When Randy Hyatt wants to watch the movie "The Last of the Mohicans" (an urge that has overcome him eight times so far), all he has to do is reach for the remote control.
At near light speed, Mr. Hyatt's wish, translated into on-off pulses of light, jitters across a thin, fiber-optic tube of glass that attaches his house, in Cerritos, Calif., to a computer at the local phone company, GTE, a few blocks away. In less time than it takes to race from Mr. Hyatt's sofa into the adjacent kitchen for a Diet Coke, men in Mohawks are shooting it out on the large-screen television that dominates his living room.
That same television pipes in Main Street, a GTE service that allows the Hyatts to buy books, pay bills, play poker against people in other parts of town and book airline reservations. A small camera atop the TV even enables them to make video phone calls to a similarly equipped family across town.
"We ran into them the other day at the Price Club," said Betty Hyatt, Randy's wife. What did they talk about? "We decided to go home and call each other on the video phone."
The Hyatts are electronic guinea pigs, living in a simulated information age that's technologically sophisticated and perhaps as banal as a day in front of the tube. But GTE's Cerritos test, and many similar trials about to begin, are more than just experiments. They signal the start of a struggle over new technologies that could change the way Americans get information, communicate, educate their children, shop and work.
Those changes could be trivial or profound. They could give people new choices and greater convenience. Or they could strip them of privacy and turn them into superconsumers whose every choice is manipulated. The changes could happen dramatically before the turn of the century or be stalled for decades -- public policy is unformed, technology is untested, and no one knows if consumers are willing to pay.
L But scores of companies are betting billions on big changes.
"The societal impact will be absolutely astounding before the decade is over," said John Sculley, chairman of Apple Computer. A $3.5 trillion-a-year market in new goods and services is at stake, Mr. Sculley has estimated, and some of the world's biggest industries are anxiously competing, alone and in teams, for their share.
"People are racing to get deals in place before society wakes up and understands what's going on," he said.
Already the shape of this future is coming into focus: In Seattle, people can get weather forecasts, market quotes, ski reports and sports scores, all transmitted through the airwaves to displays on their Seiko watches. In Marin County, Calif., veterinarians are implanting microchips in 2,500 dogs and cats a year (10,000 to date) so authorities can identify lost pets. In Montreal, viewers can use remote control to choose the camera angles when they watch hockey on cable TV.
And in Cerritos, teachers can choose from hundreds of educational videos in an electronic library.
People also are using their home computers for work. In the United States, 6.6 million people "telecommute," using their PCs to remotely log into work computers. And that's with slow, hard-to-use personal computers and low-capacity phone lines.
Imagine what they could do with a teleputer.
The teleputer, now only a clumsy name, is the hybrid expected to grow from the convergence of the telephone, television and computer. Devices are evolving that may inherit the strongest features of each: Like the television, they will display video, sound and text and be familiar, easy to use; like the telephone, they will allow people to communicate anywhere; and like the computer, they will be "intelligent," powerful mills that take raw data and turn it into useful information.
Surging computer power
"There's no question that in a handful of years, you'll be able to make a telephone call over your television set," said Ray Smith, chief executive officer of Bell Atlantic, the regional phone company for the Mid-Atlantic. "You'll be able to watch television shows over your personal computer and do word processing and computing over the telephone."
Exponentially increasing computer power is making that possible. By the year 2003, computing power is supposed to increase a million-fold, said George Gilder, an economist and writer who was among the first to notice converging technologies a decade ago. "Supercomputer capabilities that you can't even purchase today will be purchasable for only a few hundred dollars," he predicted.
While the computer and consumer electronics industries are developing teleputers, the telephone and cable industries are frantically preparing for their arrival. They're upgrading their networks into so-called information highways. These are digital systems, which means they can transmit signals in computer code. And they're fast enough to carry the anticipated flood of mixed-media, interactive services to any phone jack, cable box or wireless receiver in the country.