Things We Need: "On-Demand Television" and "Multimedia Video Conferencing"

by Steven Aoki
November 30, 1998
GRC 433 (Emerging Digital Trends)--Roger Siminoff
Cal Poly State University, San Luis Obispo

As a dedicated television viewer, I tape record a lot of shows to accommodate my busy schedule. Hence, I encounter many inconveniences and frustrations in the way cable companies broadcast their shows. My biggest frustration of all time involves interruptions in my programming, especially for shows that do not rebroadcast. Recent examples include cable company technical difficulties (I lost that last "X-Files" prologue) and special news reports for non-urgent matters (I missed a climactic scene in "Law and Order" due to a Santa Barbara fire). Historically, I've lost many shows to pre-empting, power blackouts, and incorrect VCR settings. One time I missed all three rebroadcasts of the same episode for those three reasons.

Another problem involves the limitation of current analog mediums. Videotapes degrade faster, limit people to linear viewing, and take up a lot of space. I've flooded my apartment with videotape archives that I can not bring myself to erase (after all, imagine the difficulty in trying to catch the same program again on TV). I've also worn out many VCRs.

Negroponte mentioned one concept that revolutionized my whole way of thinking: that most TV shows do not need real-time broadcasting. This led me to brainstorm a new system to capitalize the advantages of digital transmission over analog cables. We need an "on-demand" television network that will allow viewers to "pull in" their favorite programming to watch at their own convenience, instead of TV networks and cable companies deciding for us. We need customized commercials that appeal to us based on the programs we enjoy. These commercials should base themselves on e-commerce: allowing viewers to order off the TV in the same convenient way that we order off the World Wide Web--perhaps to the point where we can easily send pre-programmed shipping and credit card information.

I foresee a pay-per-view arrangement. Cable companies or TV networks could have huge databases comprised of RAIDs. These databases will house every movie and TV broadcast that we can order at a whim. No longer will historic TV moments disappear from our culture forever. Each order can come with either imbedded commercials or "pull" advertisements. Each order can self-delete at a designated time. Thus, companies can charge more for broadcasts or movies we wish to own. To accommodate all the digital bits, the general public will require voluminous personal hard drives or a supply of writeable CD-ROMs.

This digital environment will improve upon the current analog technology in various ways. Jumping back and forth, pausing, or searching will no longer strain the VCR. The digital files will contain "commingled bits" that optimize searching or "video footnoting" (related information imbedded in the scenes). Digital quality looks clearer and does not degrade as awfully as analog signals or videotapes. And, I presume that it's easier to copy-protect or erase digital files.

Archiving the programming may constitute our greatest obstacle. In my understanding, video consumes a lot of space. We'll either need lots of hard drive space or a restriction of our databases to recent programming. I'm hoping this will be temporary until TV networks shift their paradigms and realize the benefits of our on-demand system. The system will resolve their tragic programming feuds. TV networks tend to pit their best shows against each other and end up hurting themselves. As far as I know, this type of competition does not benefit viewers for it saves them no money. It also forces viewers like me to program our fallible VCRs. Why prolong such a lose-lose-lose scenario? If TV networks let us watch what we want whenever we want it, they will benefit from greater commercial exposure and we will benefit from the convenience.

I predict that this "on-demand" mentality will inevitably permeate all aspects of life. As Prof. Siminoff mentioned, we may receive all media from one line: newspapers, magazines, television, movies, telephone, Internet--whenever we want to use them. And perhaps this line will go into one supercomputer with multiple, pleasing monitors and countless peripherals such as a speaker phone or phone receiver, digital printers, video cameras, and speakers.

This would lead to a communication device that I would like to see happen. I picture several monitors or sections of a monitor in one communication device. Each screen's video feed could be customized. For example, screen one: video conferencing with one or more people; screen two: showing them files, Web pages, or multimedia from your computer's O/S desktop; screen three: playing them video and/or audio from a videotape or CD-ROM; screen four: scrawling a map or diagram for them using an electric pen and drawing pad. Their screens would mirror yours in real-time.

This device would integrate and simplify all the complications I face in communication. I long to see my father's computer screen every time he calls me on the phone asking vague questions about his Windows system. A couple weeks ago, to send my friend a home movie from my camcorder, I had to buy a new tape, record all two hours onto it, e-mail him for his mailing address, and then package the tape at the post office. If only I could simply play it for him so he could record it on his end.

Recently, a workshop applicant asked my father for directions. So my father drew a map in Adobe Photoshop. Later, I FTP'ed it to my web site and transcribed his oral directions into HTML for the applicant to access. While this strategy's efficiency surpassed sending the map by post office, I still found it inferior to human interaction for one primary reason: the applicant could not directly interact with my father in a speedy question-and-answer session. We had to flood the application with a blanket solution in the hopes that it would address all of his confusions. Real-time oral interaction with a monitor representing a piece of paper could simulate this.

I predict that the future of communication will accelerate following the expansion of global digital line networking. Faster, better, and cheaper digital equipment seems inevitable--on-demand, real-time applications seem just around the corner.