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This skeptical view of interactivity preceded the explosion of the Internet, not to mention such things as HDTV and DVD, but still contains a few prophetic moments.

As seen in The Washington Post, January 6, 1994:


The possibility of knowledge, entertainment, experience, and convenience at our fingertips is a seductive prospect, but consumers must first separate the facts from the fallacies

by Mark Fleischmann

Television, movies, radio, newspapers, books, magazines: Someday they'll all be bits. Just bits. Morsels of computer code, melting into a river that already includes databases, bulletin boards and the synthetic worlds of virtual reality, all whizzing down the information superhighway, ready to grab an off-ramp and race fiber-optically to a screen near you. What we now call TVs, computers and phones will morph into the telecomputer, the info highway's multimedia carport.

If all this seems at once wonderful, wishful, scary and perplexing, it's meant to be. Media technologists are playing a game of truth or dare with the American public, trying to fire our imaginations and jump-start a new economic engine. The multimedia vision is a thing of seductive beauty that springs from our own desires for convenience, knowledge, experience and transcendence -- and keeping up with the Joneses.

The stakes are enormous for industries in the game, many of which will be pitching products and services at the Winter Consumer Electronics Show, starting today in Las Vegas. Watch them pair off: cable and phone companies, Hollywood and Japan in a rash of mergers, acquisitions and joint ventures. John Malone, chief executive of TeleCommunication Inc., voiced their collective aspirations when announcing the cable giant's proposed marriage to Bell Atlantic last fall: "The overwhelming majority of revenues we get by the end of the decade will be from services and products that have not yet been invented."

The key words here are "not yet." Consumers have a stake in the multimedia future too -- a controlling stake -- as experimental products and services jostle for attention, making new demands on recession-strained incomes. This is the perfect moment in history to ask: Who needs what? And how soon? To find hard answers, consumer survivalists must learn to separate fact from fallacy.

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Multimedia fallacy number one is the interactive fallacy. It states that as the TV set and computer merge into the telecomputer, our relationship with the telecomputer will learn toward the more interactive side of computing rathe than the more passive side of television. The once-boring ol' tube will spout video on demand, interactive TV programs, home banking, video-phone service, electronic books and newspapers, and wonders "that have not yet been invented." These services might be delivered by fiber optics, conventional cable, satellites, compact discs, cellular broadcasting or other means -- and by your local telephone company, your local phone company, a hybrid of the two, or neither.

Exactly how interactive a television will become in the long run is something no corporate executive, academic technologist, hyping publicist or mock-clairvoyant journalist can say for sure. However, reports of traditional TV's death have been greatly exaggerated.

Television is America's favorite entertainment medium because it demands little of tired viewers. Most folks looking to relax prefer the campfire storyteller of prime-time drama/comedy (or the lascivious dirty-joke-teller of tabloid TV) to the machine that bosses them around all day. Smart investors know this. It's Paramount's entertainment machine -- not, say, CompuServe's computer network -- that's the object of frenzied bidding by Viacom, another cable giant, and the QVC Network.

Will movies themselves ever become truly interactive? "Voyeur," recently introduced by Philips for its CD-i format, is the first movie in which viewers can determine actions and outcome by selecting options via remote. Thismight be fine for the simplistic plot line of a political thriller -- here viewer-detectives try to prove the "treacherous intentions" of a presidential hopeful played by Robert Culp. But the vision of an Alfred Hitchcock or a Spike Lee, many would argue, will not be improved by ceding creative control to viewers. The passive pleasures of narrative storytelling will remain television's core attraction as long as such films as "North by Northwest" and "Do the Right Thing" are part of cinematic tradition.

What interactivity does offer is convenience such as on-screen program listings, the ability to select listed items for VCR-timer recording and video on demand (the ultimate form of pay-per-view, in which the viewer orders the program and decides when it starts). All of this exists now in embryonic form -- but this kind of interactive lite just supports traditional TV-watching.

Video/data services, now in development, try to get beyond passive TV-watching by using computerized polling to tabulate viewer responses to news polls or game shows. But this crude form of interactivity bombed when QUBE, a joint venture of Warner Communications and American Express, brought interactive cable programs -- including music -- to Columbus, Ohio in the early '80s.

According to Michael Young, a producer who hosted an interactive show for QUBE, programming-starved teen viewers enjoyed his show's pioneering use of music videos. But simply registering their likes and dislikes -- not actually participating in the programming -- couldnot sustain the young viewers' interest. "The novelty of responding to an entertainment program wears off pretty quickly," says Young, who is now president of Alton Entertainment and producer of sponsor-supported (not interactive) programming.

