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%% Infochannel / Channel 4000                  by Douglas J. Nakakihara %%
%%                                                  dnakakihara@BIX.com %%
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NOTICE: This is the originally submitted text for an article that
appeared in the July 11, 1994 issue (#125) of MICROTIMES magazine.
(There are some slight edited differences between the published
version and this one.)

This article is freely-distributable as long as it remains unchanged
and this notice and the copyright remain included.

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or similar media, including those electronically distributed,
without obtaining prior approval from the author.  This provision
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Specific permission has been granted to Amiga Report.

Copyright(C)1994 Douglas J. Nakakihara.

The author can be reached thru Internet at dnakakihara@bix.com.

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/********************************************************************
InfoChannel / Channel 4000 
By Douglas J. Nakakihara 

   Whether you call it the information super-"highway," "hypeway," or 
"tollway," one thing is clear, people will continue to demand more 
information. People also want real-time updates and instant access. Only 
a few years ago, you couldn't even get 24-hour checking account 
information using the telephone. Yet, today I have often lamented the 
fact that the database was only updated daily. It's just human nature: 
yesterday's accomplishments become today's standards, and tomorrow we 
want more. This growing need for immediate information will be a driving 
force behind the information revolution. 

Scala InfoChannel 

   Scala has recognized the advantages of the TV medium for providing 
information. Nearly everyone on this planet knows what a TV is. It's 
impact on the cultures of the world cannot be disputed. People will 
effortlessly watch TV with little coaxing and the medium is one of the 
cheapest ways to distribute information to masses of people. The real 
hurdle with TV is not the medium itself but with program production. 

   Scala has been hurdling this problem for some time with a product 
called InfoChannel, a computer-based information system. This product 
provides an easy way to create, schedule, and distribute information to 
one or even thousands of remote sites. The information can be displayed 
using standard TV sets or computer monitors. 

The Software 

   InfoChannel shares basically the same interface and presentation 
power as its cousin, Scala Multimedia 300. The main differences are 
InfoChannel's scheduling and networking features, and it's ability to 
update a presentation while it continues to run. Using Scala Multimedia 
300, you would have to stop the presentation, make the changes, and then 
restart it. 

   A schedule can be set for groups or individual pages so that they 
are displayed at a certain time. Dates and days of the week can also be 
specified. This is particularly useful to prevent outdated 
advertisements and promotions from being displayed. 

   InfoChannel is also capable of controlling many devices, like 
VCRs, DATs, laserdiscs, MIDI, and the VideoToaster--now that's real 
multimedia. 

New Version 

   The newest version of InfoChannel adds MPEG support using an 
optional MPEG decoder board. Software-based MPEG encoding has also been 
announced. Other new features include built-in advertiser billing, 
better image manipulation tools, framegrabber support, and outline text 
capability. 

Stations 

   An InfoChannel "Master Station" is basically an Amiga running the 
InfoChannel software. It is on this machine that all of the text, 
graphics, animations, and audio are compiled into a presentation. 

   A "Player Station" is an individual Amiga computer with 
InfoChannel player-only software. The Master Station coordinates and 
controls the distribution of InfoChannel presentations to the Player 
Stations. The InfoChannel's ScalaNet module handles maintenance, 
configuration, and supervision of the Player Stations. It also controls 
password protection, author privileges, statistics collection, and other 
administrative tasks. 

   In the simplest implementation, a Master Station is used with a 
single Player Station connected to a network of TVs. A classic example 
of this would be a cable TV broadcast of a programming schedule or in a 
closed-circuit situation. There is no interactivity here and all of the 
TVs would simultaneously display the same information. A hotel might 
also implement such a system to display an event schedule. 

   Since the Player Stations are independent machines, they can 
individually interact with users. As a result, multiple players can 
provide different information depending on the needs of the user. You 
can also have multiple Master Stations that transmit data to a group of 
players. Each player can individually merge the received data. 
InfoChannel can also accept data from mainframes, minis, and PC networks 
and integrate it into a presentation. 

