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Future of Internet TV Is Coming Into View

By Leslie Walker
Thursday, January 12, 2006

I was trying to sleep on a flight home from Las Vegas Sunday when the craving hit: I want my Internet TV.

After catching a virus at the gadget show I'd attended, I felt too exhausted to read. I needed distraction, a slice of that personalized video universe I'd seen on display -- even a TV show on an iPod would have helped.

No single company put everything together into a magical product at the Consumer Electronics Show this year, but you didn't need much imagination to connect the booths and see the Internet TV networks of the 21st century struggling to be born.

The unmistakable theme was how video is moving over the Internet onto home televisions and mobile devices in ways that will finally allow consumers to talk back to their TVs, much as they have been interacting with Web sites for the past decade.

It wasn't just about time-shifting TV or watching shows on mobile devices, though both were prominently on display. A newer technology known as Internet protocol TV -- IPTV for short -- also made a stir by blending those capabilities while trying to remake regular TV shows into something more dynamic and personal.

Basically, IPTV allows multiple layers of video, pictures and text to be mixed with video feeds in ways viewers can control with their remotes. It's the old interactive TV vision -- point your remote at an actress on screen and up comes her name, prior credits and perhaps a "buy me" button for her blue sequined dress.

Major telecom players such as AT&T and Verizon are slowly rolling out IPTV services over high-speed broadband networks. Trials are underway around the country.

Microsoft showed off some IPTV software in Las Vegas, and some start-up companies displayed systems for delivering Internet video streams to home computers, bypassing traditional networks owned by cable and satellite companies.

At the same time, Hollywood studios announced new deals to distribute TV shows over the Internet in a mix of new pay-per-view and subscription offerings. And Google and Yahoo, the Web's top search providers, jumped in with new services they hope will give them central roles in helping people find all this Internet-delivered video.

In fact, so many new IPTV services and technologies were displayed or announced it was hard to make sense of them all.

But as I started daydreaming about taking the same flight five or six years from now, the scenario I pictured helped pull it together in ways I could understand:

Instead of watching the dorky movie US Airways was showing, say I flip open my six-inch Verizon Internet viewer, switch to my Google Video channel, select "CSI: Baltimore; Jan. 5," and watch my favorite TV show, which I missed while in Vegas (hey, there's bound to be a "CSI: Baltimore" by then). Google Video knows me well enough to have beamed me a compressed copy when it had a strong broadband signal back on the ground. It bills my stored credit card, say, 50 cents when I decide to watch this episode.

By 2012, trust me, your favorite shows are just going to be there on that little thing you used to call a cell phone. You pay a subscription or per-viewing charge because commercials on portables -- well, let's just say they didn't catch on, despite cheerleading from Microsoft's Bill Gates.

After "CSI," I scroll through trailers of upcoming episodes of my other favorite TV dramas, selecting which ones I want beamed to my Internet player after the plane lands and we get a wireless signal again.

Navigating back to Verizon's main menu, I click on my custom Yahoo channel, select "Yahoo Photos" and scroll through a gallery of images I took at the tech show. I pop up an on-screen keyboard to add captions, which get saved for automatic transmission back to Yahoo's computers after the plane lands.

Had this been autumn, I might have clicked on "My Yahoo Local," selected "Virginia High Schools," then watched highlights of my niece's field hockey game. But no one in my family is playing sports this winter, and I'm no football fan. The guy next to me is -- he keeps cheering as he replays game highlights of his favorite teams on his portable AT&T viewer.

Back home the next day, those same custom Internet channels show up on my living room wall, which looks like a gigantic mirror when my Internet TV is turned off. So I switch it on, tune into my personal "Yahoo GO" channel and watch a slide show of my captioned Vegas photos on my 200-inch, high-definition wall display.

Then I change the Internet channel to Google Video and skip around inside the TV newscasts I missed while I was out of town. My custom Google channel does a nice job of flagging news segments on topics of interest to me so I can jump right to them, regardless of where they occur inside a newscast.

Sound far-fetched? Okay, maybe this scenario isn't 100 percent realistic today. In fact, you may not even want most of it today.

But if you string together all the services announced at last week's gadget fest, there is no question this is where technology is trying to take us -- to a world where nearly every flat surface can provide a view of the Internet that is highly personalized.

Leslie Walker welcomes e-mail atwalkerl@washpost.com.

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