For the present, at least, interactivity seems to be more at home in the home office, where it can help an autonomous individual accustomed to making choices make more and better choices. When GTE wired 350 homes in Cerritos, Calif., with fiber optics starting in the 'ate '80s, educational services such as the online encyclopedia and dictionary did well, especially in homes with kids, according to GTE spokesman Daniel Smith. Seniors went for financial services including stock prices, business news and an online portfolio manager linked to a discount brokerage.

Now GTE's package of interactive services, called Main Street, is coming to Carlsbad, Calif. and West Boston, Mass. as a premium cable channel. It just might be the little engine that could -- but hardly the runaway train interactive TV is said to be.

Not everyone is optimistic about experiments by GTE and other phone companies. A. Michael Noll, deanof the University of Southern California's Annenberg School of Communications, is blunt about home banking: "It has gone through generations of failure and failure and failure. Until wen invent a home terminal that dispenses cash, home banking won't get far, except for people who want to do extra work."

Noll, formerly of Bell Labs, can rattle off a whole list of interactive services offered in various phone-company trials and explain, logically and devastatingly, why each has failed. Take, for instance, the first video phone (please). The video-phone sequence in the movie "2001" was substantially based on a scenario Noll wrote at Bell Labs in 1965. But, he says, "the product flopped. What the market research of 20 years ago showed was that seeing someone when you're talking to them over the phone gets in the way of conversation. It's inhuman. Human nature is not going to change. Now AT&T has reinvented the Edsel. I'm not against trying new things, but I'm not in favor of repeating the mistakes of the past."

Andrew Lippman, associate director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab and a leading theorist of interactive technology, is aware of the mistakes of the past but also hopeful about interactivity's future. He says early phone-company trials such as the Cerritos project mixed "apples and oranges. Transactional things like home banking and shopping are short-term commercial interests, efficiency aids, whereas games are an immersive experience that changes the way you entertain yourself and think about things."

Lippman believes the key to the success of interactivity lies not on the transactional end but on the other end -- "the personalizatioin of computing that you have at your fingertips." He points approvingly to experiments by Time Warner in Orlando, Fla. and Viacom in Castro Valley, Calif. These more recent tests, he says, link users to more sophisticated networks and bring more powerful computing -- workstations rather than personal computers -- into the home. Lippman also likes some of the interactive programming showing up on CD-ROM discs, calling them "loads of fun." Although most of these are games there are also "hypertext books," which include text with moving pictures, sound and graphics.

Still, he says, "there are thousands of mistakes yet to be made. Some may turn out to be good ideas. But don't assume this is going to happen overnight." So sink into the La-Z-Boy, crack open a beer, and let's see who's on Letterman tonight.

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Multimedia fallacy number two is the digital fallacy: If it's digital, it's a juggernaut of heightened quality and assured success. The LP is dead, long live the CD, and anything based on the shiny disc, on its digital underpinnings or both seems invincible -- especially when combined with interactivity.

But history is littered with dead formats, as anyone with a closet full of Beta or 8-track tapes can attest, and digital formats are not automatic winners. Two new and heavily promoted digital audio formats -- Sony's Mini-Disc and Philips' Digital Compact Cassette -- already have hit a wall of consumer indifference.

It's too early to say whether CD-based interactivity will fare any better. Two potential obstacles stand in its way: incompatibility among systems and the limited data capacity of the standard five-inch disc -- a tiny fraction of what a fiber-optic line can carry.

The current riot of formats (CD-ROM for computers, Philips' CD-i and Matsushita's 3DO for TV sets) precludes full compatibility. For instance, CD-ROMs for IBM-compatible computers may not run on Apple Macintosh computers, and vice versa. CD-i discs run only on CD-i machines, and 3DO discs only on 3DO machines.

CD-ROM discs can be purchased in computer or software stores; the television-driven formats are sold in many electronics and department stores.

The 3DO format for television does have a procesor that meshes with some CD-ROM computer discs using an early kind of video compression called Cinipak. And recent agreements build bridges that will let CD-i and 3DO display stills like family vacation photos, and, in future generations, Hollywood movies. Even so, because the harware is proprietary and different, interactive features won't travel across format boundaries.

Of the two TV-oriented contenders, 3DO is billed as more powerful and thus capable of processing more information more quickly. This might translate into more richly detailed graphics or greater speed. However, CD-i's newly unveiled add-on cartridge for full-motion video will beef up its initially minimal compting power.

To enhance CD-i's appeal, Philips has arranged with Paramount for the release of 50 movies. But a discs's playing time will have to rise beyond the current 74 minutes to make CD-i a competitive movie format. Remember that a cinematically correct two hours of running time helped VHS beat then-one-hour Beta in the early '80s. 3DO, which now operates like a video game with stills and jerky motion, will have full motion in the spring, a few months after its Christmas-season debut.

