'Interactive TV is failing because it doesn't give users what they want'

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The multimedia revolution has been a bit of a slow burn for the Epic Multimedia Group, as we have been doing this since the early Eighties. There have been many false dawns; Interactive Laservision, CDTV, Cdi, Tandy VIS, 3DO and arguably the Apple Mac.

You need to be fleet of foot in this business and we have grown on the back of our ability to change quickly in response to developments. Recently, this has been in the realm of the networked delivery of multimedia. We set up a dedicated network team, which grew quickly with Internet, intranet, online kiosk, in-flight entertainment and interactive television work. Interactive Television (iTV) is the horse that has faltered.

The problem is cost. The financial modelling rarely takes into account all that has been learnt over the past decade about real users and what they want in terms of content. Prototyping and basic research is rarely done. This means that the trial is flawed from the spreadsheet onwards. Usability testing is often left until after millions have been spent on infrastructure. On the whole, the technical tail wags the dog.

But let's look at iTV from the user's perspective. Take the handsets. We are working with handsets that have as many as 79 buttons. Most of the interactive TV handsets have appalling designs. One problem is that they are designed before the interface. Another is that they take the TV remote control as their model rather than games industry standards. The TV remote is a channel-switching device, not an interactive television device. The first question one should ask at the first meeting of an interactive television project is: "Who here owns a Playstation or Saturn?" If the answer is no one - stop the meeting!

This obsession with numbered and lettered buttons leads to two problems. First, you get the "nodding duck" effect as users get to grips with locating the relevant buttons and matching them with numbers or letters on the screen. This destroys any sense of real involvement or entertainment. Second, the interface looks like a first-grade maths or English text, full of numbers and letters.

The games console people have it right. I never look at my games handsets. That is because all the functionality is where it should be - on the screen, using a moving highlight.

Handsets need to be designed with the interface in mind. That brings me to my second point: interface design. There has been some excellent work done over the past 10 years on this subject. Yet the same mistakes are seen time and time again. Should we provide short cuts? What is the difference between hunters and browsers? Do users want metaphors or menus? How much graphic detail is needed? These questions are difficult. They need expert answers. Too often the interface design is left until the last couple of months before launch with no time for refinement or testing. A poor interface can destroy potential revenue streams.

Another hazy issue is: "Who will use iTV and where will it be used?" I call this the one-to-one problem. The television is a one-to-many medium. The living room is a communal, family environment. If you are addicted to teletext, as I am, you will recognise the following problem. Your partner or family will have berated you for looking at the sports scores when they want to turn back to normal TV. They see interactivity as an aberration. Interactivity is a one-to-one activity and sits uneasily in a one-to-many medium - the family television. Neither Cdi nor CD online (Cdi's WWW online service) succeeded. Browsing the Web in your living room? You must be joking! These are technical solutions looking for an audience that doesn't exist.

Then there is content. VCRs, satellite TV, consoles - they all rely on entertainment for the sell. And it is base instinct entertainment. Sport, movies, games, porn, gambling - these are the business divers.

If you have any doubts about the last item, gambling, then consider the following. Gambling revenues are greater in the United States than both the movie and music industries put together, despite the fact that you can only gamble in 23 states. At present, many of the airlines that are spending up to $1m per aircraft installing in-flight entertainment systems see gambling as a primary revenue stream.

Just one last comment on content. Last week, I read that the BBC will be launching its digital television service with the Trooping of the Colour. The Germans will be launching with a live Formula One grand prix event. Who has their finger on the pulse?

Don't get me wrong, I'm a fan of interactive media. It has changed the lives of millions of people for the better and will play a major part in our lives over the coming years. I love games and love the Internet. But it is time that iTV got real. In practice, it is had to get real. Most of the projects have been canned, customer response has been lukewarm and everyone is turning their attention to the Internet, intranets, games and the PC.

The writer is managing director of Epic Multimedia Group. This is an edited transcript of his speech to the iTV96 conference in Edinburgh.