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Orbiting a digital world

The buzz at this year’s Digital World conference is that the convergence of communications and entertainment has accelerated with the speed of a bullet train. So many deals are being made between likely (and unlikely) partners, said conference founder Jonathan Seybold, that “the progress in the last year has been unbelievable.”

Where this is leading is open to scrutiny, but a DW is a place where all information, from text to moving images, can be transmitted, shared and altered by anyone who has a receiver. How much it’ll cost to play and who’ll own the content and distribution are still being hashed out.

The gathering this week through Saturday at the Beverly Hilton has developed a momentum of its own as well. For one, it’s become the platform for Apple Computer to make a series of product announcements, including today’s formal declaration that it is in the multimedia publishing business.

In his opening remarks at Digital World, Apple chairman John Sculley publicly unveiled EZTV, the company’s version of an interactive TV interface. With an infrared remote control, a user can click through an on-screen programming menu. Similar in capability to technology StarSight Telecast Inc. is developing for Viacom and what Microsoft Corp. has been showing for more than a year.

Although EZTV is a year old, it hasn’t yet been snatched up as an interface by cable companies. According to sources, Apple was a contender as the on-screen menu in Time Warner’s Orlando system but missed the boat.

EZTV could easily be put on a set of computer chips and placed into a TV set-top box. With Sculley now wearing the chairman title, having given up the CEO spot this week, he will focus on broad strategic deals. “He can now be what he’s always wanted to be, a super agent,” quipped one analyst.

When asked if Apple will do a deal with a large communications player by year-end, Sculley acknowledged “it’s something we need to do.”

Where Sculley offers a new twist is a downscale notion of interactive television programming dubbed “Virtual Shopping.”

Here, viewers can choose to make a shopping foray to several malls, from the Ginza to Stanford. A window pops up on the screen with a mall walking tour. Click on a store, the view changes to inside the shop. Click on a hat, and the shopper can rotate it, getting a view from every angle. Click again and it’s charged to your credit card and shipped to wherever you like.

While this concept isn’t particularly novel, the model program was developed in just several days with the new Apple Media Kit. The kit lets developers craft interactive TV titles like this without having to know basic software programming language.

IF YOU WANTED DETAILS about the recent marriage between IBM Corp. and Blockbuster Entertainment Corp., Bob Carberry, president of Big Blues’ Fireworks Partners, laid them on the table at Digital World.

Through a joint venture called NewLeaf Entertainment, the deal promised to deliver through record stores compact discs on demand (Daily Variety, May 11).

Music shoppers will walk up to an in-store kiosk, touch the screen to select an album and choose from having it mailed to them, sent electronically to a device in their homes, or have a CD pressed while they wait. A few minutes later , the music should have been pulled from a giant IBM hard drive, and sent to a CD press at the counter.

The album art will be drawn from digital files as well. “It’s working, and up and running” at a NewLeaf test site, said Carberry, holding up the first CD pressed on the system.

The record companies, which are also giant distributors, should be embracing the technology rather than feeling threatened, he added. “We can take a substantial amount of the distribution cost out of this. Plus, there’s infinite shelf space in the kiosk.”

Carberry also showed off a hand-held digital cellular phone that contained a small touch screen. Called “In Touch,” the unit will be in tests later this year.

The demo raised the question of just what telecommunications company would IBM partner with to make In Touch a viable product.

MORE DETAILS emerged at Digital World about the Interactive Media Festival. It has rounded up Motorola Corp. as its sponsor. “The company has a history of anticipating the direction of technology and being there first,” boasted an exec.

As mentioned earlier this week, the festival will showcase performers and interactive programs May 5, 1994, at L.A.’s Pantages Theatre.

According to co-sponsor Jonathan Seybold, “We believe that from now on, it’s content that will drive technology.”

Of possible interest for Hollywood producers is Apple On-Line Services. This outgrowth of Apple Link, the on-line service Apple created so customers could get technical support over a modem, is changing its spots.

Two years ago, AOS was opened up to the general public and now boasts 56,000 subscribers. While currently just offering text, like the Wall St. Journal, Reuters and the Tribune papers, a deal just cut with another service, American On Line, means compressed full-motion-video will be available in 1994.

ANOTHER SET-TOP BOX? Yep. San Francisco’s PF Magic has a cable-ready box, called Edge 16, that lets people play videogames on their TVs simultaneously from several locations.

AT&T has made an equity investment and funded research on the box. Since PF is a Sega developer, Edge hooks up to the Genesis player and even lets people use the phone at the same time. It should be on the market in the first half of 1994, said PF Magic president John Scull, with a price tag around $ 100.

A keyboard can be added, and with some special software it can hook into Sierra On-Line, a computer game network. AT&T also recently signed a letter of intent to become a strategic partner in Sierra.