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Philips develops DTV chip

Its coming availability in set-top boxes and next-generation digital televisions raises the question of when broadcasters will add new services.

Philips Semiconductors detailed plans for using its TriMedia processor in set-top boxes and next-generation digital televisions that can be upgraded as cable companies and broadcasters add new services in the coming years.

Earlier this year, the Federal Communications Commission adopted a number of formats for the digital broadcast of video and audio that enable higher picture quality than current analog formats. Philips says the TriMedia 32-bit processor has been designed to handle the processing needed to receive the various formats as well as offer capabilities for interactive services.

The broadcast formats are designed to enable broadcasters to decide for themselves whether they want to send out HDTV (high definition) signals or send more signals out at lower resolutions along with graphics and data for interactive services. The latter option is currently gaining favor among ABC and the Sinclair Broadcast Group, which owns a number of television stations across the country.

The problem for broadcasters is that televisions need new technology which enables them to receive a number of different signal types, while television makers are trying to make TVs that can receive the signals without adding a significant amount of cost to the manufacturing process.

"Broadcasters have 'discretionary' bandwidth that gives them the opportunity to allow everything from showing alternative camera angles to sending Web-type data that supports program content. We can provide a flexible environment that can be tailored to whatever service the industry wants to provide and can be changed on the fly," says Ron Baker, marketing manager for Philips's TriMedia processor group.

The TriMedia processor will allow a television to show different user-selectable camera angles in a sporting event or ads and simultaneous display ads and data such as statistics.

The processor is also capable of acting as an analog, cable, or ISDN modem for use in fully interactive services such as Web browsing through the television set, video-on-demand, video teleconferencing, and interactive online gaming. Broadcasters will roll out these services slowly, but television sets using the TriMedia processor will be able to take advantage of the new services through software upgrades, the company says.

"Everybody's talking about interactive services, although it's really difficult to say what's going to happen until a reasonable installed base of chips is out there, which is a couple of years out," says Rob Agee, an analyst with Cowles/Simba Information. "Nobody, including ABC, is likely to put a real bona fide effort together until they can justify the expense," he says.

"Where the interactive TV proposition gets interesting is when there is enough of an installed base [of digital televisions] that exceeds the 40-percent installed base of PCs, so you can reach the masses," Agee says.

Philips says they expect DTV-enabled sets using the TriMedia processor to be ready in late 1998.