Ready to interact with your TV? Already, some viewers order replays, figure taxes, browse through libraries

June 20, 1993|By John Tierney | John Tierney,New York Times News Service

Is the world ready for the empowered couch potato?

Television viewers keep hearing that they're about to merge into a global computerized information network, one grand Communicopia. It will supposedly enable them to watch 500 channels, browse in electronic shopping malls and libraries, send a fax to Mount Everest and maybe even learn to use the phrase "digital interactive multimedia" in a sentence.

The vision of a data highway into every living room is still based mainly on faith: If you build it, they will interact. But even though the first such systems will not be tested until next year, there is already evidence that the public is interested in interactive television, and there are even early examples of how people will use it.

A New York Times/CBS News poll indicates that most Americans are willing to pay for the privilege of controlling what is on their screens. And it is possible to get a preview of the future from two systems already operating commercially, the Videoway interactive cable television network in Montreal and the America Online network for personal computers.

These two networks are notable because they are selling high technology to relatively low-tech audiences -- pedestrians, as they're called in Silicon Valley. In Montreal, they use remote-control pads to play along with "Jeopardy!" and choose which camera angles to watch during baseball games. With America Online, an especially easy-to-use on-line service, subscribers with personal computers can browse through libraries, hold conferences and play games with partners across the continent.

Both systems show how the distinction between televisions and computers is blurring, which is the basic theme of Communicopia: the convergence of virtually all communications technologies. Thanks to cheaper computers and new methods of compressing data, it is now possible to transmit television pictures and most other information as bits of data that can be processed by a home computer.

All this has led to a second convergence -- of capitalists and metaphors.

On any day in Corporate America, you can find computer and media executives plotting mergers and talking about the paradigm shift driving the gold rush to the cutting edge of the fiber-optic superhighway. One buzzword is digital, which means information is translated into a computer code of ones and zeros, like music on a CD. Another buzzword is multimedia, which can mean anything you like.

All of which leads to the buzz-question: What will the new content do to what is now being called POT? Content nowadays means movies, music, video games, photographs, books, articles, stock tables or any digital multimedia combination thereof. POT is plain old television, of which some people are already speaking in the past tense.

Videoway

Brigitte Brunelle and her husband, Marc Mueller, have been spending a little more time in front of the television than they used to. They live in Montreal and subscribe to Videoway, the first commercially successful interactive television system. Now four years old, it is promoted with a newspaper advertisement showing a disgruntled man in Japan and the slogan "Even the Japanese Are Jealous."

For $6.50 (in U.S. dollars) a month on top of their regular cable TV fees, subscribers can use their remote-control buttons to order instant replays during sports events, pick which segments to watch on the evening news, and answer questions while watching quiz shows or documentaries. They can check sports scores, calculate their income tax, scan classified ads and movie listings at local theaters, even choose which commercials to watch.

Ms. Brunelle and Mr. Mueller have tried a few of these options. But what they mainly do with the system is something that will probably not cause terrible pangs of jealousy in Tokyo.

"We like the video games," Mr. Mueller said. "I don't really use the interactive TV features very much. But I do use the Videoway to play a lot of chess. My wife tries the blackjack sometimes."

That may not sound futuristic, but it's fairly typical, according to surveys conducted by Andre H. Caron, the director of the University of Montreal's New Technologies Research Laboratory. The research is financed by Le Groupe Videotron, the cable television company that operates Videoway.

In the surveys, the average Videoway subscriber reports using the system 8.5 hours a week, and four of those hours are spent on video games. Three hours go to interactive programs like "Jeopardy," and the remaining time is spent on data services, the most popular of which are weather reports, horoscopes and lottery numbers.

What's most remarkable about Videoway, at least to cable television executives, is that so many people are willing to pay for it. In Montreal it reaches 160,000 households, a quarter of the cable subscribers who are eligible. This year the system is projected to show a profit and start paying off the $40 million in development costs.

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