CURRENT ONLINE

More, deeper, broader:
where 'enhanced' DTV goes

User tours Wright's Unity Temple on screen

Users gravitated to the IPIX virtual tours of three Wright buildings. At left, a visitor mouses around in Chicago's Unity Temple. The widescreen computer monitor matches the shape of  DTV screens.

 

The Intel/PBS experiment that rode the airwaves with Frank Lloyd Wright

Originally published in Current, Dec. 7, 1998

By Steve Behrens

If you were among a certain handful of people watching the Ken Burns/Lynn Novick bio Frank Lloyd Wright Nov. 10-11, you could get a whole lot more from the broadcast after it was over.

Most people watching the two-night series saw only a stylized "E" icon appear briefly in the corner of the screen (with the disclosure "where available"), reminding viewers that the program was "enhanced."

But there was more for viewers watching on specially equipped personal computers in the seven cities where public TV stations were putting out DTV signals. As participants in a technical trial by Intel Corp. and PBS, they could take a virtual tour of Wright buildings they had just seen in the film, rummage more broadly through talking-head comments, and go deeper into an interview with old man Wright himself.

PBS is betting that "millions of Americans want to know more," as Executive Vice President John Hollar says.

The technology of choice, in early stages of its development, is called "enhanced TV"--"enhanced" being a wretchedly bland adjective for something so vivid. Thus far, PBS hasn't found a better term, says Hollar. "We want to find a name that belongs uniquely to public television." Hollar is high on enhancement, like CPB officials who are funding other prototypes of enhanced DTV (separate story).

"It can take what was a mass, one-way medium and make it a very personal way for someone who loves science or architecture to go much deeper," says Hollar.

The broadcast package was, in effect, like a CD-ROM disc downloaded through the air--actually 225 megabytes, or about a third of a CD-ROM's capacity.

Inside a viewer's computer, a prototype Intel circuit board received the broadcast, displayed the Burns/Novick film and saved the enhancement on the hard drive for later use.

"Burns explicitly did not want anything interrupting the documentary," says Carolyn May, senior project manager at PBS Online, who led the enhancement production team. And so it was. There would be no mouse-clicking while Burns and Novick told their story.

That's fine. The enhancement respects the film, Hollar says. Besides, as PBS Online has learned, most people want to do their interacting after a program has concluded on-air.

What the testers saw last month--and what Hollar has shown to hundreds of professionals in meetings since late October--is called "The Poetry of Structure."

The part that worked best for Stephen Segaller, an Oregon Public Broadcasting producer who has seen the demo twice, was jumping inside the 360-degree photos of Wright buildings.

"The magical capacity to be able to rotate the point of view, to look up at the spiral of the Guggenheim, or out across the terrace of the Falling Water house--that's really something different from presenting a two-dimension, flat-screen view to people," says Segaller.

In a floor plan of the building, the user clicks on a specific room to enter, and a normal view of the room appears, but this view is only part of a 360-degree globe, and the rest can be seen by manipulating a pointer on the screen.While mousing around in Falling Waters, the user gets a naughty thrill of discovery, coming across the dingey yellow enamel appliances of the kitchen, perhaps the only room in the terrific house that wasn't essentially timeless.

The package also presents a batch of "interactive filmstrips," as Carolyn May calls them--stills of Wright buildings, juxtaposed with Wright's words and related comments from experts interviewed for the film. In the Guggenheim Museum area, a user eventually would stumble across a black-and-white, 1957 interview between the young Mike Wallace and the aged architect--excerpts beyond what appeared in the film.

Keeping the initial interface easy to comprehend comes at a cost: burying interesting stuff like the Wallace interview several "levels" down in the guts of the enhancement.

"It would knock people's socks off"

Back in April, PBS and Intel decided to ask Burns if he'd let them enhance Wright. The Wright bio was already scheduled for fall broadcast, and was expected to get a good audience.

PBS hired Carolyn May for the project, and she wrote the design document in June, before moving to D.C. When the go-ahead came, her team had eight weeks to produce the demo.

A onetime journalist who worked at WOSU in Columbus, and then in film and video in Seattle, May had dived into interactive software, working on the Encarta CD-ROM encyclopedia at Microsoft and various educational programs at the Edmark software house. Microsoft had also done a CD-ROM on Wright, though May was not involved.

The Burns/Novick team at Florentine Films was "incredibly helpful" in providing 3/4-inch worktapes and other material for the enhancement, says May. She read Wright to develop themes for the "filmstrips" and supplemented the outtakes with photos from other sources, negotiating limited three-year rights with photographers.

After recording some audio quotes from Wright's grandson, architect Eric Lloyd Wright, May decided to expand his role, casting him as the voice of the enhancement. His voice, already familiar to viewers, added a link to the documentary series, as did the Beethoven soundtrack, the familiar talking heads, and the majestic personality and buildings of Frank Lloyd Wright.

The producers worked with Interactive Pictures Corp. to create 360-degree photos of the Wright buildings. Starting with two 180-degree hemispheres shot in each room with a standard Nikon fisheye lens, the company's IPIX software stitches them together seamlessly and "dewarps" them, displaying a natural-looking perspective on the screen, says Mike Sher, a vice president of the company.

