Toshiba Winks into interaction

Toshiba America Consumer Products has announced it is taking the plunge and manufacturing TV sets equipped with the Wink interactivity technology, with plans to have them available for sale in the U.S. by next summer.

The Wink technology, developed by Alameda, Calif.-based Wink Communications, is built around using the broadcast media’s vertical blanking interval (VBI) — in other words, the “empty” space between each individual image beamed onto the TV screen — to introduce additional programming or information onto TV screens that are made visible (through a set-top box or, in Toshiba’s case, by electronics built into the set itself) and useable by consumers.

“Wink-enhanced” programming is already available in Japan via the state broadcaster NHK and other private broadcasters, and the Wink system is used to conduct instant polling, purchase products, offer background character and plot information, and a variety of other uses.

Toshiba’s Japanese division has already sold thousands of Winkified TV sets, as have some of the company’s competitors: Sony Corp., Japanese Victor Co. and Matsushita Electric Industrial Corp. But Toshiba is a true Wink believer. “Wink is a powerful feature that will help enhance traditional TV viewing habits,” remarked Toshiba America prexy Toshihide Yasui. “With (Wink), true interactivity is as easy as adjusting the volume level on your TV set.” All Wink enabling is, in fact, done with the supplied remote control.

And one of the Wink system’s most powerful selling points is that, if the decoding electronics are built into the set, no monthly set-top box or programming fees are demanded. The Wink-encoded content comes with the broadcast signal (whether analog or digital, normal-aspect or HDTV) and is ultimately determined by the producer(s) of the TV show being viewed. It need no phone line or modem, and has no connectivity to the Internet, at least not at present.

NBC has been an early adopter of the system in the U.S., promising to broadly expand the extent of its Winkified programming throughout 1998. Additionally, the Nashville Network, the Weather Channel and Court TV are all currently broadcasting Winkified programming and will likewise increase their commitment to Wink next year.

Toshiba reps say the Wink decoding technology will be built into a fairly wide swath of models, ranging from 20-inch sets to 35-inch megamonitors.

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