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Excite@Home expands TV horizon

It's not quite ready for prime time, but @Home TV is debuting in field tests and will have a commercial launch later this year.

The interactive TV format that Excite@Home is demonstrating opens with a video window dominating the upper right corner of the TV screen, with a menu of options on the left. Options include the TV Guide electronic program guide, shopping and mail, and Excite TV. Final versions of the service will likely employ a variety of program guides.

E-mail, chat, weather and e-commerce functions appear in a window directly below the video window on the TV screen. Alternately, these interactive functions can be overlaid in a full-screen translucent display with video channels appearing behind it.

Internet sites can either share the screen with the video channels in a window or overlay the video.

"It looks and acts and feels like TV, not like the Internet on the TV medium," said Excite@Home Vice President of Engineering Jeff Huber. "We want to keep TV as the primary experience."

The format certainly presents a TV environment, but the overlay creates a murky TV picture under whatever alternate function is in use. It is hard to discern what is on the screen, but the idea, according to Huber, is to let the audio track cue the user to refocusing on the TV image at crucial points during a sports event, for example.

A set of basic interactive services, including e-mail and e-commerce, will be marketed in digital TV packages for $10 a month, according to Huber, with a full-blown service including Internet access for $14.95. Trials are tentatively slated to start following deployment of digital set-tops by Excite@Home' s MSO partners, sometime this summer.

Last week's extension of the relationship between AT & T and Excite@Home included a commitment to deliver advanced TV services. Field testing of interactive TV service will probably start within six months, according to Executive Vice President of Business Development Mark Stevens.

A spokeswoman for Cox Communications said Cox still intends to begin trials on interactive TV, probably including the Excite@Home offering, during the second half of the year.