (27-inch, $1000; 35-inch, $3500). Both of these TVs allow users to browse the Web or send and retrieve e-mail while watching normal programming. You operate it by using Zenith's unique infrared trackball remote; a wireless keyboard is optional. Samsung's 29-inch Internet TV has features similar to those on the Zenith models, and should be available in 1997 (price TBA). Compaq and Thomson have joined forces to build a prototype TV/PC, dubbed the PC Theatre, which sells for $4999. Curtis Mathes will also be offering their Web-friendly UniView TV line and RCA's Genius Internet-capable TV (price TBA) should be available in 1997.
The second type of Internet TV product is the Television Internet Device (TVID). This product attaches to an existing television, making it a more attractive option for most consumers. Internet devices come in a broad range of prices and capabilities. The least expensive versions offer little more than Web browsing and e-mail.
Numerous manufacturers are promising (or delivering) affordable set-top Internet boxes. These devices look something like a cable set-top box, but offer much greater capabilities than the humble cable tuner. Philips Magnavox is shipping its Web- and e-mail-capable set-top box for $329. An optional wireless keyboard is available for $70. Sony's set-top Web browser offers similar capabilities with a list price of $349. Sony and Philips Magnavox owners will need to subscribe to the WebTV Network for Internet access (roughly $20 a month). NetChannel is another network service provider which has licensed its technology to Thomson Consumer Electronics (RCA) and Oracle-NCI. Bandai's Apple-designed Pippin (around $600) offers Internet access, as well as the ability to read Apple CD-ROMs.
Other low-cost set-top options include Sega's Net Link system ($200). You purchase this as a modem/software upgrade that plugs into the Sega Saturn CD-based videogame system. Buyers can pick up Net Link and Saturn for $450. Philips Media recently introduced a similar upgrade to their CD-i player, which includes software, cable and modem. The system, which taps into Philips CD-Online service, should be available in 1997 (price TBA). Combining CD-ROM technology with Internet access opens up vast capabilities for "hybrid" surfing, where Internet sites access large files on a local CD-ROM disc.
Costlier, and more powerful, Web devices are available from such manufacturers as Oracle and IBM. Because of their higher prices ($750 and up), most manufacturers are targeting corporate and industrial users for these products instead of consumers. In a related development, several companies are releasing stripped-down NC (network computer) products designed to tap into one central server. Manufacturers predict these NC systems will be the future of home computing and entertainment, as they can tailor affordable terminals for specific rooms (and applications) in the house. The living room NC, you can bet, will bring advanced Internet and television programming capabilities to a standard TV.
The third category of TV-to-Internet products links your television to your home PC. This combination of PC and television (PCTV) operates via hard-wired cable or RF (radio frequency: a combination of audio and video signals encoded with a high-frequency carrier) transmission. These systems effectively re-route your computer's monitor output to the TV, keyboard, mouse or trackball commands are carried back to the computer in similar fashion. You can actually build a PCTV yourself by purchasing the components necessary to display and control your computer's output from another room. Sejin is now manufacturing a wireless keyboard that is ideal for living room applications. Unlike the stripped-down set-top boxes, this type of product delivers all the power of your standard home PC.
Hooking a computer to a television allows one to do much more than just surf the Web and grab e-mail--any activity normally performed in front of the computer can instead be done from the comfort of the living room. Of particular merit are those CD-ROM-based applications such as interactive games that lend themselves to use in the living room. Gateway's Destination Big Screen PC is one such product, combining the functions of a TV and a computer. The Pentium-based Destination ($3000 and up) offers a 31-inch monitor, CD-ROM drive and cable-ready TV tuner. NetTV's Convergence ($1000) boasts a 100MHz Pentium processor, CD-ROM drive, modem and hard drive. Whereas the Destination system includes its own TV/monitor, the NetTV Convergence interfaces with an existing television.
A technology worth watching is the cable modem, a device that allows a computer to receive high-speed data transmissions over a standard television cable hookup. Though initially targeted at more traditional computer network applications, the ability to transmit digital data on the existing cable system opens up numerous interesting possibilities for the smart TV. In the future, Internet-compatible TVs may not need a modem or phone connection at all.
Pick and Choose
The television universe is expanding at a staggering rate, making those high-quality, interesting shows all the more challenging to find. Thankfully, today's smarter TV will help you figure out what you want to watch and how to find it.
TVs, VCRs and cable boxes equipped with StarSight technology allow you to view your programming choices from an on-screen menu. With a compatible VCR, StarSight also allows you to record programs by pushing a single button. StarSight products receive up-to-date programming information from an invisible portion of the television signal. They will work with antenna, cable or satellite systems. Gemstar's TV Guide Plus+ and VideoGuide offer similar on-screen scheduling capabilities. Gemstar's VCR Plus+ system makes taping televisions shows easy as well. The user just enters the numerical code published in many print television programming guides. VideoGuide offers on-screen programming, as well as text-based feed of news, local weather, sports and financial information.
As impressive as these technologies may be, they're just the tip of the iceberg. Folks already cruising the Web from their TVs can hit any number of sites offering complete television listings online. These sites include: GIST, ClickTV, Chicago Tribune's TV Week Interactive, TV Guide, Ultimate TV and Electronic TV Host. Some sites will even allow you to enter your viewing preferences for a personalized programming guide, and will send e-mail to remind you of an upcoming show. As computers and TVs enjoy even tighter integration in the future, viewers will be able to do all their TV scheduling from a Web page, and use it to automatically record shows on a VCR. Scottsdale Technologies' Program Master is a one-button VCR programmer that transfers your computer-based program choices to your TV, VCR, cable or satellite receiver.
For those that desire even more help deciding what to watch, web sites like Primetime Review and The GIST offer critical review and recommendations for TV viewing. Some related sites are affiliated with educational foundations, media literacy groups, religious groups or other organizations. In the future, viewers will be able to subscribe, via the Internet, to a list of programs approved by the recommender of their choice. Upcoming technology will communicate this information to your TV and VCR, automatically recording programs of special interest to you and filtering out those deemed undesirable.
With products and acronyms popping up every day, it can be a bit confusing to stay on top of all the new technology. The best advice we can offer the prospective buyer is to take things slowly. Do your research, ask lots of questions, and beware of the many "standards" that will pop up and die quicker than a desert weed. The coming months will reveal a lot about which products will survive and which will perish.
One thing is certain--the era of the passive "boob tube" has ended, and the day of the smart TV is dawning. In the coming years, we'll be hearing a new refrain from living rooms across the country: "Honey, have you seen the infrared keyboard?"
Loren Alldrin is a technology consultant and freelance writer.
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DISH (EchoStar's Digital Sky Highway)
Hughes Network Systems
Thomson Consumer Electronics
Sejin America, Inc.
U.S. Satellite Broadcasting (USSB)
Smart Online Guides
Electronic TV Host
Ultimate TV Now
TV Week Interactive