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The Independent Culture
The man who founded the Cyberia cafe chain, where Net surfers

'meet', is about to go into TV - sort of. His vision is Channel Cyberia

Keith Teare talks like an evangelist. His conversation is peppered with words like "vision", "mission", "possibilities" and "progress". Like all evangelists he wants to sell you something - not in his case salvation or a sure path to the afterlife, but as he himself puts it, "a piece of the future". And the future, according to Teare, lies out in cyberspace waiting to be accessed at the click of a mouse. "The Internet promises to shrink the world," he says, "to revive community spirit and to make its users global players in that community. It offers us the chance to be adventurous."

Teare was a founder of Cyberia, the world's first cybercafe, and is a director of Easynet, one of the country's major Internet access providers. This month he unveils his latest project, Channel Cyberia, which will be officially launched at the Internet World International Fair at London's Olympia next week. Describing itself as "the world's first Internet Channel", Channel Cyberia is a programmed online service, a hybrid between a TV channel and a web site.

The service is interactive, which means viewers can watch a programme and join in a chat electronically at the same time. "Unlike TV," Teare points out, "you can meet other people watching the same programme." Viewers can also decide what they want to watch.

Anyone who logs on to Channel Cyberia will see three frames on their screen - a main one and two small ones, one of them to the right and one at the bottom. The main frame shows the programme you want to watch while the right-hand frame carries the advertisements that accompany that programme. The bottom frame is the control panel. At a click of the mouse, viewers can watch the scheduled programme, import a programme from the archives, join the live chat or log on to a bulletin board associated with any programme.

"When you watch Grandstand," Teare explains, "you are delivered racing only when racing is on. On Channel Cyberia, all the sports are there all the time and you can choose which one you're interested in when you're interested in it. Unlike TV we can store every programme we produce and make it accessible to the viewers always. If they want to go back and watch the 1966 World Cup final, they can go and get it from the archives any time they want."

But Channel Cyberia isn't TV as we know it; Teare would never claim that it was. Watching the 1996 World Cup final on the Internet is a somewhat different experience from watching a video of the same match on TV. Channel Cyberia's programmes are mainly text-based and the images are stills, not moving pictures. You won't so much see Geoff Hurst's goal as scroll through it. The chat, like all chat on the Internet, tends to be an anarchic exchange of views - like a room full of people shouting at each other over a keyboard.

The programmes available range from hour-long news bulletins supplied by ITN, to Paul Gambaccini's version of Film 96, to a live agony column. The quality varies enormously according to the programme maker. Some material is reminiscent of many Web pages, eccentric and somewhat static. Others are eye-catching and dynamic, and show the possibilities of the new channel. The science programmes are the best produced and, if the bulletin boards are anything to go by, the most avidly watched.

As with all his projects, Channel Cyberia is seen by Teare as a mission to bring us closer to the future. He calls the channel a "polemic" (a favourite word of his) against both TV and the Internet. "Unlike TV, Channel Cyberia allows you to be more than simply a passive viewer," he says. "Unlike the Internet, it has a real-world concept of time. A web site at the moment mostly just sits there. On Channel Cyberia everything is live and happening now."

What drives Teare and his new project isn't simply the belief that the Internet could transform our lives, but the fear that a lack of imagination and investment could stifle the possibilities of cyberspace. "The success of the Internet," he says, "will depend on how easy it is for people to grapple with it. To make it a mass product, we have to present as a user- friendly, easy-to-use technology, something which is in reality complex and difficult to master."

There is an analogy here between the development of the Internet and that of the personal computer. Arguably the biggest single development in transforming the PC from cult item to mass product has been the graphic user interface, or GUI. A good interface is often worth considerably more than a good computer.

Teare points to the fates of Unix and Microsoft Windows: "As a computer language Unix is very powerful, very flexible and can multitask more efficiently than any of its rivals. But despite the fact that Unix had a 20-year head start and has been crucial to the development of the Internet, it is Microsoft Windows that has swept the world. It may be an inferior product, but it is much easier to use."

