Viewers find a voice
Next year will see the launch of several interactive television services which could turn couch potatoes into active participants. Companies such as BT and Cambridge-based Online Media are already testing interactive services, and they have now been joined by a new rival Two Way television. The service is being offered by London-based Interactive Network, and claims to be simpler, cheaper and easier to use than other interactive systems.
Two Way uses a decoder box which plugs into the television and telephone line (the telephone can be used as normal). Viewers use a four-button remote handset to control the system and move an on-screen cursor, which allows access to captions or graphics superimposed on the top or bottom of the screen.
Ordinary television sets ignore the extra information, but Two Way viewers can see graphics and captions with their television pictures. Someone watching a mainstream sports programme, for example, could call up biographical information about a player, or the match statistics. If you missed your favourite soap opera, you could read an update on the plot, while games fans could take part in quiz programmes, with their answers being sent from the remote handset back to the television channel. If you wanted to take part in tele-voting, there would be no need to pick up a phone, you just register your vote from the handset.
Interactive television has been described as a technology looking for a market. The argument is that most people simply want to sit in front of the television and be entertained, but Peter Cowie, Interactive Network's marketing director, disagrees: "People like to shout out answers while watching a programme or vote on an issue. The benefit of our system is that you don't have to change your normal television viewing habits."
Two Way TV is being tested in around 50 homes in the Central Television region and a full town trial takes place in Oxford in February next year.
Interactive Network plans to broadcast around 20 to 30 hours of material each week. The decoder box (which comes with four remote handsets) will cost around Pounds 180 to buy, with an additional monthly subscription of Pounds 6, and it it will be available for rental at Pounds 12 per month. There are also plans to use Two Way TV for home shopping and interactive advertising.
Two Way TV will initially be aimed at popular programmes such as sport, soaps and games shows, but Peter Cowie says the company is also keen to develop interactive educational programmes: "We want to bring school programming alive and our system could be used to help children learn to read or offer extra factual material. There are lots of learning opportunities."