Transmission 

   If there is only one Player Station and the Master Station is not 
located too far way, the two computers can be linked using an 
inexpensive null modem. An Ethernet-based Novell or TCP/IP local area 
network can also be used to distribute the presentation. An easy way to 
distribute presentations over long distances is using standard telephone 
lines and modems. ISDN (Integrated Services Digital Network) lines, 
satellite, and broadcast technology are also supported. 

   The Master Station will automatically compare the Master and 
Player stations and not transmit duplicate data. If there is a time-
charge imposed on the transmission, like telephone charges, this feature 
can be a real money saver. This is especially true if text is usually 
the only thing updated on a regular basis. Larger files like animations 
and other graphics can be pre-installed using floppy disks. 

Real Life Uses 

   Scala boasts a large number of InfoChannel installations 
throughout the world. Recognizable names include Hilton, Sheraton, 
Marriot, Ford, March Air Force Base, GM, Nissan, JC Penney, American 
Airlines, Boston University, and Shell Oil. The number of hotel 
installations is impressive. Most of the systems are in Europe, but 
there are several in the U.S. 

   A healthcare provider in Virginia uses interactive InfoChannel 
kiosks in their hospital lobbies. The system provides patients and 
visitors 24-hour access to all types of graphic and printed information, 
including detailed direction information. 

   The SAS Scandinavia Hotel in Oslo, Norway uses InfoChannel for its 
500 room hotel. InfoChannel provides information on restaurants, bars, 
the pool and sauna, TV schedule, laundry services, and other hotel 
services. Information is updated several times a week and management 
loves the ability to make changes in a matter of seconds. 

   A cable company in Michigan serving 40,000 households uses several 
Player Stations. Each player provides programming for a particular local 
network. Programming includes information from the public library, local 
government, and schools. 

   In England, a supermarket chain has an interactive electronic 
cookbook kiosk. Using a touch screen, customers can view recipe 
suggestions and also get printouts and coupons. In Holland, one of the 
largest Dutch banks, VSB Bank, also uses a touch screen InfoChannel 
system to provide individual information on deposits, loans, insurance, 
and real estate. A second InfoChannel broadcast displays general bank 
information. 

Channel 4000 

   A cutting edge implementation of InfoChannel is "Channel 4000" 
created by Alpha Video located in Minnesota. Along with a silent 
partner, Alpha Video is owned by two former NewTek sales managers, Reid 
and George Johnson (no relation). In the past three years, the revenues 
for the desktop video dealer has grown from $4.5 million to $9 million 
in annual revenue. Former NewTek VP, Paul Montgomery, called Alpha Video 
"the world's best desktop video dealer." 

   In an effort to capitalize on Alpha Video's expertise in desktop 
video and network dealers with similar businesses, Channel 4000 was 
born. It is promoted as the world's first private desktop video 
television channel. The InfoChannel broadcast is transmitted via modem 
to subscribers five days a week and each broadcast runs about 15 
minutes. Each subscriber has its own Player Station.  

Wizards 

   Though the service, which began in September 1993, started out 
heavily Toaster-oriented, changes in the industry--most notably 
Commodore's bankruptcy--has caused Channel 4000 to cover more and more 
non-Amiga-based products. The main subscriber base is referred to as the 
"DeskTop Video Wizards Network." For the most part, these are Video 
Toaster dealers. 

Daily Transmissions 

   Channel 4000 broadcasts are automatically transmitted late at 
night to take advantage of lower telephone rates. Nearly all of the 
graphics, animation, and audio are pre-installed on the remote Player 
Stations, so the broadcast usually consists of only a small player 
script file that can be transmitted in less than a minute. 

The Broadcast 

   From the broadcast menu a subscriber can choose any one of the 
five most recent broadcasts. The entire broadcast is complemented with 
catchy background music. Every broadcast is divided into various 
segments that more or less cover a certain topic. Limited advertising 
time is available during the broadcasts. However, to date, there has 
been little advertiser support.  

   Alpha Video has created custom backgrounds to give the broadcast 
its own unique look and feel. The backgrounds provide an exciting yet 
comfortable backdrop for the informative text that is tastefully wiped 
in. Large legible fonts are used and the music enhances reading the 
text. 

