Technology: DVR and video-on-demand options are expected to make time-shifting the norm and viewing options more plentiful.

May 27, 2004|By Sam Diaz | Sam Diaz,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

There's a scene in the movie Back to the Future Part II , set in the year 2015, where Marty McFly Jr. walks into his family's television room and barks out a lineup of TV channels he'd like to see. Seconds later, a big movie-theater-like screen lights up with a grid of multiple TV screens, each showing a live broadcast of his favorite channels.

This is what Hollywood thought TV of the future would look like.

The Silicon Valley way is going to be so much better.

Television in the not-so-distant future, say 10 years or so down the line, will have little to do with a time schedule. The Thursday 8 p.m. time slot won't carry much weight, nor will the slot that follows The Simpsons. And being part of ABC's "TGIF" or NBC's "Must See TV" lineups won't mean a thing.

Instead, we'll have a personalized lineup of shows that will be downloaded to the home entertainment server. This box, sitting in your garage or in the hall closet, will store all of your TV programming as well as your digital music, photo and home video collections and be connected to the multiple TVs and PCs in the home over a wireless network.

As high-tech as it sounds, some families are already watching "Lineup TV."

More access, more options

Phillip Swann, president of Washington-based TVPredictions.com, makes a living by tracking the business deals and technological advancements that are changing the way we watch TV.

He said digital video recorders and video-on-demand systems are introducing today's viewers to a new way of watching television. Those services - combined with a broadband connection, a home network and a home server - will be the keys to a new TV experience.

"With DVRs and VOD, the biggest change is that people will have more access and will be able to watch not only when they want but what they want," Swann said. "Being hooked up to a server will allow the cable guys or the networks to offer an unlimited amount of programming. If you want to see the first Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, for maybe $2.99 it can be downloaded to your server and watched on any of your TVs."

That's the channel surfing of the future.

The broadband connection and home server will be critical. High-definition video is a big space hog that eats about 10 gigabytes for one hour of programming, compared with about 1.3 gigabytes for an hour of regular programming today. The 40-gigabyte hard drive that comes in TiVo boxes today wouldn't store much - but a half-terabyte server (that's 500 gigabytes) might give you more options.

And when you don't really want to save something, but just want to check out a new show, a high-speed Internet connection will stream the video directly to your screen.

What this all potentially takes away from us is the cultural camaraderie of gathering around office cubicles to talk about what we saw on television the night before. The weekly episode of E.R. might have downloaded to your home entertainment server last night, but that doesn't mean you've watched it yet. Maybe you watched the episode of Trading Spaces downloaded a few days earlier and your cubicle-mate watched MTV's The Real World from the week before.

"With on-demand options and the DVR to watch when we feel like watching, it splinters the audience that much further," Swann said.

Does this all mean that we'll no longer watch the nightly news or that we can't talk about who wore what at the Grammys or the big football game? There will always be some form of "event television," he said, because people won't want to accidentally learn the outcome of sporting events, award shows or whodunit episodes before they watch.

"The 11 o'clock news is one of the things that's most likely to become on-demand, much less than appointment television," Swann said. "News gets created spontaneously. If at 9:58 p.m. you want to know what's going on, you should be able to hit a button to find out."

Jumping off the screen

It's not quite the futuristic, out-of-this-world TV experience you were imagining, is it? That stuff is out there, but it's not likely to be ready within the next 10 years.

One technology under development in the labs today is hologram television - a 3D-like experience that sends images floating from the screen into the center of the living room.

"They've already got it perfected in the lab, but you have to stand in one spot to see it," he said. "I can see it happening, though. Can you imagine seeing hologram television through a plasma screen that's over 100 inches, maybe covering the entire wall? The addiction that TV has on us today is going to increase. It will be more powerful and more addictive. We haven't seen anything yet."

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