Television is about to become interactive, and the driving force is likely to be entertainment. The computer game is about to grow up.
Evidence that the pace of change is beginning to hot up was presented at the Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago earlier this month. We already have the CD-I player - which can take images, text, sound and animation from a disc - and the Sega CD games machine, which use CD technology to deliver vast amounts of data on to our television screens.
But this is only the the beginning. Two processes are combining. The way information is transmitted around our world is improving and the content of 'computer games' is becoming more realistic. For example, real actors will replace those strange little shapes that used to people the screen.
Probably the most sophisticated 'game' being produced is Voyeur, an interactive movie in the tradition of Hitchcock's Rear Window, which is stored on a 5 in CD-type CD-I disc. The players can simply sit back and watch the machinations of an evil politician as the bodies pile up; but they can also be cast as observers who collect evidence and call the police. They can decide which room to visit, which drawer to open and so on. What makes this project different is the quality of the story-telling - the lead role of the crooked politician is played by veteran actor Robert Culp - and the quality of the images.
While this title is not yet up to full television quality, it comes pretty close. Later this year Philips will introduce a cartridge which, when plugged into the CD-I player, will provide full-motion video, with images equivalent to normal television pictures.
Paramount said at the Consumer Electronics Show that it would supply 50 films on CD-I in the next two years, three of which would be interactive titles developed especially for CD-I. One is expected to be the latest Star Trek TV incarnation, Deep Space Nine. Other Hollywood film companies have projects under way, and big stars - particularly action stars such as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone - are reported to be filming extra sequences for interactive versions of movies in production.
It is not just the quality of these interactive experiences, however, that will change; it is also the way they will be delivered into our homes and how we will interact with them.
Most of the changes we in Britain will see over the next few years will originate in the US. For example, early next year, the Sega Channel is to use cable television to provide a carousel for 50 titles. Subscribers, who will pay between dollars 10 ( pounds 6.60) to dollars 20 a month, will be able to download the title of their choice into a special gadget plugged into their Sega Megadrive games machine. Prodigy, the interactive information system, and many other interactive services are also moving on to cable television.
Another Sega gadget under development will allow two players to play a game over the telephone, while carrying on a conversation.
And Sega is going to bring virtual reality into the home. At the Chicago show, it exhibited a VR headset that produced surprisingly high quality images. Moreover, the company said it would be selling the headsets in the US this Christmas for dollars 200 each.
Given that games are becoming more realistic - in many cases the 'feel' is that of television rather than poor computer graphics - many are worried that they could have dangerous effects. James Ferman, director of the British Board of Film Classification, says he has repeatedly asked the Government to consider legislation to facilitate control of emerging electronic media technologies.
He says that the 1984 Video Recordings Act covers any recording of electronic data that produces moving pictures on a screen; but video games are exempt unless they contain sex or acts of 'gross violence'.
'Night Trap (the game from Sega that was given a 15 certificate last month) was the first we have seen with gross violence,' Mr Ferman says. In one of the final scenes, a pole appears to pierce a girl's neck.
He points out that playing a game is different from viewing a film. 'What does playing the game do to the emotions? We could only judge these scenes as they were. But what is the add-on emotional factor for actually playing the game?'
Psychologist Dr Margaret Shotton is unconvinced that there is anything to worry about. 'Interactivity makes things more exiting, dramatic and interesting, which is a positive thing.'
The effect of the game, or experience, depends on the content, she says. 'I am very pro the technology; it is the content that may be dubious. Computer games or interactive movies should not be singled out for special attention.' As to whether children can become addicted to these games, Dr Shotton says that addiction applies only to something we ingest. 'You could say people were hooked on computer games, or obsessed, but it is something they choose to do. You could say I am obsessed with reading books, but that is not considered a problem.
'People could be corrupted by any media,' she says. 'Life moves on, new technology will bring changes. Interactivity will bring greater emotionality. Is that a bad thing?'
Whether emotional involvement with an inanimate, non-real world is good for the human spirit is another question altogether. Certainly, these new interactive services will have positive roles. Education will be revolutionised: viewers, for instance, may finally be able to keep up with their favourite television chef's recipe and ask for advice.
Professor Stephen Heppell, of the Learning Technology Research Centre at Anglia Polytechnic University, says that playing computer games is much better for children than passively watching television. 'Games can be a rich problem-solving environment.' Professor Heppell does worry, however, about some of the values presented, such as gender and racial stereotyping. And he also worries about children playing with games machines alone in their bedrooms; they need to talk to other children about what they are playing, he says.
'Let the children play with them in a social part of the house. The world is full of people who can work with computers, but it is very short of people who describe what they are doing.'
One thing is for sure, however: the TV set in the corner of your sitting room will not remain the quiet, obedient object it is today for long.
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