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%% Infochannel / Channel 4000 by Douglas J. Nakakihara %%
%% dnakakihara@BIX.com %%
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.
This article may not be re-published in any magazine, newsletter,
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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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 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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
$2,500 Master Station software
$800 Player Station software
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