PCs, TV and the Internet
by David M. Schwartz, CEO, ImaginOn, Inc.  18 October 1999

Signs of Convergence
For people who own both a personal computer and a TV, PCs and television are mutually exclusive.  Time spent working with, or playing on a computer is time not spent on other activities, including TV viewing.  Consequently, PC usage is eroding TV viewership more and more every year.  The Internet has exacerbated this trend by adding two new "killer apps" to PCs: Web browsing and email.  And increasingly, Web pages include video clips or live video windows.  TV broadcasters and cable TV operators have responded to this challenge with more variety of content, an increase in the number of  TV channels, and by offering Internet access via cable modems.  Two of the possible outcomes of this competition are: TV goes digital and interactive to deliver the Internet, or Internet Web sites deliver television programming.  Either way, the functionality of both the Internet and television will be unified in one box in the foreseeable future.

In parallel with this unification trend between the Internet and TV, a number of other features traditionally associated with personal computers are moving into the living room, and traditional functions of living room electronics are moving into the PC.  For example, until recently, hard disk data storage was something found only in computers.  Now, with hard disk based home video recorders, they're invading the living room.  Videogames are now just as popular on PCs as they are on videogame consoles.  Your living room may have a DVD player for watching movies, though the DVD drive in any PC will play them, and audio CDs.

PC makers have made several attempts to unify home electronics into their all-in-one machines that sport huge video monitors, wireless keyboards, built-in TV tuners, hi-fi audio speakers, and so on.  Those hybrids have not met with much success.  Partly for cost reasons, and partly because there always seems to be some part missing from either the PC perspective or the home electronics viewpoint.  Could be the audio tape deck missing in one implementation, or the limited video screen resolution in another.

Peek Into the Future
Let's imagine what functions a fully integrated future home entertainment/information system will contain five years from now:

10,000 channels of digital TV and 10,000 channels of digital radio
While 10,000 or more channels of digital TV and digital radio may seem excessive, it will occur naturally as the direct outcome of the declining cost of content (TV and radio programs) production coupled with the ever increasing fragmentation of audience interests.  You may not want to watch the Marlin Fishing Channel, but somebody else does.  Nineteenth Century Five String Banjo music may not be your favorite, but maybe you love four string banjo music, and so on.  At some point, infrastructure and bandwidth costs will become low enough that any website owner who wants to provide a video stream on a topic, no matter how obscure, will do so.

Over the air broadcast analog TV
Consider these channels a legacy of the past that will gradually morph into an all-digital system.  On the way there, we are likely to see digital TV sharing this bandwidth.  Eventually, owners of analog-only TVs will need converter boxes if they want to keep using their old TV sets.

61 Cable TV channels (possibly among the 10,000 digital channels)
No existing channels will be lost as we transition into the all-digital era.   As with analog broadcast TV, it is likely that future digital cable boxes will continue to support old analog TVs.

 Large and wide screen HDTV/XVGA resolution
Big pictures are here to stay.  Flat screens, projection devices and vacuum tubes will all have their place in the market.  Manufacturers will resolve the "pixel geometry problem" with auto-sensing circuits, so it won't matter if the source is rectangular pixels, like today's TV, or square pixels, like today's PCs.  HDTV resolution, at a minimum of 640 by 384 pixels is already supported by some TVs shipping today.  True XVGA resolution at 1024 by 768 is supported by some multi-function TV/PC displays and many PC wall projections systems.

Voice command interface
Continuous natural speech can now be correctly recognized 99.9% of the time by PC software, after a few training sessions.  This will improve, as will the ability of these systems to filter out ambient noise.  Voice command for simple tasks like selecting channels on TV or programming a VCR is already a reality.  Keyboards won't be needed for word processing, soon.  Voice-driven spreadsheets will follow a few years later.

Interactive programming
Video on demand, where you pick your TV show and see it now, is on the horizon.  Today, this feature is available in some cable TV systems on a pay per view basis, with multiple starting times per program, and no "pause" button.  Within a year, it is likely that true random access to programs, with pause capability, will be offered in some markets by cable TV operators.

Digital video recording
The demise of tape has been predicted repeatedly over the past 15 years, and hasn't happened, yet.  Tape has gone digital, is smaller than ever, and its cost per gigabyte of storage or hour of TV keeps going lower.  On the other hand, people have been spoiled by the fast random access of DVD, CD and PC hard drives, which are also plummeting in price.  The real tape-killer for video storage is probably re-writable DVD, which is already working in electronics labs.  Look for it in the consumer marketplace in 5 years.  Meanwhile, hard drives in combination with digital tape will fill the need for instant access storage and camcorder compatibility.

Multi-channel audio recording and playback
Five-speaker surround sound systems are quickly becoming the standard for high fidelity home audio.  Top of the line PCs from the major manufacturers are shipped with surround sound or other 3-D sound decoding in software, along with three speakers to deliver it.  Most audio recordings made on both PCs and home recording decks are stereo, but on home systems the audio is generally on cassette tape, while on PCs the recording is to hard disk.  Most CD recording decks are disk drives mounted in PCs, not stand alone home recorders.  As surround sound and other multi-channel techniques become "standard", the software that synthesizes multi-channel from stereo will be added to home systems.  Likewise, the software needed to decode MP3 compressed digital audio files will be needed in the home system.  The most practical way to deliver this sort of recording processing power and multi-format capability is to integrate it into a computer-like disk-based device.

Hi Fi audio amplifier and speakers
Most home entertainment systems have at least 100 Watts of audio amplification and two speakers.  Within a few years, driven by the spread of "home theaters", multi-channel audio systems with 3 or more speakers will become the de facto standard.

