The CAD industry is rushing toward collaborative design. Theoretically, this could link designers in different countries and time zones, saving them from expensive airline trips and overnight mail bills.
But "collaborative" products are all over the map—some are highly interactive, whereas others are mere snapshots, sent over e-mail. The challenges to getting it right include bandwidth, security, cost, and training.
Now a new product launch in a related industry may provide some answers. On Feb. 20, WOW Digital TV (Salt Lake City, UT) announced its plans to market a digital set-top box that can deliver a high-definition television (HDTV) signal to analog TV sets using over-the-air signals.
The WOW BOX is "an affordable, mass-market digital TV receiver" that lets viewers see traditional over-the-air broadcasts with two nontraditional features—HDTV sound and picture quality, and interactive programming communicated through standard phone lines. It will sell for about $200.
A similar box is already sold in the U.K. by BSkyB. "Sky Active" is a digital, interactive box that allows viewers to place bets, check bank balances, and send e-mail; all while watching TV.
WOW's solution depends on its partners: ADB (Advanced Digital Broadcast Ltd., San Jose, CA) provides software and design, and STMicroelectronics (Carrollton, TX) contributes the STi7020 and STi5514 chips.
Sounds great in theory. But exactly what does "interactive" mean? Engineers can trade CAD images over e-mail or websites, sometimes loaded with rich BOM and PDM data, other times stripped down to a mere "dumb box" rendition of the original 3D image.
When my local cable company replaced our analog set-top box with a digital version from Motorola, the new box was labeled "interactive digital communications." I think that's in reference to the TV schedules and pay-per-view movies we can navigate with the remote control.
In contrast, the WOW BOX will allow viewers to surf the news, weather, job and real estate listings, play video games, and listen to music. It can also provide split-screen channels—similar to what CNN Headline News does today, but with more options—featuring simultaneous broadcasts, interactive billboards, and program-related ads.
Sure, that's interactive, but none of it requires what the industry calls a "backsignal," says WOW chairman and founder Steve Lindsley. All that information can be sent in a single "carousel" of data, revealing itself only when the TV viewer drills down through the layers of data. The challenge of creating truly interactive TV gets tougher when viewers want to vote, shop, or order pizza—activities that require them to actually send data to someone else.
Technology companies have speculated on this vision for decades. In Michael Lewis' 2001 book about the Internet bubble, "The New New Thing," he describes the attempt of Jim Clark, founder of Silicon Graphics, Netscape, and Healtheon. Clark's team created the boxes, but couldn't find any customers to buy them.
So why is WOW trying again now? The Telecommunications Act of 1996 required every U.S. network to create a digital TV broadcast by May, 2002, says Lindsley. Many won't make it. But the WOW BOX provides the platform and the infrastructure: hardware, middleware, authoring tools, bookend systems.
Even today, viewers are so accustomed to getting their television for free that virtually no one has bought the new HDTVs, despite their superior pictures. The situation is similar to engineering companies' stale efforts to force their CAD jockeys to start using PDM and PLM networks—the designers balked at all the extra time and training required.
In the TV industry, Lindsley's answer is to stay flexible: "If they don't have the wherewithal to buy a high-definition TV—and 98% of the U.S. we think won't—they can view an analog TV with a WOW set top box, and get DVD-quality picture and sound."
He also plans to offer aggressive prices: "We believe early adopters will buy a $200 set top box, but our goal is to get the price down to zero, with subsidizing from content providers and advertisers." The math is similar to the reason that cell phones and cable boxes are virtually free.
Faced with these incentives, the WOW team thinks it can't miss.
"The market is just not yet educated," insists ST's Mike Hawkey. "The ability to get data off your TV instead of going to your PC is taking Americans a while to grasp. But when they do, it'll take off quickly."
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