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De-bugging e-TV

Results from the Public Broadcasting Service's month-long trial of enhanced digital-TV service using the new ATVEF standard have so far been mixed.

The trial, which runs through May 1, is making "tremendous progress" but has had some difficulties, concedes Deron Triff, director of business development at PBS Interactive.

"Not all the various software and hardware would recognize each other at first," he says. "The 'lock size,' the amount of data carouseling out in packages, has to be worked out. But these are not major concerns. We'll work on them."

PBS launched the trial in late March, using four episodes of its regular weekly series Scientific American Frontiers, hosted by Alan Alda. The trial is aimed at testing the new Advanced Television Enhancement Forum (ATVEF) Transport B Type specification for broadcasting enhanced TV over broadcasters' digital TV stations.

The enhanced service embeds related Web-like text and graphics in the programs prior to their digital broadcast. Equipped with either Zenith's ADS-2001 set-top box (for TV reception) or a Wavexpress TVTonic PC card (for PC reception), trial participants should be able to call up the extra information by clicking on an icon while watching the programs. About 100 homes have the set-top; 50 have the PC cards.

Each of the four episodes includes national data from PBS, along with local data from each of the seven participating public stations in Washington; Portland, Ore.; Trenton, N.J.; Lewiston, Maine; Minneapolis/St. Paul; Philadelphia; and San Francisco.

Lew Zager, technology vice president at WETA(TV) Washington, says he was able to successfully receive the first broadcast—The Bionic Man—on March 27 via an indoor antenna at his northern Virginia home. And with the help of the Wavexpress card, he clicked on the icon and found the extra data.

Another trial participant, who asks to remain anonymous (some participants signed non-disclosure agreements), says, however, that the first enhanced broadcast "half-worked, half-didn't." The participant, whose home receives the digital terrestrial signal of WMEB Lewiston, uses an outdoor antenna and a Zenith set-top.

Brian Hickey, Wavexpress marketing vice president, says that terrestrial "reception issues still need to be worked out" in Portland, Washington and Trenton, where Wavexpress cards are being used. "We heard that it worked fine, not flawless but fine for a first run at it."

Wavexpress is using the EMBASSY (Embedded Application Secure System) chip from parent Wave Systems for the trial's commerce transactions and for security. The chip is not embedded in the tuner card; it uses a USB computer plug-in.

Triveni Digital is providing its SkyScraper broadcast data systems for the trials, which allow content provider PBS to insert and manage enhanced data on a secure basis.

Other key players: Agilent Technologies, for its enhanced underwriting messages; Chedd-Angier Production Co.; and Nielsen Media Research, which will soon begin providing confidential feedback from participants.

John Taylor, Zenith public affairs vice president, says his company's set-tops, for the most part, appeared to work well, judging from the limited feedback he received.

He says the trial is "contributing to the continued evolution of DTV by showing the flexibility and capabilities of the ATVEF. That there have been problems is not unexpected, he notes. "That's why they call it a trial."