Surfing on the wave of the future

Broadband is set to change the way that we use the Internet, and will herald a new era of interactivity.
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Cannes hosts many shows, but Milia, which closed last Thursday, is one of its strangest. No one quite knows what Milia stands for, but multimedia is in there somewhere. It is a wonderful bun-fest, and a great "what are you up to now?" meeting-place.

Cannes hosts many shows, but Milia, which closed last Thursday, is one of its strangest. No one quite knows what Milia stands for, but multimedia is in there somewhere. It is a wonderful bun-fest, and a great "what are you up to now?" meeting-place.

Milia started out with books and CD-rom, then it became CD-rom and DVD and a little bit of Internet, then it became CD-rom and the Internet and a little bit of DVD, and last year it became CD-rom, a little bit of Internet and a huge emphasis on games.

In all these incarnations Milia has been playing catch up. For example, last year's lurch into games was considered by almost all the participants to have happened at least 18 months too late. This year, however, the organisers got it right. They launched themselves at exactly the right time to catch the wave of the future, and that wave is broadband.

The coming year will see a massive rush of broadband services unfolding in Europe. Broadband is the name given to data connections that are typically 10 to 100 times as fast as an ordinary modem connection. These services can mainly be delivered by cable modem on a cable TV system, by fixed wireless connections where licences have been granted, and over telephone lines using a technology called ADSL or DSL (Freeserve has announced trials of this service in Manchester and London, and Hull has it up and running).

These fast networks are going to do two things. They will make the Internet run like a dream, and they will deliver "rich content" - essentially either TV-type programmes or web services with lots of video and audio built in. They will also change the way we use the Internet and these new services, because they are "always on". This means that there is no need to dial a number to connect to the Internet - you are always connected, and usually you are charged for the service, not for how much you use it.

This makes for a very different type of consumer. "Our research shows subscribers with broadband access spend on average 52 hours a month online whereas narrow-band users spend around 15 hours," said Ian Osborne, managing director for marketing at broadband service provider Chello. Conventional broadcasters are worried about the competition and are keen to embrace the technology.

Katharine Everett, the BBC's controller of interactive TV, told the conference that making good interactive TV was difficult, and that poorly designed material could end up confusing viewers: "The advantage of TV is its great simplicity. Ensuring we don't make interactive TV as confusing as many people find the PC is the challenge to us all."

But it won't just be interactive TV pouring down those fast connections. You can do some clever joining together of existing technologies, too. Gary Hare, a long-time Milia hand who used to be one of the world's best-known games and multimedia gurus, appeared as executive vice president of Into Networks. This company does the simple but revolutionary trick of allowing you to play CD-rom and DVD-rom remotely. The company hosts hundreds of titles on computers across the US; customers sign deals that typically allow them to play a game for three days for a modest rental fee. Broadband is certainly needed for the conventional games guys.

Sega's Dreamcast made quite a splash at Milia. It is the first games console to be connected to the Internet as standard, but Sega's president, Shoichiro Irimajiri, lamented during his keynote speech that the Internet was so slow. "It inspired us to become a network company, but it is imperfect," he concluded. In the wings, Sony, with the help of the Brazilian footballer Ronaldo, was busy talking up its PlayStation 2, which will have Internet access; Microsoft was giving sneak previews of its X-Box, which again will have Internet access and which will launch next year. It is also worth noting that Infogrames, the world's second largest games company, announced a $200m investment in online services. It also is very interested in broadband.

For lots of games players (typically young men without much spare cash) to pour on to broadband networks, prices will need to be low. Mr Hare believes that competition will drive connection prices down. In the UK, companies such as BSkyB will try to create a protected market. But, if the US model is followed, cut-throat competition will ensue. "There are 11 broadband suppliers in my area. They all know that unless they provide a good service at a good price we will leave them," he said.

Johan Montelius, of researcher Jupiter Communications, highlighted a novel approach to reducing prices. He outlined how Swedish consumers had clubbed together to form a non-profit grouping to set up services for themselves. By negotiating a good deal, they had ended up with services that were even cheaper than those in the highly competitive US market.

But Milia was not all advanced broadband technology and super new services to take advantage of it. There were some stunning examples of what can be achieved with today's technologies. Probably the most fascinating presentation of the Milia conference sessions came from a Dutch company that has managed to make multimedia even more multi. The company, VPRO, has developed a children's TV show that links via the Internet into an online game.

Amazingly, the programme, TypoToons (www.vpro.nl/data/projecten/typotoons/1.2/index.shtml) is about letters and words. Children collaborate live via the Internet with a well-known children's author to write a story, with the kids voting for letters as words are written to fill in blanks in the story. The author writes ahead, depending on what the children have voted for (invented words are often written in). At the end, children are invited to send in their pictures to illustrate the story, which is read on air in all its glory the following week.

VPRO uses the latest computer animation technology to bring the children's drawings to life as characters or background on screen. Letters are also beautifully animated and added into the story.

The results are stunning. There are all sorts of clever little add-ons to TypoToons, but surely the most bizarre has to be TypoTums. These are flavoured jellybeans, each assigned to a letter of the alphabet. The kids and their parents are encouraged to make words with the letters and eat them, so each word will end up with a unique combination of letters and a unique taste. So after adding video to audio and text to make multimedia, perhaps we now need to be looking at taste as the final component?

I wanted to eat "The Independent", but I thought that, at a whopping 14 beans, it was too much for my waistline.

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