Because of the CD's limited capacity to store digital information, the visual fidelity of all CD-based formats will remain rudimentary -- and that may prove limiting to viewers who want to suppment interactivity with big-screen movie-watching. The video compression used for 3DO and CD-i produces a picture that is not as sharp as a 12-inch laser videodisc or even a decent broadcat or cable picture, let alone the promised land of HDTV, or high-definition television. It's clearer than conventional television, because it's digital, but compression also makes it prone to motion-related problems. Technical advances that would allow the CD to hold more data appear distant.

Computer-based CD interactivity has been gathering steam for years thanks to CD-ROM discs for personal computers. Some programming is attractive -- the Voyager Co. has done especially exciting work with hypertext books -- and the cost of a computer with a CD-ROM drive is no longer stratospheric. The main drawback to CD-ROM interactivity is conceptual and, perhaps, irrelevant: It's computer-based, not television-based, so it preaches to the converted. Then again, CD-ROM is the only reasonably mature interactive CD format on the playing field.

Pioneer, longtime champion of the videodisc, the relatively rare format for playing movies and other programs, has an interactive venture of its own. LaserActive builds on the existing 12-inch laserdisc format by placing digital interactive information in space formerly occupied by the analog soundtrack (which long ago gave way to digital sound). The resulting machien can play videodiscs of various sizes, music CDs and -- with add-on adapters -- even CD-based or cartridge-based video games. Non-game interactive applications, such as whodunits, have been introduced, but early examples have received poor reviews from critics.

Unfortunately, very few homes have laserdisc players, and though the video is of high quality, it's also analog. This odd but ingenious hybrid seems more of a transitional move than a realistic contender in an all-digital future.

Then there are the competitive matters of hardware and software. The cost of a fast computer with a CD-ROM drive has dropped to as little as $1500 -- about $1000 less than a year ago, though stillmore than the street prices of the two major television formats, a 3DO player ($700) or CD-i player ($400). More than 2500 titles are available in CD-ROM for computers.

Among the TV-oriented formats, CD-i currently has a head start with more than 120 titles, including educational and interactive music programming as well as games. Matsushita's 3DO began with 20 titles, and LaserActive has seven. If the public develops a clear favorite, programmers would flock to it, overcoming any of these reservations about compatibility or visuals. But the starting pistol has only just been fired.

Thanks to the wealth of software, computer-driven CD-ROM seems to be the safest bet for people interested in a permanent relationship. The TV-driven formats, on the other hand, are for what the trade calls "early adopters" only. Marketing experience and positioning seem to be the prime motives for selling them to the public. Consumers have a right to be skeptical: CD-based interactive TV is in its infancy and not all that's digital is gold.

* * *

Finally, there are some minor fallacies surrounding multimedia's future.

The growth fallacy, embedded in an onslaught of predictions, is a computer-centric cousin of the interactive fallacy. It suggests multimedia will follow the swift growth curve of computing rather than the slow growth curve of television. However, more people have TVs than computers, and the TV audience is notoriously slow to accommodate technological change. Witness the slow coming of HDTV, or the fact that color TV was standardized in the '50s but the majority of viewers didn't buy it until the '70s. If television and computers are truly to merge, growth of the resulting hybrid is likely to be dictated by the dominant, conservative, consumerist culture of television.

The too-much-is-never-enough fallacy is epitomized by TCI's threatened mega-cable. Video compression can fit 500 channels into today's cable systems -- but are you willing to pay for that many? Existing 60-channel systems are dominated by pay-per-view slots, home-shopping commercialism and leased access to advertisers. Cost, not technology, is what really limits the choice of quality programming. The notion of ordering a movie from a far-away database is more alluring (though the technology involved is still developing). One channel is enough if it's the one you want.

And before anyone seriously suggests that all this technology will somehow civilize us, transforming us into idealized citizens of a prosperous, nonpolluting information nation, conside the record. Human nature has shown itself capable of subverting the best intentions of technologists: Witness the progress in physics that brought nuclear weapons. Remember too that the programming that got the videotape industry off the ground was hardcore pornography, and now the pages of Computer Shopper are full of ads for XXX-rated CD-ROMs. Video-game violence has become a hot issue in Congress. The truth -- both grim and hopeful -- is that technology is what we make of it, and we are what we are.

If technology alone cannot conquer war, greed or the beast inside us, it can entertain us in old ways, speed our workaday business in new ways, and help keep our imaginations alive. Successful multimedia products will be those based on mature technology, a large base of hardware in homes, and programming that feeds genuine human needs.

Until they're invented, let a thousand mistakes bloom -- in the Joneses' backyard.

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