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TiVo launches "smart TV" trial

The service allows old-fashioned analog TVs to pause, rewind, and play back television programs as well as seek out programs that might be useful to viewers.

TiVo has started field trials of a service that will enable old-fashioned analog TVs to pause, rewind, and play back television programs as well as seek out programs that might be useful to their owners.

TiVo's service uses a special set-top "receiver" that acts like a digital VCR. It permits users to view, pause, and rewind live programs as well as record programs and replay them at will. The device also dials in to a central database of program information as part of its ability to let users customize their viewing experience.

The field trials, which started this week in the San Francisco Bay Area and will be expanded to other test markets, are being conducted in anticipation of a full scale launch of the service in the first quarter of 1999. TiVo's announcement follows news of a similar service in the works by Replay Networks.

Richard Doherty, president of Envisioneering Group, calls these devices "Trojan horse PCs." The TiVo and Replay receivers use PC technologies such as hard disk drives and MPEG-2 chips for manipulating content from broadcast networks and treat them like software programs that can be run at will, much like a PC. However, they do this without the complexity of the PCs interface and file management system

"We have basically shrunk down a video server and put it in your home," said Joe Harris, director of products and services marketing.

TiVo's device can also be "taught" by users, Harris said, to select content that you are likely to want to watch, and it can be programmed much like a VCR. This is becoming more important, he said, as broadcasters, cable operators, and direct broadcast satellite (DBS) companies send more and more programming into homes.

"With big cable and satellite providers, you have thousands of hours of programming, which lots of viewers could enjoy if they knew it existed," said Dale Hitt, product marketing manager for TiVo. With the company's service, searching through that programming becomes easier, he said.

DBS provider DirecTV, in fact, will be participating in the trials of TiVo's service, although the company has not yet signed any agreements to incorporate the technology into its own set-top boxes.

"We're very enthusiastic about TiVo and the potential it could have for TV enthusiasts," said Brad Beale, vice president of Advanced Products for DirecTV in a statement. "Being involved in TiVo's field trials allows us to see firsthand how the TiVo service could enhance the television viewing experience for DirectTV subscribers."

TiVo is looking to license its technology to cable set-top and satellite receiver manufacturers as well as consumer electronics companies.

When the device is released in the first quarter of 1999, the company hopes to price an entry-level system at around $500, so the mass market for "smart TV" devices is still a ways off, but getting closer.