Online Media Ltd, the driving force behind the Cambridge Interactive Trial, is so confident of the technology it has developed that it is marketing a mini version of it for companies to develop interactive services. Geoff Vincent, services manager, says There is a strong interest in this kind of thing worldwide and now that we […]
Online Media Ltd, the driving force behind the Cambridge Interactive Trial, is so confident of the technology it has developed that it is marketing a mini version of it for companies to develop interactive services. Geoff Vincent, services manager, says There is a strong interest in this kind of thing worldwide and now that we have got some expertise, we can see ourselves beginning to make a business out of this. The entry level kit consists of Online Media’s television set-top box; Asynchronous Transfer Mode boards and software; an Acorn Computer Group Plc RISC-based personal computer for application development; and the company’s advice if that is what the developer would like. The company said users will be able to build applications, but to test them they would have to have access to something like a DiscBrick ARM-based video server. The higher level development kit has all of the above components only more of them as well as a DiscBrick and an Asynchronous Transfer Mode switch.
End to end
The company has already delivered the kits to some of the organisations taking part in the Cambridge trial, which started a year ago (CI No 2,513). It is the only trial that is using Asynchronous Mode end to end. The network standard was chosen not for speed – the Cambridge network currently runs at only 2Mbits per second – but for stability. The standard handles all data in the same way, splitting it into cells of 48 bytes, with a 5-byte header. This enables different types of data to be mixed on the same network and quality levels, essential for video streams, can be specified. For Online Media the possibility of selling kits to people brings in some welcome cash, given that it did not get all the money it hoped it would from its parent Acorn’s share issue last year (CI No 2,609). Nevertheless, and despite its parent’s financial problems, Online Media says it is business as usual and part of that business is actively selling the technology the trial is building. Recently it sold specially adapted set-top boxes that plug directly into a telephone socket to television home shopping service, Viewcall (CI No 2,718); shortly before that Digital Equipment Corp subcontracted Online Media to supply boxes for Westminster Cable Ltd’s video-on-demand trials (CI No 2,712) and Lightspan Partnership Inc, Carlsbad, California, has got the company to modify the boxes to incorporate a CD-ROM drive (CI No 2,699). The Online Media set-top box has been designed to be an access device for digital information and is actually a 32-bit RISC personal computer, with an Asynchronous Transfer board and the ability to decode video signals. The company reckons that the Asynchronous Transfer board’s capabilities will be available on a chip shortly. The second generation set-top box has just started shipping; aesthetically, it is a better design; technologically, the ARM is now the 32MHz 7500, MPEG decoding is now at level 2.0, and it has an extra two front panel light-emitting diode displays, a serial port in addition to the parallel one. The chip, with ARM7 as its core, is new and has been developed by Acorn specifically for the low-cost set-top boxes; it integrates audio, video and memory control on the processor. In the original boxes all these were separate to the ARM 610, the set-top box’s original chip. Although the trial is one of the most advanced in the world, no prices have been announced. Vincent said pricing is only appropriate when it becomes a full commercial service, because prices can be so variable, given the amount of advertising or sponsorship the service attracts, whether it’s going to be a rental service or what.
By Maya Anaokar
It is well into its second phase which has seen most of the service providers – Acorn, Anglia TV Plc’s multimedia division, Needham, the Post Office’s newsroom, National Westminster Bank Plc, NOP Research Group Ltd, Tesco Stores Ltd – gathered into in a service nursery (CI No 2,694), a forum in which to discuss and develop services. So far, NatWest is the most advanced down
the road when it comes to interactive services, not just in this trial but by comparison with other efforts worldwide to introduce home banking using the interactive television medium. It has a selection of video clip interfaces that greet users entering the system; there are static interfaces for specific services where users can order travellers’ cheques, arrange an appointment with a real person or ask for more information on a variety of financial products; and users can access their bank accounts from the set-top box, checking details, transferring money and paying bills. The latest service provider is the British Broadcasting Corp, which is busy digitising much of its output. Its interfaces, however, are extremely dull and a spell in the nursery with the banker can only help. And the UK’s Open University, which offers further education at a distance for tens of thousands of people, has also put some of its information up on the service. The university broadcasts many of its ‘lectures’ via the BBC and an interactive, on-demand service could expand what the university could do with its courses. The nursery has helped establish sub-groups looking at issues such as rights licensing, legal and ethical concerns, market research, network infrastructure and the development of the set-top box still further to develop the concept of interactive television.
So far the only other trial that Vincent reckons matches Online Media’s is Time Warner Cable’s in Orlando, Florida. This trial is planned to have 4,000 homes on line by the end of the year, compared with Online Media’s 200-odd, receiving interactive shopping, games and movies. But Vincent said other trials are coming, with different technologies, and the development of domestic interactive services provides an enormous opportunity for the UK television players to work together on the future of television. I hope there will be many trials, many things need to be worked out in this industry, he said, such as regulation. And in something of a coup for the trial, the UK’s Independent Television Commission has just joined the service nursery and hopes its membership will give it the experience on which it can confidently advise participants in the burgeoning world of interactive television about licensing issues. Other regulatory bodies that will have to take into account interactive television will be, in the UK, the Office of Telecommunication watchdog, the banking and financial services regulators. Interactive television will change the nature of just about every business, Vincent added. We’re not talking about just adding interactivity to things we’re familiar with. We’re talking about putting a business in a direct relationship with the customer, and that will have an effect right through the business.