A friendly interface is even more important for the Internet than for the PC. At least the PC is a physical object sitting on a desktop. The Internet, on the other hand, resides in some mysterious place called cyberspace. For those unused to it, logging on to the Internet can be a strange and even frightening experience. The success of cybercafes, Teare believes, is that they have broken down the barrier between the real world and the cyberworld.

"When we set up Cyberia," he explains, "there was already on the Internet the concept of a cybercafe - a fictitious virtual space, or online conferencing area, where people worldwide could meet and exchange ideas. We took that concept and made it real. In Cyberia people come into a new world, but one that's made comfortable for them because they are in familiar surroundings."

Today there are more than 200 cybercafes across the world, all modelled on the original Cyberia. Cyberia itself has expanded, not just to Manchester and Edinburgh, but also to Paris (in the Pompidou Centre) and Tokyo. New cafes are about to open in New York, Los Angeles and Bangkok. As Teare says, "It's a paradox that a company set up to make its way in the virtual world actually made its name by building physical spaces, real-world spaces."

For Teare, Channel Cyberia is another kind of interface designed to entice people into cyberspace. It is a development of existing online services, such as Compuserve or the Microsoft Network, which were themselves designed to be user-friendly. What Teare has done is bring the skills of TV programming to the online world.

But if the idea is to get people used to interactivity, why not develop interactive TV rather than a scheduled online service? After all, people are more familiar with, and less frightened by, their TV than their computer. Teare disagrees. "TV will remain a passive medium because that's what people prefer it to be. They want to be entertained in their living room, in a social environment shared with their family. They don't want little Johnny pressing a button and the TV doing something other than play the movie they're watching. Interactive TV is a mistaken concept that does not and cannot work."

By comparison, computers users, who are sitting close to the screen in a private environment, accept interactivity. "They want the computer to do something," says Teare. "They don't want to just sit and watch. And a computer is a far better instrument to deliver interactive services than TV."

He argues that Channel Cyberia is not meant to duplicate TV programming but seeks instead to merge text, video and audio into a new interactive medium. He admits, however, that the current largely text-based format restricts the ability to create a user-friendly interactive service.

"The development of the Internet," he points out, "is in its infancy - like the black-and-white period in the history of television. In those days, people would sit and watch the box in the corner of the room for hours, despite poor pictures and terrible programmes. Why? Because they were stunned that anything at all came out of the box. It's the same with the Internet." The next generation of Internet technology will transform all this, he argues, and take us into the "colour" era.

Already Java (the hottest Internet programming language of the moment) and Shockwave (a popular plug-in for Netscape's browser) have helped create more dynamic Web pages. Shockwave is expected to introduce real-time video streaming later this year, allowing a viewer to watch a video as the file downloads.

At the Professional Developers Conference in San Francisco recently, Netscape's rival Microsoft unveiled plans for its Active X system which also allows real-time video and audio (as well as 3D virtual reality) to be accessed from a Web site. Such developments could bring the World Wide Web alive, bridging the gap between CD-ROM and Internet. They may create the possibility of true multimedia interactivity over the Net in the not too distant future.

Even with active streaming, though, it would still be difficult to show live video on the Net. The problem facing software developers is that video on the Internet has to go through a process known as compression. Every second of video can take up to five seconds to compress, making it almost impossible to be displayed live. The possibility of live streaming exists, but the development remains a few years away.

The next-generation technology may also provide the answer to another major limitation of today's Internet - restrictions on the number of people who can simultaneously access information from a particular site. The amount of data that can travel on the Internet is constrained by the bandwidth of the telephone lines, restricting access to any particular Internet site, especially for data-intensive media such as video. Current technology cannot deliver audio or video streaming to more than 1,000 people at the same time, and therefore rules out the possibility of a simultaneous mass audience for a service like Channel Cyberia.