DVD/CD player
Most U.S. households with a personal computer now have two CD players: the CD ROM drive in their PC, and the CD deck on the audio system.  DVD playback decks are still relatively rare.  In 2000, as DVD ROM replaces CD ROM as the standard "ROM" drive in PCs, DVD movie playback capability will arrive in homes via the PC, not the living room entertainment center.  Then, in 2001 with next generation videogame consoles based on DVD, the DVD enters the living room inside yet another package.

The U.S. market for videogames is split between games that run on PCs and games that run on dedicated consoles.  In many cases, the same game is available both ways.  Given that the videogame industry now rivals the movie industry in annual revenues, it is safe to assume that videogames are here to stay.

Interactive movies
Movies that the viewer controls in terms of action sequence and outcome have generally done poorly in the marketplace.  Nonetheless, both videogame and movie companies continue to roll out new ones at the rate of about two per year.  With PC performance rising, and CD/DVD production costs falling, this genre may yet prove to be a winner, at least in some niche markets like adult content.

The World Wide Web
The Web is already in about 30 million U.S. homes, and growing rapidly.  Within five years, virtually every U.S. home that has TV will also have Web access.

Intelligent Agent (knowledge finder/manager)
With hundreds of millions of Web pages on the Internet, and over 30,000 new pages being added every day, finding the best pages for a given topic is a major task.  Intelligent agent software that can search, download, format and catalog Web page data without user supervision will be as indispensable as word processing software.

Productivity software
The software almost everybody uses at the office; word processing, email, spreadsheets, and calendar, will become totally interwoven with the home entertainment and information center.  Voice recognition will make the keyboard optional for most casual tasks.

Video conferencing
That old chestnut, the videophone, finally dropped into the office PC.  As long as there is a digital TV connection with an "upstream", or sending capability of at least 128 kbps, the home videophone becomes a software feature of the system; just add a camcorder.  Or, if there is no camcorder handy, a $50 USB port video camera will do.

Some cable TV operators are already offering telephone service.  On PCs, Internet telephony sounds terrible today, but it does work.  There is no practical reason why telephony can't be a basic function of the system via either a cable TV service, or the Internet connection.  Some may remember the TVs in the 1980s that had a speakerphone built in and a telephone button on the remote control.   In the next incarnation, you may just have to say, "answer the phone" to the TV.

Building It
Now, how close are we to building the system described above, even if cost was not a barrier?  In analyzing this problem, it is useful to factor out all the functions that can be handled today in a very well equipped PC

  • About 200 channels of digital TV (low resolution, via the Internet)
  • About 300 channels of digital radio (low fidelity, via the Internet)
  • Over the air broadcast analog TV (via bus card add-in)
  • XVGA resolution screen
  • Digital video recording (using a Firewire or USB interface to a camera)
  • Multi-channel audio recording and playback (disk and solid state)
  • Voice command interface (voice recognition - no typing)
  • DVD/CD player
  • Videogames (software-based)
  • Interactive movies (CD-based)
  • The World Wide Web (via LAN, or dial-up modem)
  • Intelligent Agent (knowledge finder/ manager)
  • Productivity software (word processing, email, spreadsheets, calendar)
  • Video conferencing
  • Telephony (Internet protocol, or voice over modem technology)

That leaves us with the following pieces missing from the PC-based system:

  • Over 9000 channels of high resolution digital TV
  • Over 9000 channels of high fidelity digital radio
  • 61 Cable TV channels
  • Large and wide screen HDTV resolution
  • Interactive programming
  • Hi Fi audio amplifier and speakers

Many living rooms already have:

  • 61 Cable TV channels
  • Large and wide screen TV
  • Hi Fi audio amplifier and speakers
  • Videogame console

Assuming the parts already in the living room can be added one way or another to the PC, above, there remain four key elements completely missing from our hypothetical future system:

Over 9000 channels of high resolution digital TV
Over 9000 channels of high fidelity digital radio
HDTV capability
Interactive programming

All four of these items are well within a three-year horizon in major markets.  If the HDTV format gains popularity, and XVGA conversion/compatibility is built in, that "wide TV" could potentially solve the display problem.  Today's XVGA PC projection systems already have the resolution for HDTV, but lack the tuner, or an input from one.  The HDTV feature could be provided from either the TV hardware or the PC hardware side of the industry.

With the advent of Internet TV, any Web page anywhere can become a kind of TV station.  With a digital video camera on a Firewire or USB cable, or a microphone connected to an audio card, anybody can create website media content in a matter of minutes.  Quality will certainly vary widely, but quantity of content will cease to be an issue.  The 10,000 channels number used above as part of our system requirements is highly arbitrary.  We may well see 20,000 or 100,000 media channels popping up in the next few years, if the bandwidth becomes available on the Internet to support them.  Internet video broadcasts in the past year that required a 34 kbps channel to the viewer were limited to fewer than 150,000 viewers, due to gridlock-like network conditions.  Assuming 384 kbps as the minimum data rate for a commercial quality Internet television channel, the problem will get even worse. 

 As for interactive programming allowing you to pick your show anytime, that is pretty much the way the Internet works already, if you can find the Web page with the content you want.  Web pages that act purely as directories of Web sites providing media content are already springing up to alleviate this problem.

A single home system that fully merges television programming, home theater, games, telephony, productivity software and the Internet is on the horizon.  Most of the bits and pieces needed on the hardware side are done.  Better high bandwidth connectivity is being installed at a rapid rate, and the software needed to glue it all together is available, though just barely, in PC operating systems.  Anyone with some technical savvy, a high speed Internet connection and about $12,000 in components can build their own unified system today.   In just a few years, your new home theater system or PC will probably have it all, for less than $2,000.