Having got the basic technicalities of interactive television out of the way, British Telecommunications Plc is faced with the thornier problems. Such as, do people really just want to watch an interactive television channel consisting wholly of adverts? Will they be able to navigate their way around it? These are the problem for the likes […]
Having got the basic technicalities of interactive television out of the way, British Telecommunications Plc is faced with the thornier problems. Such as, do people really just want to watch an interactive television channel consisting wholly of adverts? Will they be able to navigate their way around it? These are the problem for the likes of Tim Patten, a man with no job title, but who is charged with overseeing the Adland part of the British Telecom service. Around 25 major advertisers have committed to putting content on the server, and anyone who still wants to get on there will have to hurry – enrolment is more or less closed. The big names will include everything from Bass Brewers, through Norwich Union, Toyota to the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. But what will they get out of it? Initially, the company is keeping it simple to try and avoid people getting lost in the system. Its research suggests that deep hierarchies tend to confuse people, so to start with, the interaction is wide instead of deep. A top level menu displays broad product categories – cars and motoring, financial services, home electronics and so on.
Selecting the first option brings up a series of car company logos. Clicking on them brings up a company-specific video, which plays, stops and then displays up to nine buttons, each of which will link to another video on a particular topic. And that’s as deep as it goes. There is no direct method to buy via Adland yet – most videos will end with a telephone number that interested punters should ring. At this point, the world of computers and the world of television clash. To the hardened Web surfer, used to pointing and clicking and receiving lots of information, this looks like thin stuff. But according to Patten, thinking of the system in this way is quite wrong, for the media are different. Unlike computer users people will not want to sit there and read huge amounts of text off the screen he said, but admitted that the system was not as advanced as it will be eventually. Part of the reason for this is simply to keep content authoring costs down for the participants. The trial advertisers don’t want to spend a huge amount on creating content, he said. In return, the advertisers get a detailed break-down of how many people visited their ads, which options they chose, and so on. The companies and their advertising agencies will also get a head-start in designing advertising material for a brand-new medium. In fact by the end of the commercial trial, British Telecom is likely to have gathered a valuable stock of information on just what does and does not work in the uncharted universe of interactive advertising.
By Chris Rose
It’s the kind of information that some marketing organisations would kill – or pay through the nose – for, so what does the company intend to do with this data? We will be sharing it with people involved in the trial, said Patten. But is British Telecom tempted to set up as a consultancy, advising potential advertisers on what constitutes a good interactive advert? No he says. Among the great unknowns that the trial will examine is whether the concept of an Adland ghetto for advertising is really feasible. Conventionally, advertisers have liked to place their material close to movies and prime-time programmes in the case of television, and editorial articles in the case of the print media. We are not discarding the possibility that we will put advertisi ng into other areas, he said, but we’ve done research to show that people will visit advertising only areas. Which leaves the question of charging for ads. Exactly how will that be managed? No idea – we haven’t even got that far at the moment, he said. The most obvious possibility is a rental-plus-access scheme where the advertiser places the material on the server for a flat fee, with extra charges accruing for each access by a viewer. Alternatively, there may be a simple flat rate rental scheme, with the cost depending on whether the
ad is residing in a prime position (the movie service) or somewhere more low key. The fact is that neither British Telecom, nor anyone else, knows exactly how interactive television will work in the UK yet. But by next year the company could well be an expert. The trial, being offered to 2,500 customers in Ipswich and Colchester, builds upon the previous technology trial. The set-top box is based on a Apple Computer Inc Macintosh LC475, fitted with a hardware MPEG decoder and 2Mbps network interface. When the machine is started, it downloads a run-time version of Oracle Media Objects, the authoring tool that British Telecom used for development, together with a copy of the navigation application itself. The media server itself is an nCube Corp massively parallel server, which is controlled by a Sequent Computer Systems Inc box, both running Oracle Media Server. Using this twinned server system has enabled the company to expand the system to give 1,200 customers simultaneous access to 1,000 hours of programming and other services.
The server is attached to six remote telephone exchanges via STM-16 Synchronous Digital Hierarchy rings, the equipment coming from Alcatel Network Systems. The exchanges are equipped with more Alcatel NV kit – this time Asynchronous Transfer Mode switches that handle individual control channels and video channels. This encoded data is passed as a 2Mbps stream over copper twisted pair to the subscriber’s home using asynchronous subscriber loop technology from Westell International Inc. Some customers have fibre direct to their homes and are connected using Alcatel technology. The ADSL kit sends the television pictures via a 2Mbps channel, and provides a 9.6Kbps bi-directional control channel alongside the conventional analogue telephone services. Video content is encoded to the MPEG 1 standard and carried in MPEG 2 frames. And all short video sequences and bit-maps will be compressed by British Telecom in real time.