Watching the Internet, Or Surfing TV?

Sometime in the next few years, someone is going to marry the action of television with the data of the Internet in such a compelling way that consumers will flock to see it. A new medium will be born.

It might be something as simple as a TV game show where the audience gets to play along and win prizes. It may be an interactive drama series or some completely new genre. The point is, companies are beginning to sell the technology that will allow this new medium to emerge.

There's just one problem. What are we going to watch it on - a computer, a TV set, or some other information appliance? The answer to that question will determine the future of huge industries.

Andrew Grove, who heads computer-chip maker Intel Corp., calls it "a war for consumer eyeballs."

Of course, many of us might like to keep our eyeballs right where they are, spending some leisure hours in front of the TV screen, other hours in front of a computer display. But new products that have come out in the last few months hold out a different promise. They're the first baby steps toward a kind of interactive video future.

The company that has made the biggest splash with this idea is WebTV Networks. With a $300 black box, plus $20 a month for an Internet subscription, consumers can use their TVs to browse the Web and send and receive electronic mail. And they can do this with nothing more complicated than a special TV remote (although an optional $60 wireless keyboard really helps).

The idea is to make the Internet available even to people without computers. Many early users of WebTV are hungry for something beyond Internet browsing. By using a new TV set's picture-in-a-picture technology, they're browsing and watching TV at the same time, says Chip Herman, WebTV's vice president of marketing. "Can you imagine watching an NFL football game and at the same time having [an Internet site called] up in your picture-in-a-picture, reviewing the stats of Dan Marino?"

Computer users can do the same thing in reverse with the $149 WinCast/TV card from Hauppauge Computer Works. By inserting the card in your machine, you can watch broadcast or cable TV on your computer monitor. And if you tune in certain channels, such as CNN or QVC, the television signal will download Internet-looking pages to your computer screen that complements the TV picture. For example, CNN might broadcast an event and, using a hidden part of the TV channel, send at the same time a fuller text article about it. The article might include Internet links so that anyone with an Internet connection could easily visit those links.

Of course, as with any first-generation product, the actual experience doesn't always measure up to the promise. My biggest problem with WebTV was finding a good TV set near a telephone jack. The sets nearby were older models that required a special adapter (which didn't come with the kit). The newest set, in the living room, wasn't near a phone line. Eventually, I had to lug the heavy 27-inch behemoth upstairs to connect. Once hooked up, the system worked surprisingly well. If you want the Internet but don't want to fool with computers, this is a way to do it.

For those already using computers, the WinCast/TV board is more satisfying, because it extends the capabilities of your system. But you may have to upgrade your computer's video software (or replace the video card completely) to get a good on-screen picture. Also, the data that's supposed to accompany CNN and other broadcasts is unavailable on many cable systems.

So we're at the beginning of a long road. And we still don't know what device we'll use to view the new medium of the 21st century. But this much we do know: We have an opportunity to move beyond the age of couch potatoes to something else. If we're diligent, we can make that "something else" much more satisfying and useful.

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