Fuzzy Look at Future: TV on the Net : Electronics: The primitive technology is here to allow users to surf for ‘real-time’ video images, but it’s still slow.


I have seen the future, and it was coming from Finland.

It was a television image, only about three inches square, on a computer screen tucked inside a booth at the mammoth, annual COMDEX trade show, the computer industry show that has grown so large it fills three convention centers.

Outside the booth, giant electronic displays sponsored by industry heavyweights proclaimed the wonders of the digital age at deafening volume. Inside, in a tiny unadorned space, the video image attracting attention from an ever-increasing stream of visitors was hardly state-of-the-art.

The motion was jerky and a bit fuzzy, and the audio was barely AM-radio quality.


But what mattered was that it was live, and coming directly into the computer via the Internet.

These “real-time” video images, crude as they were, mean that one day in the not-too-distant future, we presumably will be able to simply click on our home computer screens to call up dance performances from Moscow, cartoons from Tokyo, an art appreciation class from Florence or Uncle Jim’s home movies from Chicago.

The possibilities are mind-boggling, and can be sampled now by any Internet user with a reasonably fast modem.

The only video feeds now available are--in addition to the one emanating from Tampere, Finland--business reports produced by NBC from New York and occasional experimental feeds from Chicago’s WGN-TV.

These Internet video feeds started about three months ago, using technology developed by Xing (pronounced “Zing”), a small company in Arroyo Grande, near San Luis Obispo.

The young contingent from the company sent out to staff the booth at the weeklong trade show was overwhelmed by the response. Executives from Hollywood, as well as high-tech outposts around the world, crammed into the booth.

“This has taken us by storm,” said Greg Biggers, 27, the manager of the company’s Internet project. After only one day, his voice was down to a rasp.

“It’s all happening faster than we could have imagined.”

Video itself has long been available on the Internet, but accessing it has been far from practical. Because video is so dense, electronically speaking, it can’t travel rapidly over the phone lines in the way that text or still graphics can.

To look at video clips in the usual way, users first have to download them as huge files into their computers and then play them back. It’s an arduous process. Downloading a five-minute clip with a reasonably fast 14,400 bps modem found in many home setups takes about an hour (somewhat less if the clip has undergone compression, lowering its technical quality).

The Xing setup works by using a technology known as streaming to compress the video as it’s sent out onto the Internet and then using software to “play” it as it comes into a computer.

The biggest obstacle to the technology taking off right now is its need for speed.

Some corporate Internet users and wealthy individuals can make use of extremely high-speed lines, costing about $1,000 a month, which make these real-time Internet video feeds look like broadcast television.

The fastest modem currently practical for most home users runs at 28,800 bps speed, which delivers jerky real-time video that is watchable but not for long periods of time. At the more commonly used 14,400 speed, the video goes so slow it looks like a slide show.

“I was watching some ‘shoot-'em-up’ show sent down the line by WGN,” Biggers said, speaking of the 14,400 speed. “I could hear the shots and see still pictures come up, but I couldn’t tell who shot who.”

Ultra-high-speed Internet connections will likely become more commonly available eventually. But then come the unanswered content questions: Will existing broadcast giants and movie studios produce Internet feeds? Will the broadcasts be advertiser-supported, pay-per-view or find some other way to make money? Will small outfits put their own offerings on the Internet?

As so often happens, the technology is arriving long before anyone can figure out what it will truly mean. But Biggers, whose voice got even raspier when he got excited, wasn’t in any mood to wait around to find out.

“Even a year ago, who at this convention could have imagined this would all be happening now?” he asked.

“I can’t wait to see where it all is a year from now.”

Internet users with Web access can check out Internet real-time video at the Xing site, There, the Windows and Macintosh viewing software is available, for free download.