An Interactive Life

To get an idea of what the future might bring, step into the past. At the Edison National Historical Site in West Orange, N.J., there's a room full of a dozen old phonograph machines. Some were built by Thomas Edison, who invented recorded sound in 1877, and others were produced by competitors. In the decades represented by the display, the concept and purpose of sound recording changed dramatically. Edison conceived of his phonograph as a business machine that would help people in distant places communicate. He intended to record voices-nothing more. His competitors envisioned the greater potential for entertainment and art. Where he saw internal memos, someone else saw Beethoven.

Someday, there may well be a similar memorial to the unfulfilled prophecies of the creators of the latest breakthrough-interactivity. Will it really change the world? With so much big money and so many big dreams pinned to an idea that is still largely on the drawingboards, there's no limit to the hype. Simply put, the ulitmate promise is this: a huge amount of information available to anyone at the touch of a button, everything from airline schedules to esoteric scientific journals to video versions of off-off-off Broadway. Watching a movie won't be a passive experience. At various points, you'll click on alternative story lines and create your individualized version of "Terminator XII." Consumers will send as well as receive all kinds of data. Say you shoot a video that you think is particularly artsy. Beam it out and make a small fortune by charging an untold number of viewers a fee for watching. Peter Jennings would be obsolete. Video-camera owners could record news they see and put it on the universal network. On the receiving end, the era of the no-brainer will have finally arrived. An electronic device called an "intelligent agent" would be programmed to know each viewer's preferences and make selections from the endless stream of data. Viewers could select whatever they wanted just by pushing a button.

Sounds great in theory, but even the truest believers have a hard time when it comes to nailing down specifics about how it will actually work. Will we control the data via the telephone, the TV, the personal computer or a combination of all of the above? When will it be available? Will it be cheap enough for everyone? How will we negotiate such a mass of images, facts and figures and still find time to sleep? Will government regulate messages sent out on this vast data highway? And, frankly, what do we need all this stuff for anyway?

The quick answer is: no one knows. "We're a long way from 'Wild Palms'," says Diana Hawkins, who runs an interactive-TV consulting firm in Portola Valley, Calif. But even if the techno-chaos of that recent mini-series is far off, some consumers may indeed notice that their personal relationships with their TVs, telephones and computers will be entering a new and deeper phase within a year or two. Instead of playing rented tapes on their VCRs, they may be able to call up a movie from a library of thousands through a menu displayed on the TV. Game fanatics may be able to do the same from another electronic library filled with realistic video versions of arcade shoot-'em-ups. Instead of flipping through the pages of J. Crew or Victoria's Secret, at-home shoppers may watch video catalogs with models demonstrating front and rear views of the latest gear. Some cable companies are also testing other interactive models that allow viewers to choose their own news or select camera angles for sporting events.

While these developments are clever, fun and even convenient, they're not quite revolutionary. Denise Caruso, editor of Digital Media, a San Francisco-based industry newsletter, calls this "fake interactive," just one step past passive viewing, pure couch-potato mode. In the most common version of this scheme, consumers will communicate with the TV through the combination of a control box and their remote control, or, perhaps, the telephone. To some degree, viewers already have accepted a certain amount of fake interactivity by channel-surfing with their remotes, ordering payfor-view movies and running up their credit-card bills on the Home Shopping Network.

Moving beyond phase one, into what Caruso calls "true interactive," will require major changes in the technological and regulatory infrastructure. Today's television cables will likely be replaced by fiber-optic cables, which are capable of transmitting much more data at higher speeds. Either a government agency or the communications industry itself will have to set a performance standard so that different networks can connect with each other. At home, viewers may have to learn to use a TV monitor that functions more like a computer screen fronting for a gigantic hard disc full of all kinds of data, everything from games and movies to specially created programs.

