Videotex: Putting Television to Work


This article originally appeared in Issue# 22

Are you ready for the optical reception of announcements by coded line electronics drawn from a universal databank encoded by the Information Providers?

Well, get ready because its coming and it's bringing the Information Age into your life.

What we are talking about is simply the marriage of television (both cable and broadcast), computers and the telephone. The result will be generically known as videotex, or the display of words and graphics on a television screen by means of some kind of control mechanism.

Simple systems may use some- thing like a pocket calculator. More sophisticated services will require a full-size computer keyboard.

Currently the equipment is expensive and unavailable commercially in the U.S. But Canada, Japan and a number of European countries (primarily Great Britain, France and Germany) have already introduced it as an extension of their postal, telephone and telecommunications services. In the rest of the world the technology is available but the delivery systems are not organized — yet.

Basically there are two possible ways to receive and use these services.

Read any TV Lately?

The first is known as teletext. This is a one-way system that transmits textual material from a central computer memory to the home TV set just like an ordinary TV signal.

In a working teletext system, words and graphics are transmitted continuously via the "vertical blanking interval" (that heavy 'black bar' that bobs up occasionally when your set needs adjusting).

Hidden in this black bar are 21 little-used lines of television signal which can, if put to use, carry up to 100 pages (one page is enough to fill one TV screen at a time) of news headlines, sports scores, restaurant and theater listings, stock market reports, air line schedules or classified ads.

Using a hand held control pad, a viewer punches in a "page number" from a subject index and the TV set (equipped with a special decoder) "grabs" that page for display the next time it whizzes by in the cycle of pages being broadcast. Waiting time? No more than seven seconds.

Unless the viewer makes a decision and presses a further button, the same page will sit on the TV forever. Unlike television, videotex will not just flow past the eyeballs once it is switched on.

What is the difference between the teletext and the same information available in a newspaper or magazine?

Not much except for one important advantage: teletext can be continually, and instantly, updated.

Each page can also be "sponsored" (e.g. "Pepsi Presents the Weather Report") thus providing a new source of income for TV stations.

Towards an Information Utility

The second text service is a bit more complicated and is known confusingly as videotext (with a t). It is the difference between watching television and using it.

Videotext is a two-way system and makes the connection through telephone or two-way cable lines. It allows the user to perform various transactions with the main computer, such as banking, shopping or library research. You could also make airline reservations, buy theater tickets or send electronic mail. Videotext systems in Europe and Japan are already in place because the government sees the new technology as a logical component of their comprehensive public communications Services.

In France, for example, a five-year plan begun in the mid-seventies by the French government, poured billions of francs into improved telephone lines and research and development in electronic consumer technologies. The result is Telematique, a national telecommunications system with the telephone as the core.

Already, printed telephone directories are being replaced with nine-inch video screens containing keyboards connected to a central data base. They will eventually be installed with every telephone, whether private or business. It is claimed that the electronic directories cost less than the yearly updates of the printed version, plus they are always up-to-date.

Videotex is a hybrid of mass communications and computer technologies...the difference between watching television and using it.

And along with the electronic "white pages" come electronic "yellow pages." Voila! — videotext!

In contrast, the U.S. has left the development of both teletext and videotext services to a "free market" on the ground that it is not a public utility but rather the technical basis for a new and exciting (if still somewhat vague) commercial enterprise to be known as electronic publishing.

Fearful that electronic publishing will wipe out what is left of the newspaper industry, many newspaper chains have developed new multinational partners to "experiment" with these services (e.g. Viewtron - Knight-Ridder Newspapers and A.T.&T. or Videotex America —Times-Mirror Corp. with Comp-U-Card, owned by Federated Department Stores).

"We ought to be planning now...we ought to be creating a hunger among people for life-enrichiment via a screen that previously has been useful only for entertainment."
Robert F. Cramer

So far, no commercially viable system is yet ready to market nationally, although manufactures are beginning to build the decoders into TV sets. By 1990, predicts the CBS official leading that company's pilot text program, 50% of U.S. homes will be able to receive teletext and 75% by 1995. "Commercially viable," of course, is the magic key to unlocking the wonders of electronic information systems in the U.S.

Revolution or Status-Quo?

For some, videotext and teletext are seen as revolutionary communications systems. Proponents point out how interaction will change our models of communications because in a two-way system everybody can be an information provider as well as consumer.

Critics, on the other hand, say that the systems are more likely to simply give us more convenient access to information collected and packaged in the same way.

In truth, "the things video-text does best are ultimately boring", says an English videotex experimenter. But it is just those mundane details of life — the transactions, the record-keeping, the storage of information - that do, in fact, seem to make the world go round.

Whether videotex systems will also make the world a better place to go round in is still to be decided.