Moving the Video-Rental Store Into Your Living Room

COUCH potato paradise scooted a little closer with the announcement last Friday of the most comprehensive test yet of viewer-controlled cable television (VCTV). During an 18-month trial period, Denver's south suburban spuds need not uproot themselves to visit the video store, nor shape their weekends around cable movie schedules. Instead, they will tell cable TV what to show - and when - at the zap of a remote control.

Although the test will use conventional technology, it is being driven by recent gains in digital technology, fiber optics, and digital compression, says Robert Thomson, senior vice president of Tele-Communications Inc. (TCI), the nation's largest cable company.

"Nobody knows what the marketplace is like" for the potential customer-control options that the new technologies will unleash, Mr. Thomson says. "We need to find out." The test is to begin late this year in 450 homes served by United Artists Entertainment Corporation (UAE), a TCI affiliate.

Some viewers will test "video on demand." They will be able to signal UAE to show - only on their TV set and at any time they wish - any of more than 1,000 film or special-events programs. They will also be able to pause the film for up to 10 minutes. Various prices will be tested, though they will be "generally" what people pay to rent a videocassette.

This individualized broadcast will be made possible by a separate pathway from the cable company to each house - and lots of videocassette recorders and multiple copies of movies at the cable TV broadcast center.

More sophisticated technology, such as laser disks, will be used when VCTV is offered commercially, says Thomson. The test will be critical to the design of future "system architecture" by determining viewer patterns. On Christmas, for example, will hundreds of households want to watch "It's a Wonderful Life," but none at the same time?

The other VCTV service to be tested is less flexible. Called "enhanced pay-per-view," it gives customers a choice of 15 movies per day. Six will be shown at any given moment, scheduled to begin as often as four times per hour.

Thomson said it was "entirely unclear" what effect the widespread introduction of this service would have on video rental outlets. The test is a joint effort of TCI, U S West, (contributing a fiber-optic transmission link and consumer research) and AT&T Network Systems (providing VCTV hardware and software and in-home equipment).

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