By Walter S. Ciciora, Ph.D., Recognized Industry Expert on Cable and Consumer Electronics Issues Have a comment? Contact Walt via e-mail at: walt@ciciora.com

The Personal Video Recorder (PVR) provides a unique learning opportunity for technologists in the cable industry. A variety of lessons are available for those who would experiment with the device. Some lessons can be used to predict reactions of subscribers to other technologies of importance to cable. These technologies include digital television, video-on-demand, comprehensive electronic program guides (EPGs), and interactive TV. Lets explore the possibilities.

As a side note, my experience with PVRs is based on an early model Philips brand TiVo. Its been in my home for a year, and it has fundamentally changed the way we watch television. The lessons learned are most likely very similar to those that might be obtained by using other manufacturers products and other PVR systems.

Perhaps the most important lesson to be learned is how subscribers will react when they are freed from the restrictions of the serial presentation of programming. Previous approaches to freeing the viewer from the clock have essentially failed. The VCR had the promise of allowing consumers to watch programming on their own schedule, and to skip over commercials. Unfortunately, the VCRs limitations are crippling. VCRs are difficult to program and set up, giving rise to the cultural icon of the flashing 12:00.

The capacity of the videotape cartridge is inadequate for most purposes, leading to the usual choice of the extended play (EP) mode, rather than the higher quality SP mode. In EP mode, VHS tapes yield just six hours for the T-120 tape and eight hours for the T-180 tape. However, the likelihood of a frustrating error in the recording procedure has made successful recording all but unachievable for the average citizen. The use of VCRs with cable set-top boxes is a legendary mess. 

The PVR is fundamentally different in several important ways. Most importantly, it has relatively large storage capacity. The earliest models had 14 hours of maximum capacity. Then came models with 30 hours of storage, and the latest models have 60 hours of maximum capacity. This maximum capacity is at the lowest quality setting. This amount of capacity makes it possible to do significant time shifting with minimal hassle. It is possible to record reasonable amounts of favorite programming and convert most viewing to a personal schedule, rather than being captive to the programmers schedule.

The PVR is a great way to test the main features of VOD. The on my schedule feature already discussed is clearly attractive. Additionally, the VCR functionality of pause, rewind, fast-forward, and slow motion is more frequently used than I would have expected. When the phone or doorbell rings, or it is time for a meal or a comfort break, the pause button is a welcome feature. A clever recent TiVo commercial shows an avid sports fan putting the football game on pause, getting into his car, and driving to church, saying an urgent prayer before returning home to take the TiVo off of pause. Of course, his prayers are answered, and his team scores after the PVR play button is depressed.

We have become aware of how frequently a word or phrase is mumbled in ordinary programming. We can use the rewind feature to go back, turn up the volume, and play it back again. The PVR adds a feature not commonly found on VCRs:  instant replay. A one-button push provides an instant replay of the last eight seconds, with a return to the program without losing a second. Also, when a plot takes a devious turn, we can easily and quickly rewind to the exact spot and review the details to get it straight.

Another fun thing to do is to discover programming continuity errors. For example, when the logo on the pay phone says PacBell, but the action is supposed to be taking place in Chicago, we know someone lost track of the details. 

The slow motion feature, especially the frame-by-frame play mode, is really great for studying the details of high-speed action. I am beginning to learn the difference in the patterns of a horses legs between the walk, trot and canter. And yes, all four legs do leave the ground at once! While these capabilities were rudimentally available with VCRs, having a PVR makes their use an expected part of normal viewing. 

The TiVo has three fast-forward and three reverse speeds, all with clear viewing of the video material. The obvious application is for skipping over commercials. While a fixed 30-second jump button would be nice, it is not provided, as several broadcasters have become investors in TiVo.

The fastest speed is about 60 times real timethat comes to a minute of programming played each second. A whole hours program can be visibly scanned in just a minute! This is very handy for finding places in a recording.

Some programs, like Who Wants to be a Millionaire, or a baseball game, have very little action. The fast-forward feature can be used to skim over the mindless blather and pensive pauses and catch just the questions and their answers. The entire 60-minute show can be watched in a quarter to a third of the time!

E-mail: walt@ciciora.com