The computer gets more like the TV every day

By Mike Musgrove
Sunday, November 8, 2009

The online video service Hulu added a long-overdue feature last week: A "coming soon" page designed to give the site's millions of users a heads-up about when they'll be able to watch the next new episode of "Fringe" or "Parks and Recreation" in their Web browsers.

Ever since it launched in 2007, as a joint offering by News Corp. and NBC Universal, the site has been remarkable for its way of enhancing the channel-surfing experience with some of the added frills of Web surfing. Got a favorite show coming up? You can now get Hulu to send you an e-mail reminder.

If online video services and traditional television programming are growing more similar than ever, so, too, are the viewing habits of the people who use them.

In other words, the fall TV season is also prime time for online video. More than 168 million Web users in the United States watched video over the Internet in September, via services such as YouTube and Hulu. That's a new record, according to ComScore, up by more than 7 million from the preceding month and up from a total of 146 million for the same month last year.

With such numbers, it's become popular for pundits to speculate that folks are moving from cable subscriptions over to free online services. Last year, I personally knew of one person who used online video and other services rather than pay for a cable subscription; this year it's up to four.

But evidently, that switch isn't a trend just yet outside my circle. Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, said in a recent quarterly financial filing that it has 46.8 million subscribers, an increase of more than 3 percent over last year.

So much for anecdotal evidence.

"You always read articles about people giving up cable for Hulu," said Michael Gartenberg, an analyst at the market research firm Interpret, "but that's not mainstream behavior."

Competition for the couch-potato dollar is about to get thicker.

Best Buy announced last week that it is gearing up to launch its own video-on-demand service, through devices such as Web-connected TVs and Blu-ray players.

Sony, what's more, has inked a deal with Netflix so that PlayStation 3 owners can stream some of the movie-rental company's video content directly to their game consoles. To perform this trick, which the Xbox 360 has been able to do since last year, PS3-owning subscribers need to log on to Netflix and sign up to get a disc.

The latest Apple rumor, making the rounds last week, has it that the iPod maker has been quietly going to television networks with a proposed iTunes service in which subscribers would pay for a type of subscription for access to the store's offerings.

As for Hulu, not all of the ways the service has changed over the past couple of years could be counted as improvements. When the service launched, it carried entire seasons of shows such as "The Office." These days it carries only the five most recent episodes, presumably to promote DVD sales among folks who would otherwise prefer to freeload.

So it goes. For the time being, I'm still forking over my monthly subscription payment to Comcast -- for all of its features, Hulu doesn't have "Dexter" or "Mad Men," after all, and I don't feel like having to Google up every new series in the hopes of finding it. Maybe next year.

A 'Hero' hero

"The novelty of telling professors that I'm going to be out of class for a week to play a video game on the other side of the world hasn't worn out, yet," says Robert Michaels, a 19-year-old student from the Washington area.

This week, Michael is hopping on a plane to China in hopes of proving that he's the planet's best Guitar Hero player, or pretty close. The Georgia Tech student, who is majoring in nuclear engineering, stands to win as much as $10,000 if his fingers are fast and accurate enough.

Yes, video games have gotten popular enough that some of the best players can actually win a decent pile of cash in tournaments. This week's competition, held in the city of Chengdo, is sponsored by a Korean company that is aiming to establish itself as the Olympics of video-game competitions.

Though he's never met them before, Michaels already knows the reputations of his competitors, since many hang out and tout their high scores at the popular Baltimore-based site ScoreHero.com.

Michaels says he's not as addicted to Guitar Hero as people might think. He studied classical piano for seven years before picking up the video game, and it's that background, more than anything, that he credits for his skills. After swiftly picking up a proficiency in the game in high school, he won tournaments in the Washington and Richmond areas. In New York City this year, he won a tournament that qualified him to enter this week's final round in China.

At the moment, Michaels is devoting an hour or two each day to perfecting the game's licks on the guitar-shaped game controller that will be traveling with him on his first big trip outside North America. Championships like this one, he admitted, can turn what used to be a fun way to goof off into something that's a little too much like a job.

"I'm really, really tired of 'Hot for Teacher' right now," he said.

Virtually fit?

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation announced Thursday that it has awarded nearly $2 million in grants to nine research teams to study the effects of exercise-related video games. Two of the grantees are in the Washington area.

In the last few years, thanks largely to the Nintendo Wii, there has been a wave of video games aimed at whipping players into better shape. Before that, of course, many schools parked copies of the body-moving game Dance Dance Revolution in their gyms to encourage students to burn some calories.

But while much marketing muscle has been put into the notion that exercise-related games can fight or prevent obesity in kids, there hasn't been a lot of research on the matter, yet.

The philanthropic organization hopes to change that. One of the studies now funded by the organization, and run by a psychology professor at Georgetown University, will study the physiological, social and cognitive effects of Wii Active, an exercise title published by Electronic Arts.

Another study, to be conducted at Francis L. Stevens Elementary School in Washington, will try to establish whether kids burn more calories playing a specially designed exercise game -- or whether they're better off playing kickball and other traditional PE-class activities.

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