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Hype Tends to Obscure the Meaning of Interactive TV : Information: One man's interactivity could be as simple as 'F Troop' on demand. Others see more complexity. Cost will play a major role.


NEW YORK — Three nights a week at 7 p.m., Manhattan cable Channel 37 cuts from the chat show "Realty Views" to a spinning green orb with a message: "Fly the Electronic Neighborhood."

For the next hour, about a dozen home viewers use their telephone key pads to navigate a 3-D world studded with graphic icons--a bicycle, a tree, a paintbrush, a Zen temple--that contain multimedia fare.

They tour a Russian palace, peruse a cable TV guide, hear full-motion sound bites of New York Gov. Mario Cuomo nominating Bill Clinton for President.

They draw multicolored lines, watch a guy describe his bike route in Queens, read pro-feminist, anti-homeless, happy-birthday and get-well messages, view an animated film about civil rights.

It may not seem like much, but participants in this New York University experiment are pioneers in interactive television--a field larded with hype but also the potential to change America's couch culture in the 21st Century.

Scores of companies are promoting the first wave of offerings. Countless start-ups have ideas but no money. Corporate partnering occurs almost daily. Newspapers describe the possibilities with wide-eyed fascination.

There's one catch: For consumers, interactivity is still mostly talk.

"We should have known that any revolution involving the media would be the most thoroughly analyzed and over-hyped revolution of them all," said Wired, a trendy techno-magazine. It placed "Interactive Everything" No. 2 on its "Hype List" in a recent issue.

The term grows broader daily. Are round-the-clock soap opera reruns really interactive, as one company claims, just because a viewer can choose when to watch? Does interactivity mean something more complex, like controlling what happens on screen or supplying program content?

"We're trying to get away from choice," said Red Burns, who chairs the NYU graduate program that developed the "Electronic Neighborhood." "More interesting is that you can manipulate, you can move around, you can create."

Industry, however, is driven by sales. Commercial tests will accelerate this year, allowing consumers to order movies, shop electronically, browse encyclopedias, and play along with sports events and quiz shows.

Technology in a short time promises much more: "Virtual" tours of vacation spots. Traffic reports that let viewers manipulate cameras mounted alongside busy routes. Video catalogues showing how a consumer looks in an L.L. Bean sweater or Giorgio Armani suit.

The big mystery is how much consumers will pay for interactive information and entertainment--potentially a $3.5-trillion industry, some have estimated.

"It's a very, very rich area to work in," said Ed Szurkowski, head of interactive computing systems research for Bell Labs, American Telephone & Telegraph Co.'s research arm.

"The problem is you have to be careful because ultimately it's driven by the question of what do people want and what are they willing to pay for," he said. "You can drive down a lot of dark alleys that ultimately lead to nowhere."

Everyone's getting behind the wheel. Cable, telephone and entertainment companies are joining forces. The takeover fight for Paramount Communications Inc. illustrates the stakes.

Dozens of outfits with names like Voyager and Cyberdreams are developing interactive software. Computer hardware, software and chip companies are teaming to build the critical set-top decoder boxes that will control the new two-way TVs. Concepts are abundant.

"We took our ideas to the big companies and they jumped up and down," said Jennifer Carney, who with two partners started Vortex Communications to develop a video bulletin board program dubbed "America's Grapevine."

They haven't received any money. "It could be because they see so many good ideas that they're having trouble picking," Carney said. "There's a certain level of how do you pick which one?"

How indeed? Name a company or a business figure and they're probably involved with interactivity. Michael Milken, the paroled financier with a longstanding interest in education, has invested in a multimedia cable venture.

"It really is kind of overblown right now because it is an experimental period," said Bruce Ryon, a multimedia analyst with Dataquest Inc., a San Jose, Calif., market researcher. "You're really not going to see anything settle out until the '97-'98 time period."

"The technology is in place but the cost is horrendous," he said. "In the consumer market, pricing is everything."

Big business is probing consumer tolerance and desire. AT&T and cable company Viacom Inc. soon will begin an interactive trial in Castro Valley, Calif., offering movies on demand to start. Time Warner Inc. is testing in Orlando, Fla.

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