THERE is a new and exciting television technology on the horizon, and if test runs in Springfield, Mass., and Montreal, Canada, are anything to go by, it could trigger a viewing revolution-in-the-making. The system is called ACTV Interactive Response Television, and it permits cable viewers multiple choices, both in camera angles and in entire programs, at the push of a button on a single channel. In a sense it also ``tailors'' a show to the preferences indicated by viewers at home.
``We call this the `new' television because it changes all the rules of the game,'' said William C. Samuels, president of ACTV, with the self-satisfied air of a man who thinks he's about to hit the jackpot.
``We think this is the most important breakthrough in television since television itself was invented. Past breakthroughs related to signal distribution, to color, and to picture definition. ACTV actually [could have a] direct impact on the quality of programming. It's a technology that can talk back to you, the viewer, individually.''
ACTV permits viewers to become actively involved in the programming on the screen. Tuning in to one channel, they get a multiple choice of camera angles; they can actively respond to a person addressing them from the screen; they can order up a variety of shows on that same channel and they can focus on a particular program segment that appeals to them.
In terms of the home, all that is involved is a box that sits atop the television set (about the size of a VCR) and a hand-held remote-control unit with four buttons, representing the four choices currently available to a subscriber.
Mr. Samuels says the eventual selections are by no means limited to four. ``We'll probably have 18 or 20 choice buttons in the years to come,'' he says.
Technically, ACTV appears deceptively simple. Instead of a single signal on a cable channel, four signals are sent to the receiver box in the home. The viewer, can tune in to any one of those four.
While ACTV calls the technology ``interactive,'' the term applies only to a degree. The viewer is expected to answer questions being asked from the screen, but there is no actual two-way communication between the home and the studio.
The potential applications of ACTV are huge and almost awesomely varied. Not only does it ``put the viewer in the director's seat,'' as Samuels says, but it also has major implications for television use in schools, hotels, and industrial training programs.
Samuels enjoys demonstrating the new system. He turns on the TV set, and a young woman in a leotard appears, inviting viewers to participate in an exercise class. ``Please give me your age range,'' she asks. You push the appropriate button on the handset.
``Now please tell me whether you would like to participate in the beginners' class, the intermediate, or the advanced class.'' Once again, a button is pushed.
``Thank you,'' she says. ``You are in your early 30s, and you want to join the intermediate group. Here we go!'' And the exercise class starts.
You tune in a football game. Available to you is the overall, regular coverage of the game. But at any stage you can push the appropriate button, and you get the current score and player statistics, a closeup of a particular player, or the replay of a play.