Real Time News 

   Channel 4000's aim is to keep its subscribers up to date and 
informed on a daily basis. If you consider that traditional printed 
materials like magazines and company flyers are out of date by weeks or 
months by the time they are received, Channel 4000 is providing 
essentially real-time news. 

   Coverage of the current uncertainty surrounding the Amiga with 
Commodore's unknown future has demonstrated the value of Channel 4000's 
up-to-the-minute information. Since the day the infamous Wall Street 
Journal article hit, they have been doing their best to wade through the 
rumors and sort between fact and fiction. Their telephone interview with 
one of the bankruptcy trustees--before anyone even knew who they were--
was unprecedented. They have interviewed other key people in the Amiga 
community and given subscribers invaluable guidance on what they should 
be doing to protect their desktop video businesses.  
  
The Cost 

   Channel 4000 subscription rates range from $50 to $350 a month, 
depending on the annual revenue of the subscriber. Alpha Video sells and 
leases Player Stations. You can use your own A1200 or A4000 (AGA 
required), provided you have the enough free disk space and a supported 
modem. However, you are a lot less likely to encounter transmission 
problems with a dedicated machine. 

The Future is Now 

   Implementations of InfoChannel like Channel 4000 are providing a 
glimpse of things to come. It's easy to generalize about the information 
superhighway and how long it will take to pave. The fact of the matter 
is: the pioneering efforts of companies like Alpha Video demonstrate 
that the technology is already here today. 

         *   *   * 

   Just as I was about to put this article to bed, I received the sad 
news that the plug was being pulled on Channel 4000. Alpha Video was 
unable to expand the Channel 4000 subscriber-base beyond Amiga/Video 
Toaster dealers. They needed strong advertiser support that could not 
come from Amiga developers alone. However, without a PC-based 
InfoChannel and no supply of Amiga 1200s, they could not offer an 
affordable player system. (On a somewhat related note, there is an 
interesting rumor that a shipment of newly manufactured 1200s has 
appeared in Europe.) 

   George Johnson stated that, "ending Channel 4000 is not an issue 
of us giving up on this. We're even more excited about this than ever." 
"We think there is a ton of other applications. We learned a lot from 
Channel 4000 and we're just going to keep going with this thing." 

   Resources are now being focused on Alpha Video's Private Channels 
division to promote their Custom Channel and Alphachannel products. With 
a Custom Channel, they will produce and distribute a daily InfoChannel 
broadcast for clients--essentially a customized Channel 4000. Their 
Alphachannel product is geared toward a cable/broadcast station or 
closed-circuit situation. This can be an interactive application where 
viewers can affect what's being shown using their telephone. The 
interaction can be real-time or queued. If they want to, clients can 
take a totally hands-off approach and merely provide raw information to 
Private Channels and let them take if from there. 

   Private Channels has already been contracted to do several 
InfoChannel-based installations, including one for Scala dealers. 
Another client is a tire installation chain that will show an 
advertiser-sponsored informational broadcast to people in their waiting 
rooms. Pinnacle was very interested in a custom channel to promote their 
product Aladdin, a PC-based video switcher. However, they didn't like 
the fact that Channel 4000 only ran on an Amiga. 

   Incidentally, Scala has hired a number of ex-Commodore employees. 
Many of them were involved with Amiga research and development. It is 
well known that Scala is desperately searching for a way to effectively 
port Scala Multimedia and InfoChannel over to the PC platform. The 
problem? Windows can't handle it. I suspect that they are using the 
former Commodore brain power to design software and perhaps even 
hardware to run Scala products on IBM PC hardware, with Amiga or better 
performance. 

InfoChannel 
$2,500 Master Station software 
$800 Player Station software 
Scala, Inc. 
2323 Horse Pen Road, Suite 202 
Herndon, VA 22071 
(703) 713-0900 

Alpha Video 
7711 Computer Avenue 
Edina, MN 55435-5494 
(612) 896-9898