The shows of the future may be the technological great-grandchildren of current CD-ROM titles. These are compact discs that store data instead of music and can play on either television or computer screens. To play CD-ROMs today, you need a special machine. There are at least four models on the market, and titles produced for one format won't play on another. CD-ROMs do provide a glimpse of what the future might hold, however. A number of companies, including NEWSWEEK, are developing multimedia products that combine text, video, sound and still photographs. The result is what may someday be a powerful new medium with no set story line as in a book or magazine. Users pick and choose information that interests them. Philips Interactive, for example, has dozens of titles, among them a tour of the Smithsonian, in which the viewer selects which corridor to enter by clicking on the screen. Other titles: "Jazz Giants," a musical history, and "Escape from CyberCity," an animated adventure game.

Many investors are betting on entertainment as the most lucrative interactive market. But some industry observers predict the development of two parallel home markets, one catering to leisure activities and the other to businesses. Hawkins says the work-at-home market could be computer based and provide an outlet for teleconferencing and portable computing devices, like the Newton touted by Apple chairman John Sculley that can be carried in a pocket and runs on handwritten commands scribbled on a small screen. The entertainment market, primarily games and movies, would be centered on some kind of monitor.

If all this comes to pass-still a very big if-the next step could be what Digital Media's Caruso calls "complete viewer control." She says consumers would be a little like information "cowboys," rounding up data from computer-based archives and information services. There will be thousands of "channels" delivered, Caruso thinks, through some combination of cable, telephone, satellite and cellular networks. To prevent getting trampled by a stampede of data, viewers will rely on programmed electronic selectors that could go out into the info corral and rope in the subjects the viewer wants.

Caruso's "final frontier" is what she calls video telephony, a complete two-way link of video, audio and data. A user might stand in front of a monitor/receiver and just talk and listen, communicating with whatever or whomever is Out There. Images and voices would be beamed back and forth. (At the very least, it would probably mean the end of anonymous obscene phone calls.) "There is no exact analogy to any technology we've seen before," says Red Burns, chair of the Interactive Telecommunications Program at New York University. "Interactive means we are all involved. There is no viewer. Interactive is like a conversation."

"Interactivity" may be the biggest buzzword of the moment, but convergence is a close second. It means different things to different people. To the moneymen, it means that everything will come together and they'll clean up. To scientists, it means that the technology has reached a critical point where fantasy could now become reality. Nicholas Negroponte, director of MIT's Media Lab, a leading think tank in this new world, remembers that back in the 1970s, a government agency gave him a grant on the condition that he remove the word multimedia from his proposal. "They were afraid we would get one of Proxmire's Golden Fleece awards," he says. Now, politicians, from President Clinton on down, are falling over themselves to proclaim support for the new medium.

These dreams are possible because researchers have made vast leaps in both the quality and quantity of data transmittal. In the past decade, the amount of data that could be put on a silicon chip has doubled every year while the price has been cut in half. In 1960, a highquality transistor cost several dollars. Today a chip with the capacity of 4 million transistors costs about a tenth of a cent per transistor.

Transmission-putting that information into the hands of everyone who wants it-is also much more efficient. Until now, data have been sent as a series of electrical signals along wires or cables or through the air as radio waves. But as the amount of data and the demand for them have increased, these electronic highways have become clogged. The solution: fiber optics.

Both of these developments are possible because of digitalization, a mathematical scheme that translates data into the simplest form. Called binary formatting, the system expresses numbers and letters in a code using only I and 0. The letter "A," for example, could be 00000. "Z" would be 11001. Originally, this code was stored as on-or-off electrical charges along the standard wires and cables; now it can be transmitted as pulses of light on the fiber-optic cables. Bringing high-speed computers into the loop means that much more complicated information can be digitized: combinations of sound, still images, video and text. "Multimedia" is the wrong word, says MIT's Negroponte. "Everything has now become digitized," he says. "We have created a unimedia, really. Bits are bits."

