Low-cost Interactive Upstart

November 28, 1994|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Sun Staff Writer

The Yiddish word "chutzpah" has many definitions, but folks that name their company Welcome to the Future Inc. can meet most any of them.

In their tiny, two-room office over a bagel shop in Columbia, Md. the founders of the brash, year-old start-up company are gearing up to battle the giants of the telecommunications over the "set top box" that will control your television in a new age of interactivity.

To listen to P. Brandon Calder and Hamid M. Qayyum, the likes of Bell Atlantic Corp., Hewlett-Packard and Scientific Atlanta don't stand a chance. They've taken the wrong ramp onto the information superhighway and it's a long way to the next exit, the young men say.

In the future as outlined by Raymond Smith, Bell Atlantic's chief executive, there will be an unlimited number of full-motion channels with a host of interactive features. Not only will you be getting cable TV programs over your telephone company's wires, you'll be able to order movies on demand instead of having to run out to a rental store. Eventual applications will include medical consultations with a doctor at a remote site and interactive classes you can attend from your home.

That vision, according to Mr. Calder and Mr. Qayyum, is a long way off. They contend that big telephone and cable companies won't be able to deliver interactive television technology over the next few years because of technological hurdles and high costs.

But they say Welcome to the Future can. Soon. Cheaply. And without a lot of bells and whistles.

"We tried to figure out what the demand was and meet that demand," said Mr. Qayyum. "We're going to put up a low-cost product you can use right now."

Welcome to the Future appears to be an unlikely technological leader. Mr. Calder, its chief executive officer, will be 25 soon. Mr. Qayyum, its president, is 26. If it weren't for its chief financial officer, 48-year-old Gerald Williams, there wouldn't be a gray hair in the place.

The company got its start in the summer of 1993 when Mr. Calder, whose background is in international business, and Mr. Qayyum, an electrical engineer, were working out on parallel tracks at the Columbia Athletic Club.

They soon discovered they were thinking along parallel tracks as well - mostly about interactive television. By October, they incorporated their company and started assembling a team of engineers.

Welcome to the Future doesn't have a fancy office suite. They have little capital and not much credit beyond that provided by Visa and MasterCard. It doesn't have high-salaried superstars. It doesn't even have salaries. Most of its dozen shareholders - you can hardly call them employees - are engineers who work from their basements and garages and gather at the cramped office in the evening, Mr. Calder said.

What the company does have is a "box." A crude prototype to be sure, but it's a true set top box with actual software running it. Connected to the banged-up Magnavox in the company's office, it successfully leads a viewer through a theoretical path to restaurants and shopping while the original program remains visible on part of the screen.

That puts it ahead of many of its rivals in the race to create a standard.

Karen English, executive director of the National Interactive Association, said Welcome to the Future made a positive impression at her group's recent trade show in Washington.

"They were able to show their software on the screen, unlike a lot of the others, where they were just able to show a bunch of talk and a lot of paper," she said. "In terms of credibility, I'd give them a half-step up on anybody else."

Welcome to the Future is pinning its hopes on a new technology called IVDS, for interactive video data services.

IVDS is a wireless application designed for a part of the radio spectrum that was auctioned off by the Federal Communications Commission earlier this year. It is specifically intended to let viewers "talk" back to their television sets.

Let's say you're watching a football game and an ad comes on for home-delivered pizza. Because the ad agency is doing its job, the pizza is so lovingly photographed that you feel immediate hunger pangs. So without uprooting yourself from the couch, you point your remote control at a little box on top of the TV set and press the right buttons. The box sends a radio signal out into the ether, where it is picked up by the IVDS network's local reception device, much like a cell picks up a mobile phone call.

The IVDS network routes your order to the pizza chain's nearest shop and charges it to your prearranged account. A half-hour later you're chowing down.

But there's no video-on-demand, no fiber-optic cable. The TV itself doesn't act as a two-way device. Compared to what other companies are proposing, it's a "dumb" system.

Many telecommunications experts view IVDS with skepticism, citing its limited signal capacity, a lack of content to interact with and doubts that consumers want to interact at all.

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