May's assignment was to make the enhancement look different from TV and different from web pages. "I insisted that this be beautiful," says May. "It would knock people's socks off. I wanted to give people a slice of the possibilities. It mirrors the old paradigm, so it looks very filmic and broadcast. And it also references the possibilities for the future. The viewers become active participants, pursuing their own curiosity."

May envisioned an interface decorated with words and images crossing slowly at 90-degree angles--objects as translucent as those sketched by an architect on tissue paper. She worked with freelance producer Peter Stonier and R/GA Interactive, a New York multimedia company, which executed the project within Intel's guidelines.

Intel gave them a target of 225 megabytes for each of the two evenings. This led them to save material on Wright's final masterpiece, the Guggenheim Museum, until the second night, for instance. And it required them to reduce the full-motion video of the Mike Wallace interview to a small rectangle of 320 by 240 pixels.

Stonier assembled the package in the Shockwave format, using Macromedia Director software. Though the software is standard in multimedia, its ability to synchronize pictures and sound falls far short of video-editing standards, he observes.

Individual elements of the file--"cast members" in Macromedia terminology--could be no larger than 10 megabytes, he said, in order to minimize the loss if transmission were interrupted.

One notable difference from other kinds of multimedia projects on Stonier's resume is that they "tend to slide," he mentions. There was less leeway for delays when you've got a national broadcast deadline.

"The headline is: it worked"

Intel backed the creation of the slick Wright package "to show broadcasters and content creators that there's a world of opportunity out there," says company spokesman Adam Grossberg. But the November broadcasts in seven cities were explicitly a technical trial, to see if the whole chain of technologies would cooperate, Grossberg says.

"The huge headline on this is that it worked," says Hollar. "It was put on a server here, fed to the satellite, downlinked and rebroadcast locally, captured on PCs, and it all ran."

Intel wanted to know, for example, how much redundancy it needed--how many times it had to send each packet of data--to make sure that the whole thing got through the crowded airwaves intact. Was twice enough, or six times? In the trial, the enhancement went out three times, Grossberg said.

For the next part of the Intel project, Hollar says, PBS expects to enhance four episodes of Zoboomafoo, the new Kratt Brothers animal show for kids, for broadcast in January.

The Zoboomafoo episodes will certainly be used in Intel's consumer trials in mid-1999, he says, and Wright may also be used.

After consumer trials, the next big step is usually going to market. "We don't see anything impacting that natural progression," says Tom Galvin, director of market development for the Intel Content Group. He sees big possibilities for delivering sports statistics, local weather and home shopping. "The capability of turning advertising into a sale is very compelling," he says.

"You've got people where you want them," comments Stonier. "They walk out of The Lion King and right into the Disney Store."

The technology is also advancing toward the market. Hauppauge Computer Works announced in November that it will bring out a relatively cheap DTV receiver board for PCs next year. The WinTV-D board will receive both analog and digital TV and is expected to deliver a 720-line progressive picture--the low end of HDTV--on an ordinary VGA computer monitor, according to Hauppauge. It will sell initially around $300; analog TV boards are now going for just $80.

The card can be cheap, Galvin says, because the real computing horsepower for handling the video data resides in the computer's main microprocessor--usually, in today's world, a chip made by Intel. Though Galvin doesn't say so, putting the video bitstream into personal computers may help bolster PC and chip sales in the industry's proven method--giving consumers a dazzling new reason to keep upgrading to ever-more-capable computers.

So far, PC chips have been able to handle full-screen standard definition video only since Intel brought out the 266 MHz Pentium II processor, says Galvin, but he expects that new Intel chips in 1999 will be able to reproduce the highest high-def video. But HDTV on computers may be held back by the same problem that curses stand-alone HDTV sets: it's hugely expensive to make a monitor big enough to show such a fine picture.

On the software side, an industry alliance called the Advanced Television Enhancement Forum (ATVEF), which includes Intel, PBS, Microsoft, CableLabs, NBC and other interests, is proposing a set of codes that bring together video pictures and web-page material on the same screen, whether it's broadcast, cable or satellite-delivered.

The online option

Beyond the near-term tests, pubcasters will have to figure out how much "enhanced TV" should be delivered by broadcast and how much by the Internet or other two-way wired connections. The completed Wright package will feature an Internet link to PBS Online's merchandise section. Clicking on the icon will launch a web browser and start the modem dialing, says Galvin.

Connecting with PBS Online could also deepen the editorial material available to users, though Hollar indicates that dial-up Internet connections aren't fast enough to give viewers the Wright enhancement's big graphics, moving images and rapid interaction. Cable modems and other wired technology "may change all that," he says.

May would like to see online connections used for chatrooms for architecture enthusiasts, or collaborative online projects like designing a virtual village of Wright's highly modular, inexpensive "Usonian" houses.

"There's so much we wanted to do that we couldn't," says May. "That's OK. This is a demo. It's a beginning."

 

-------------------

To Current's home page

Related news: CPB backs more producers' prototypes of "enhanced" digital TV.

Outside link: PBS Online's section about Frank Lloyd Wright

Outside link: Advanced Television Enhancement Forum (ATVEF) web site.

Outside link: Interactive Pictures Corp. web site.

-------------------

Web page created Dec. 20, 1998
Current
The newspaper about public television and radio
in the United States
A service of Current Publishing Committee, Takoma Park, Md.
E-mail: webatcurrent.org
301-270-7240
Copyright 1998