Back to the Future

When considering the current trends in interactive media, thephrase that repeatedly springs to my mind is "back to thefuture". Anyone who was around the new media industry sixor seven years ago will recognise the promises being made forbroadband now are very similar to those being made for thenarrowband Internet back then; from e-tail to onlineadvertising. So it's not entirely surprising that anotheridea that's back under the microscope is that ofconvergence. 

Convergence, as NMA columnist Nigel Walley pointed out recently,used to be about Internet content on your TV. In itsresurrection, it's about Internet functionality on your TV,and television content on your PC. You've been able to watchstreamed video of news reports on the BBC site for a while now,but the recent introduction of video advertising formats meansthat you're likely to see a TV commercial in the next pop-upor expandable banner you encounter. Meanwhile TVs are gettingsmarter, allowing you to request a brochure, a sample or atest-drive in response to an ad, and filling in the requiredform from the owner information stored in the set-top box.

But things have already moved on from this. Microsoft'sMedia Centre PC aims to replace the TV at the heart of the homeentertainment set-up. It offers broadband, cable TV, PVRfunctionality and digital music playback. In fact Sam Sethi, theco-founder of a company installing broadband and Media CentrePCs into new-build homes, said in a recent NMA interview thatthe future of interactive TV would be a battle between thecurrent red button and Microsoft's green button. In themeantime, Sony has just begun advertising a range of flat-screenTVs that can also be used as PC monitors.

However all of this ignores two crucial issues. The first isergonomic – no-one has yet come up with a satisfactory way forpeople to browse the Web via their TV. Infra-red keyboards nevertook off, and expecting people to perform complex data entry ornavigational tasks using their remote is unrealistic. The secondproblem is one of family politics; who controls the remote, andtherefore what's on the TV? Much Internet use is private ina way that TV viewing rarely is.

Sethi aims to get round the first problem by recruitingcompanies to a walled garden for which they would be required todesign new "lean-back" Web sites. Meanwhile researchis suggesting that PCs are being moved out of the study, homeoffice or back-bedroom and into the lounge to allow people toaccompany their TV watching with Internet use, thereby solvingboth problems.

But while attention has been focussed on device convergence,other people have been looking at the actual content involved.Reuters is working on software that senses the device on whichthe user is viewing the content, and optimises it to match. Thecompany describes itself as thinking in terms of one-foot,three-foot and ten-foot content, referring to the distancebetween the viewer and the screen. So while the points beingmade in a news report delivered via mobile, the Internet and theTV will be the same, the style of the visuals used will betailored to the platform.

Ultimately the flaw in the idea of device convergence is thatit's unlikely to actually result in there being only oneInternet-connected device in the home. The problems mentionedabove almost guarantee that. But as bandwidth and computingpower continue to get cheaper, functional convergence isapproaching rapidly. Homes will soon be full of smart appliancesconnecting wirelessly to the Internet to deliver all kinds ofservices, from content to remote monitoring. The growinginterest in Radio Frequency ID chips for stock control in theretail industry points the way to a fridge that automaticallyupdates your regular supermarket e-tail order. In fact anInternet-connected fridge is already on the market. Now when didI hear about that idea before?

About the author: Michael Nutley is the editor ofNew Media Age.

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