As Teare puts it, the difference between Internet and conventional broadcast technology is "like the difference between travelling from London to Glasgow by air or by road. If you go by road, the time you arrive will depend on the weight of traffic. On the Internet, too, weight of traffic is the key variable. But travelling by air, as with TV or radio broadcast, weight of traffic is not an issue."

A number of new developments could make the air metaphor even more apt. Companies are now investigating the possibility of sending Internet data not by cable but by radio waves, in a manner akin to mobile phones. A more exciting possibility, though, is the use of satellites.

The US Federal Communications Commission has recently given its permission for a new company, Sky Stations International, to launch hydrogen-filled floats and suspend them 100,000ft (19 miles) above the Earth's surface. The firm intends to attach communications equipment to the floats. Because the new platforms will be much closer to Earth than current satellites, which orbit at around 22,500 miles, a computer would need far less power to communicate with them, creating the posibility of a satellite-borne Internet. Sky Station estimates that it would cost $800m (pounds 500m) to construct 250 platforms around the world, each of which could support 600,000 channels.

At present, though, satellite information can travel in one direction only (it is possible for every home to have a satellite dish, but not a transmitter). There is consequently no possibility of interactive programming. But the development of a two-way satellite mechanism, with a satellite dish/transmitter rather than a modem plugged into a PC, would solve the problem of bandwidth restriction and open up new possibilities for interactive communication.

"How quickly such technology will be developed is difficult to predict," says Teare, "because there are scientific and financial variables. The question you have to ask yourself is not 'What can it do?' but 'To what extent will the investment take place to make what it can do really happen?' There I am cautious, since we live in a culture where governments are reluctant to build infrastructure."

What about private investment? After all, firms such as Microsoft and IBM pour millions into developing Internet technology, and Internet companies are the hottest items on the stock market. When Easynet was floated on the Alternative Investment Market earlier this year, it was vastly oversubscribed. Netscape (maker of the most popular Internet browser) and Yahoo (provider of one of the best search engines on the Net) have been valued out of all proportion to their earnings. Netscapeis valued at $4bn (pounds 3bn), though its latest quarterly earnings were just $4.7m.

"There are a lot of rewards to be had," Teare agrees, "and radio and satellite transmission are likely to be developed quickly. But there won't be an even, logical and conscious development of the Internet. It will be segmented, anarchic and patchy."

He points to Finland as an example of what is possible. Finnish Telecom has invested in a fibre optic network that delivers the Internet to every home, and at a bandwidth which allows for full video and sound.

Such vision does not extend to third-world countries such as Africa. Even in places where the Internet is being developed, it remains an elite technology. The US telecom giant Spring estimates South Africa to be the 16th fastest growing Internet market in the world, yet fewer than one in 1,000 of the black population owns even a telephone. As one commentator put it, South Africa's business community may be rushing to get online, but the nation's population "have difficulty getting wired to a light bulb, never mind the Internet".

"The Internet won't be a rich man's club any more than, say, car ownership," says Teare, "but it will accentuate the difference and divisions that already exist." In the developed world, he believes, "shopping will arrive at your computer terminal by the end of the year." A new standard established by Visa, Access and Microsoft will make online transactions secure. The Internet could also deliver high-quality education to millions, allowing lessons to be individually tailored, removing age restrictions and making issues of class size and teacher-pupil ratios irrelevant.

Will such an expansion of the Internet transform us, as critics like Janet Street-Porter seem to believe, into a nation of nerds, too busy with our PCs to have any time for the real world? Teare is dismissive of such claims. "The Internet is becoming normal and mainstream, and the non-Internet types are the nerds who insist on doing things the old way."

The Internet, Teare believes, "brings individuals into contact with hundreds of thousands of people they wouldn't otherwise have any relationship with. Let me ask the critics this: Were people more 'social' when the only way they could communicate with others was if they met? That was a massively limited environment. People want to be social, and that's why they like the Internet."

! The Internet World International Fair takes place at London's Olympia from May 21-23.