At the Media Lab, Negroponte and other scientists are experimenting with the future. Pattie Maes, an expert in artificial intelligence, is trying to build some working "intelligent agents." (At a recent Media Lab conference, an actor dressed as a butler took the stage, playing the part of an agent. That's interactive humor.) In one program, Maes has created four "icons" on the computer screen representing agents with specific marching orders. For example, one dressed in a business suit seeks out business news. Although the agents are initially programmed, they actually learn by watching their masters' preferences. She thinks that one day, agents may even communicate with agents from other users: " Let's say both you and I like the same movie reviews. Our agents could get together and determine that we also had other interests in common." (Imagine the conversation: "Have I got a compatible user for you!")

Maes and others concede that there's a dark side to all these bright dreams. Who will protect the privacy of consumers whose shopping, viewing and recreational habits are all fed into one cable-phone company data bank? And where there are agents, can counteragents be far behind: spies who might like to keep tabs on the activities of your electronic butlers? "Advertising companies see my presentations and get very excited," says Maes. Indeed, intelligent agents could be a gold mine of information. Advertisers aren't the only ones who could abuse the network if they were able to tap into it. The government could electronically spy on individuals; bosses could track employees.

If the tolls for using the information highway are too high, interactivity may widen the gap between the haves and the have-nots, the rich and wired vs. the poor and unplugged. Some plans call for charging hundreds of dollars for the "black box" in the first phase of interactivity. Other plans are cheaper, but would still levy a fee for services used. One suggestion is to make much of the data free to all users, similar to the way public libraries lend out books. If that happens, some experts think that the new technology may eventually have a democratizing effect. Access to a universal information library could equalize opportunity. "It's a shift from elitism to populism," says Bernard Luskin, president of Philips Interactive Media of America.

In the next few years there's likely to be considerable debate over the realistic presentation of violence in the new generation of video games, which will include viewer-directed movies. It's one thing to zap a cartoon mutant in an arcade, quite another when clicking on the screen means shooting bullets and spilling blood from a human. Would you want your child--or any child--to play that game?

At this point, so much is still speculation. While the big players and major thinkers spin predictions, it's quite possible that some entrepreneur in a garage is coming up with a really new idea that *ill forever alter the best-laid plans. "What we are looking at now is just the first generation," says Stephen Benton of MIT's Media Lab. In that case, the best advice is: hang on for the ride.

THE ULTIMATE SOUNDAND-LIGHT SHOW-A MARRIAGE OF TEXT, PICTURES AND SOUND, USUALLY INVOLVING SEVERAL PIECES OF GEAR. SEE IT, HEAR IT, FEEL It

COMPACT DISCS WITH READONLY-MEMORY THAT HOLD VIDEO CLIPS, MUSIC AND TEXT. SPECIALIZED PLAYERS LET USERS BROWSE THROUGH THE DATA ON SCREENS.

COMPUTER PROGRAMS SIMULATE THE SIGHTS, SOUNDS AND FEEL OF IMAGINARY WORLDS. GOGGLES OR CLOVES MAKE THE IMAGES SEEM ALMOST REAL.

DIAGRAM: IN THE HOUSEHOLD OF HTE FUTURE, ALL WILL DEPEND UPON YOUR CONNECTIONS b

The key to the new world. Once connected to your gear; capable of inundating your house with data, transmitted through glass at the speed of light.

Current images look like early Chaplin flicks, but the fiber-optic future promises clearer pictures. Don't worry about dressing up every time the phone rings; optional Ions covers will ensure privacy.

With a mighty computer and New Age goggles, proponents say you'll eventually be able to simulate sex, drugs, rock and roll, and just about every other human activity.

Your lightweight computer, the size of a notebook, will carry as much power as the clunky desktop models of early eras. Work will never be more than a keystroke away.

Be your own editor. Tired of old plots? Click on a new one. Rhett stays with Scarlett. Sharon Stone keeps her pants on.

Video, text and sound in one disc will bring you better games and encyclopedias.

HD stands for high definition. In plain English, your picture will be much sharper. For manufacturers, a sure winner. For viewers, an even better toy

Software will allow your kids to explore freely, following tangents that catch their fancy, then returning to the main curriculum. Term papers will never be the same. Good, too, for parents seeking retraining. b

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