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dot life Monday, 1 October, 2001, 13:56 GMT 14:56 UK
Turning on to interaction
Youngsters watch Andy Pandy on their new-fangled television set, BBC
Once upon a time, the only way to interact with your TV was to get up and switch it off gloom is still everywhere. But companies behind interactive television seem to have learned the lessons, writes BBC News Online technology correspondent Mark Ward

The roar of hype and headlines surrounding technologies like the internet, mobile phones - and the possible marriage of the two - often drown out news about interactive television.

But, in the UK, iTV (as it is known, and it is no relation to ITV) is quietly wooing consumers, slowly starting to change how they regard their TV set, and what they do with it.

But perhaps most significantly, now that the gloss is chipping off dot.coms and mobile phone firms, iTV is showing how money can be made out of these new technologies.

A survey by research firm Jupiter MMXI has revealed that 23% of British households use interactive TV services, a little less than the 32% that own digital TVs. But by 2005, Jupiter MMXI expects the percentage of those interacting with their TV to more than double.

Closing portals

But it looks like consumers will be doing very different things with their TVs than was originally thought.

"When interactive services were first switched on, it was thought that most of the consumers' attention would be focused in the walled garden or portal," said Dan Stevenson, an iTV expert at Jupiter MMXI.

Dune buggy from Rage's Wild, Wild Racing computer game, Rage
Games maker Rage has signed a deal with BSkyB
Now, said Mr Stevenson, the focus had changed and broadcasters were concentrating on the electronic programme guide. The proliferation of channels has made this navigation tool much more important. This also revealed that TV was still very much about programmes rather than anything more net-like, said Mr Stevenson.

A similar change has been seen on the net, and the fledgling services now starting to be available on mobile phones.

A few years ago, net portals abounded. They were sites that brought together everything that dot.coms thought visitors needed. But it became obvious that people preferred to go to sites they already knew, had found themselves, or had been told about by friends. People didn't like being told what to do.

Learning this lesson, broadcasters are adapting iTV to what consumers are doing with it rather than forcing them into a narrow range of choices. This has meant changes to the set-top boxes that make the interactivity possible.

Boxing clever

"Two years ago, there were grand plans to have a very expensive set-top box in which everything was converged - the telephone, the internet and the TV," said Mickey Kalifa, UK general manager of OpenTV, which makes the software sitting inside many set-top boxes.

"The broadcasters have realised that it does not make sense to offer a home that traditionally only spends 5-10 per month on TV and telephone, a box that costs 500," he said.

Now, a range of set-top boxes are becoming available that have different capabilities depending on how interactive consumers want to be. And interactive content surrounding sporting events, such as that provided by the BBC during Wimbledon, is apparently helping to convince customers that it's worth keeping their digital subscriptions.

The broadcasters still have an eye on the "convergent future", however. Many of Sky's set-top boxes have a Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) port on the back that can link to a high-speed net service. Many of the set-top boxes supplied by NTL have a cable modem inside that could do the same job.

The only part of the net that iTV consumers still seem to be interested in is the sending and receiving of e-mail. Now, some services are starting to bring in the ability to swap SMS messages between phones and set-top boxes.

Big Brother contestant Helen Adams PA
Big Brother was a big hit with interactive viewers
Sky has also launched its Sky+ service which uses a set-top box with a 40 gigabyte hard disk inside that lets people record digital satellite programmes without video tape.

How people can interact with their TV is changing too.

"We're all trying to figure out ways in which we can create an experience that will make someone keep watching TV and we will make some revenue on," said Mr Kalifa.

Gambling is proving a big draw with many interactive TV viewers, especially services like that offered by Global Interactive Gambling that let punters place their bets on the sporting action as it unfolds, rather than just on the outcome of a whole match, Test series or tournament.

Perhaps unsurprisingly popular programmes prove big hits too. More than seven million people voted by phone and interactive TV during this year's Big Brother. The event proved very lucrative for the TV companies.

The games on interactive TV are gaining fans among both consumers and companies. Egg has signed a deal with Static 2358, a maker of interactive TV programmes, to develop a game on the PlayJam channel that will showcase the brand of the financial service. Playjam had about 89 million players per month on Sky alone, said Jasper Smith, founder of Static 2358.

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See also:

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