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Interactive Television 1996
3 - 5 September 1996 University of Edinburgh

This conference attracted over 200 people from around the world, representing both commercial and academic institutions interested in the future of interactive media, and the diversity of the audience was equally reflected in the diversity of the speakers.

Interactive television is perhaps a misleading term, tying in an 'old' technology with the new. During the three days the image of a full interactive television channel, with users being able to send and receive equal amounts of data was largely dismissed. The large number of trials that have taken place over the last few years have shown that, while users do like interactivity and the ability to personalise the services, the amount they are willing to pay for a full interactive service falls well below the actual cost of delivering such a service.

Ben Andradi, from Anderson Consulting, felt high-end technology was not viable in the immediate future, but that we should concentrate on 'intermediate technologies' such as CD-ROM, the Internet and digital TV, with quasi-interactive channels. The Internet, and the WWW in particular, was seen as an important component by several speakers. City TV from Canada, run a WWW site in parallel with their TV programming, for example polling over the Internet about a TV show. Mark Kvamme, president of the CKS group, felt the Internet was in a similar position to TV in the late 1920s when it was said 'the commercial possibilities of this new medium defy imagination'. It was another 30 years before TV really became viable, and he feels the Internet is in a similar phase, though it will become truly commercial much quicker.

A common feature in many of the TV trials is that they have provided very local services, and it is often this sense of community which has most appealed to the users. Several speakers suggested that programme development should concentrate on creating these networks and community links, and the ability to personalise the service was seen as very important.

Throughout the many trials, many different systems have been used, and the lack of standards was a concern. Despite the benefits of interoperability which imposing standards would bring, many people felt that imposing standards now, when the technology was still in its infancy, would be locking the industry into old technology. For the moment at least, it seems unlikely that a consensus will emerge.

The parallel sessions on the second and third days allowed a number of companies and individuals to present some of their interactive work. These presentations included Robin Mudge from the BBC, who presented some of their work in childrens programming. He was particularly interested in the importance of the story and the difficulties of combining an essentially linear media (the story) with interactive components, for example by allowing the user to switch views between characters to see a different side of the same story. Developers also looked at some of the design issues raised not only in the programmes, but also in developing the hardware or 'set top boxes'. Prototypes used in trials have been difficult to use, as designers look for a compromise between a standard PC keyboard and a remote control. Bob Glass, from Sun Microsystems, felt that designers needed to look at usability issues more closely, particularly user studies, in order to produce an acceptable, easy to use product.

The overall impression of the conference can perhaps be summed up in two quotes: a Chinese proverb - 'prediction is difficult, especially if it involves the future', and from Dennis McQuail, University of Amsterdam: 'People seems to be drawing different visions of the future from the same diagnosis of the present'. While development of new technologies is certainly actively continuing, the direction they will take us remains to be seen.

Sue Cunningham
AGOCG Multimedia Support Officer
Computer Graphics Unit
Manchester Computing
University of Manchester
Manchester M13 9PL

Tel: +44 (0)161 275 6095
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