In amongst a slew of other things, last week I went to what was hailed as the first public demonstration of a new Australian TV technology, dubbed ICE ("Intelligent Content Engine) - you can read the details here.
Now, there's no doubting that inventor Peter Vogel's a very clever man - aside from having his own portfolio of patents, and aside from being the brains behind the whole ICE initiative, he's also undoubtedly hitting the market at just about the right time. If the service is up and running completely by the middle of 2006, which fits with his outlined 18 month scenario, it'll be reaching maximum penetration right about the time that just about everyone realises the need for digital set top boxes (STBs). After all, by then, the death of the analog signal will be only around 2 years away.
I've still got my doubts, however, whether ICE as presented will genuinely take off to the rather heavy level that the presentation I saw suggested it will. Given the pricing and feature set, I'd be surprised if it didn't at least make some money, and given the quite moderate (by investor standards) AU$6 million he needs to get the project working, I'd be flabbergasted if it didn't at least get off the ground. There are areas, however, where I suspect the ICE engine could be improved, and areas where it might be bypassed completely.
On the subject of being bypassed; I attended the launch of Panasonic's new range of Viera high definition TVs last week, and one of the first questions asked by the heaving mass of journalists was "Why isn't there an inbuilt HD tuner?" It's an excellent question, and if I'm in charge of ICE, it's a question that has to bother me somewhat. Vogel and Faulconbridge mentioned that they were in negotiations with 'about half a dozen' STB manufacturers, but nothing was said of TV makers. There has to be a reasonable portion of the market that won't buy an STB at all - they'll simply take the opportunity to buy a new TV. If the STB is thrown in - as many are in package deals - then fine, ICE has as much of a chance as anything. If it's integrated, though, and the ICE package isn't part of the deal, then I can't see Faulconbridge making anything from that consumer. In a growing proportion of homes, the TV isn't just the idiot box that looks ugly any more - it's a part of the décor, and adding a chunky box is generally only something that throws that décor plan off.
On the features front, ICE is pretty clever; the ability to auto-surf or mute the volume during ads is a nice feature, although it did raise a few questions to my mind. The demo that Vogel showed jumped to ABC Digital Radio, and I suspect that choice wasn't all that random at all. What happens, for example, if you're watching a movie, the ads come on and you jump to the cricket, only to find five seconds later that an advertisement is on the cricket channel too? Do you jump back to your original ad-thrusting channel, stay with the cricket ads, or just fall into some kind of ad-swirling black hole?
Vogel was a touch coy about how the tech behind ICE actually worked, but he did reveal that it's backed up by constant human monitoring. Being paid to watch TV might sound like fun, until you realise that inevitably some poor schmoe's going to be watching the graveyard commercial shift, unable to switch channels and having to discern between the home shopping 'programs' and the actual advertising.
ICE also has parental control features, and while that's great for media soundbites, I'm once again left scratching my head and pondering a few points. The example Vogel showed was, according to him, using the commercial channel's program ratings (although ICE itself will be using its own custom written programme guides, apparently), and in the middle of the night it had a home shopping program rated MA, and the NBC Today Show rated G. Now, sure, maybe I don't want the kids ordering a magic salad slicer at 3 in the morning (or ever), but in what world is home shopping that much more objectionable than a news program that can (and does) show footage of war scenes, accident scenes and murder trials? This isn't entirely Vogel's fault (if he is indeed using the channel's own ratings guide) but it does point out a problem that also plagues each and every Net filtering package out there - one man's abhorrent filth is another man's enjoyable night in.
The pricing for ICE is relatively good; it's certainly not expensive, but given the company's focus on free-to-air digital only, I've got to wonder what the churn rate will be like, and whether the ICE-powered STBs will come in at a market premium - and if I'm a retailer, that's got to be an attractive proposition - as for many consumers, the cost of the STB will be the major investment in the whole deal. Vogel was at some pains to point out that the boxes will work as normal STBs if you choose not to renew your service, but I'm willing to bet that's a message that will get somewhat muddled at the retail and consumer end.
What do you think? Does the prospect of an ad-zapping, parental-control adding FTA Digital STB appeal? Would you pay for this kind of thing, and how much? Let me know your thoughts below!