Set Makers Dot 'I' For Integrated ITV

As interactive-television applications and services continue to be rolled out at a snail's pace in the U.S., television manufacturers have stepped up to the plate, fusing interactive elements into selected sets.

Princeton Graphics Systems is the latest to do so, shipping a high-end, 36-inch set with an ITV platform built in.

On the other end of the spectrum, Telecruz Technologies — which provides the ITV platform and silicon for Zenith Electronics Corp. and Panasonic Consumer Electronics —is talking with original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) about bringing 13- and 14-inch interactive TVs to market by the summer.

And at the silicon level, IBM Corp. and Mitel Corp. are collaborating on system-on-a-chip products aimed to facilitate the integration of digital TVs and advanced digital set-top boxes. The duo will first set their sights on Europe.

Despite the flurry of activity, backers of the integrated TV/set-top box face a hurdle, warned Microprocessor Report senior analyst Markus Levy.

Consumers typically hold onto their TV sets for 10 to 12 years, Levy said, but set-top boxes are usually replaced much sooner. With new features such as personal video recording and hard drives added to the next-generation of set-tops, Levy asked, "Who knows where it will be two years from now?"

As a result, integrated-TV manufacturers risk creating products in which the set-top portion would be obsolete before the TV-set component completes its life cycle.

On the other hand, the mix of interactivity and Web surfing on the new integrated sets may keep consumers happy for the life of their TVs, Levy speculated.

Despite the potential quandary, Princeton, Telecruz and their partners are moving full steam ahead with integrated ITV developments.

The Princeton Ai3.6HD TV, which sells for $3,500, is a high-definition-capable TV and computer that houses a cathode-ray-tube monitor. The CRT screen supports the 480-progressive, 1080-interlaced and 720p digital formats, in addition to VGA, SVGA and XGA computer graphics.

The box is integrated with Ch.1 Inc.'s thin-client ITV software platform, which bundles a high- resolution Web browser with electronic-mail, chat, channel-guide and commerce applications. The TV features a 56 kilobit-per-second modem and Ethernet hook-ups for broadband connectivity.

A wireless-infrared (IR) repeater, or dongle, attached to a port on the back of the set can simultaneously connect to an adjacent set-top box and VCR that supports IR technology. The TV also features Ch.1's integrated remote control, keyboard and mouse.

Princeton has designed large-screen monitors for PC manufacturers, including Gateway Inc., and is using that experience to merge digital, high-definition TV with Web browsing, said Rey Roque, vice president of development for Ch.1, a Princeton subsidiary that is seeking licensees for its ITV service.

The Princeton set is not meant to replace the PC, Roque noted.

"IP [Internet protocol] provides a brand-new platform for us to provide navigation tools to the TV," he said.

Through a Web-based channel guide, the system associates a Web address with each channel. When a viewer tunes to Discovery Channel, for instance, an "@" symbol appears on screen, serving as a hyperlink to the channel's Web site. By the same token, an "i" pops up if there are interactive features associated with a particular show.

Ch.1's platform also allows for "picture-in-portal" display, which opens a TV window on top of Web content.

During set-up, Roque explained, the TV connects to Ch.1 and a localized program guide is compiled, based on the user's zip code and service provider. The Ch.1 interface allows for seven "drawers" of Web and TV "favorites" to be designated for individual users in a household.

Ch.1 service costs $18.95 per month and includes dial-up Internet access. Four additional users can be added for $3 more per month. If users subscribe to another dial-up or broadband service provider, Ch.1 will lop $10 from its monthly fee.

The interactive features of the Ai3.6HD are powered by National Semiconductor Corp.'s x86-based geode central-processing unit and will run the QNX operating system. However, an update to be offered in July or August will be based on the open-source Linux OS.

The QNX OS, said Roque, includes an older version of the Spyglass Web browser (now owned by OpenTV Corp.).

Roque said the x86 platform packs enough processing horsepower to support streaming-media applications.

Future enhancements to the Princeton set may include universal serial bus (USB) ports to link with handheld devices or digital cameras, and support for Advanced Television Enhancement Forum (ATVEF) and Wink Communications Inc.-enabled content.

A browser update is also in the works. Ch.1 is evaluating its options, including support for the "Opera" and "Gecko" browsers.

Roque noted that Princeton TV's architecture allows for future updates to the operating system and software via downloads from Ch.1's servers, thus supporting more multimedia applications as they emerge.

The performance of the Princeton TV screen is as important as bringing interactivity to the digital-TV format, according to Roque. Princeton's monitor can display high resolution, 800-by-600-pixel-size Web content in high resolution, due in part to a 40-megahertz video amplifier.

In February, the company announced an agreement to integrate its platform with a high definition-ready, 27-inch Internet TV from Sylvania Computer Product (a division of Funai Corp.), which will sell for about $900. While specialty and home-theater retailers will most likely carry the Princeton set, Roque said he hopes mass-market merchants will sell Sylvania's offering.

Ch.1 will soon announce another licensing deal with an "emerging consumer-electronics" player," Roque said.

The key differentiator between the Ch.1 platform and the Telecruz platform, according to Roque, is Ch.1's emphasis on digital TV.

"We're enabling a much richer experience through digital TV," he said, suggesting consumers might avoid "buying into obsolescence" by combining the Web with digital TV.

Telecruz, which pioneered the integration of an ITV platform with the TV set, has attracted an impressive list of interactive applications and features to its platform. It has crafted alliances with OpenTV, EarthLink Inc., AT&T WorldNet Service and Spiderdance Inc., among others.

Telecruz in January said it would work to integrate its platform with 3Com Corp.'s "Kerbango" Internet radio service.

And the company is gearing up for the fall release of the Panasonic ITV set. It's also in the qualification phase with a "large OEM," said Telecruz vice president of marketing George Brecht. He wouldn't name the manufacturer, citing nondisclosure reasons.

Telecruz also has deals with TV-manufacturing customers in China and India, a second market targeted for combined Internet content and TV programming.

A third market for the technology is in smaller, connected TVs that serve as either the second or third sets in a household or as information appliances, said Brecht. While Brecht wouldn't quote price points for the 13- to 14-inch connected TVs, he said, "we want to make interactivity a feature" of TVs, as screen size and other enhancements are today.

Accordingly, "the premium you'd expect to for interactivity is $100 or less," which might make the added functionality an impulse buy, he said.

Next-generation chip sets from Telecruz will house VBI (vertical-blanking interval) decoders to read ATVEF triggers that can be activated in parallel with closed-captioned content, said Brecht. He expects the silicon to support ATVEF content by this fall.

Although the Telecruz-enabled Zenith TV was scheduled to hit the market in the second quarter of this year, ISP-related issues will delay the release until fall, said Zenith corporate vice president John Taylor.

Despite the holdup, "we view this as an exciting new category, not to replace the PC, but to use Internet content to enhance the TV-viewing experience," said Taylor.

Zenith will explore other interactive platforms, he added.

"High-definition is clearly a focus" of development, Taylor said.