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Return of the Gladiators - Amphitheatre to Internet

Royal Academy of Engineering President's New Year Lecture given by Dr John Forrest FEng, Chairman Brewton Group Ltd 13 January 1998, Royal Society, London

Two thousand years ago the public gathered in the amphitheatre to be informed or entertained. The process of such gatherings has stood the test of time but has been supplemented in the last century by broadcasting, which has dramatically increased audience reach. Satellites now bring events to a world-wide amphitheatre, yet we are on the brink of a further evolution through the combination of broadcasting and computing techniques. Television will become interactive - giving in principle to each individual the facility of access to a world audience.

15,000 people on 67 tiers was a typical audience in the amphitheatre. This represented about one third of the city of Athens. As well as the theatre/entertainment aspects of the plays that were enacted, there was much educational value. The Coliseum could have taken an audience of 90,000. UK Television today can reach 12-13 million people.

The Elizabethan era represented a growth of interest in plays and the theatre. The invention of the telephone was initially for extending the reach of concert halls and widening the audience. There was no reason envisaged for people who didn't know each other to want to communicate!

Thus technology can change the goal posts by partitioning the users. In some cases the user can become the operator. New technologies and new media push the boundaries of taste and decency to attract new audiences.

Satellite channels convey news, sport, pop music. Consumer equipment is inexpensive. 25-30% of homes have access. Charging for access effectively removes regulation. What determines the service provided is the commodity, the market price, and the audiences who will pay rather than broadcasting regulators. Traditional printed publishing is going through a similar evolution as new media possibilities such as CD-ROM and Internet affect the traditional distribution mechanisms and pricing models for printed material.

In the USA, 38% of homes have PCs. As TV viewing hours decline, the time logged on to the PC increases. Thus interactivity with the TV is one way to seek to retrieve traditional TV audiences. Services offered include shopping, banking, holidays, learning/education.

Large market sectors of retail (270 billion p.a.), mail order (7 billion) are keen to gain a share of customers via new technology and new methods of access. A lot of potential revenue is at stake, as well as market share.

The number of users on the Internet continues to grow from an estimated 50 million currently to an expected 1000 million in 2000. The Internet comes of age when a Trial Judge posts his verdict on the Web before it is announced verbally to the press.

Each user can become their own publisher with a potential worldwide audience for documents, songs, and videos.

The PC/TV debate could be resolved by separating the display from the processing electronics. The set top box can become a server which stores, processes, and directs information to the appropriate device in the home.

Figure: Possible future Home Information/ Entertainment System

The server becomes an information manager, selecting the appropriate device(s) for the particular user and information requirement. Service packages will provide low cost options. New players in the information market place will be retailers and utility companies.

Rae Earnshaw