A TV set that combines the Internet with a VCR, Web cam, Karaoke system and more. Possible? Yes
To begin at the beginning, a couple of questions: What costs less than a dial-up connection, but gives you broadband Internet access upto 10 MB per second? What uses your TV set to offer Real-Video-on-Demand, SMS, email, chat, unlimited MP3s, online gaming, video-conferencing, telephony, and interactive education? What doubles up as your VCD, Web cam, Karaoke system, jukebox and VCR?
The answer: The WICE box.
Developed by P R Eknath, Sanjay Wandhekar, and B P Narayan -- founder members of CDAC, the brains behind India's PARAM-supercomputer, and currently the management team at Divinet Access Technologies Ltd, Pune -- this little gizmo is no larger than an overhead projector. Called the WICE (Window for Information, Communication and Entertainment) Box, or WICEMAN, it is Eknath's brainchild; his dream of creating a generic platform that can run any application.
The best thing is, it is a boon to India's Net users.
"The actual implementation was done by Sanjay Wandhekar, ex-coordinator of hardware technology group at C-DAC," says Eknath. Wandhekar has more than a decade of experience in systems and ASIC (Application Specific Integrated Circuits) design and is an expert in converting scientific concepts into marketable products. "Name the application and we will make it happen on this network," he adds, confidently.
The technology, also known as RAMNet (Remote Access Metropolitan Network), runs on a Metropolitan Area Network (MAN). Eknath explains: "Being in a local loop, the speed is tremendous and a digital signal ensures the highest quality with zero distortion. It consists of a Distribution Module (DM) box installed in every building or multi-dwelling unit (MDU), with a WICE box in every user's house. Each DM supports 16 users. A single wire brings you all the services."
Plug your TV into the WICE box and a fluorescent green menu prompts you to select from live channels, Video-on-Demand (VOD), MP3 music, chat and learning, email and SMS. The joy comes from knowing that you pay only for the TV channels you watch!
"We are implementing a Conditional Access System (CAS)," says Eknath. "No more paying for 80 channels when all you want is Star Plus and BBC. Also, you can record your favourite TV programmes and view them at leisure, just like a VCR." You can also record remotely, using SMS!
VOD lets you watch your choice of movie at your convenience. You can fast-forward, rewind or pause, as if it's your own mini-movie theatre. "In fact, one client wants to build movie theatres with no regular movies running. You hire the theatre, select the movie and watch it with your own crowd," says Eknath. Stunned yet? There's more. Such as unlimited MP3 titles. You can also use the Karaoke function and re-record classics using your own voice.
The icing on this huge cake is the email and chat without an Internet connection. When Anupam, Divinet's multilingual software expert (and also the brain behind CDAC's GIST technology), actually sent me email on my cellular phone using the TV set I was staring at, I began looking at it as if it were the eighth wonder of the world.
The email can be in any Indian language, you can chat online (when you're not actually 'online'), and even see the person you're talking to if you choose video-conferencing. Your email address is Yourname.number@DivinetAccess.com, incorporating a unique identification number for every user.
If that's not enough, the RAMNet also allows you to SMS without a cellular phone. Type your message on the TV screen, enter the recipient's number and send. Since it runs on MAN, the services are within your city limits, but Eknath soon plans to provide inter-city access using content replication. "There is no need for movies and MP3 files to travel globally. They can be accessed from a local server at higher speed and resolution," he says.
Avid surfers can connect their computers to the WICE box and surf at any speed they choose. If you register for a 64Kbps connection but want to surf at 10 MBps for just 10 minutes, you can, while paying extra for those 10 minutes alone. Depending on which plan you go for -- Normal, Premium or Gold -- your options increase in terms of speed and pricing. You can choose your own ISP and there is no fixed monthly fee. You only pay for what you use. "An ordinary user can now be at par with a multinational user like IBM or Wipro when required," says Eknath. "We call it Broadband at Dial-up Cost."
This Internet service has already been available in select areas in Pune for the last few months, with 500 users logged on.
"Eknath is very futuristic," says Deviprasad Rao, Public Relations Consultant at Divinet. "The technology they have developed is even better than the PARAM. It is in line with the concept of High Definition Television (HDTV) that exists only in theory so far."
"The idea is to bring email and chat services to non-PC users," says Eknath. "We started testing with the Internet service, which was a huge success. Now, the other services are also available. The WICE box is in testing phase but will hit the market in two months."
The potential is tremendous, and applications of the technology can only be left to one's imagination. In the field of education, for example, RAMNet will help rich schools diversify their resources to poorer corporation schools simply by connecting them via the network and installing TV screens in each classroom. Students can view lectures held anywhere in the city, submit assignments online, clarify doubts and have their test scores displayed on screen automatically.
"The controls lie in the teacher's hands, so it doesn't become a fish-market," says Eknath. "If you connect a printer to your WICE-box, the teacher can send you printed notes over the network. You can also hold private sessions for extra tutoring."
Similarly, corporates can share expensive software over the RAMNet, work-from-home options will become more feasible, doctors can monitor critical patients from home, online shopping will move into T-commerce (Television-Commerce), and credit card fraud will be impossible as the WICE-box uses fingerprints instead of credit card numbers for identification. Salesmen can come on-screen, market goods, let you bargain and bring in the personal touch currently missing in e-commerce. Eknath calls it "reality shopping."
"The capacity of the network is so large that we would rather use it than waste it," he says. "People still don't believe something so ingenious has been built in India. Our credibility is being questioned," adds Rao. "But the market is warming up to the idea after some public-education via the media. The response is tremendous and people can't wait to get connected. There is very little business-response yet, more of home-user-response, especially in Pune."
What we can expect, then, is little short of a revolution. "If it penetrates the market, the government will have to change the ISP act and Telephone Authority Act. Movie theatres, mobile phones and Internet businesses will crash. An advertising war will begin again. It is a scary technology," says Rao. "Funding the initial infrastructure and educating people are the two main challenges we face, but we are determined to do what it takes," adds Eknath. With this aim, Divinet has already set up showcase centres in Dubai and the US, with plans to have a mobile demo of the product too.
B P Narayanan, CEO-MD, Divinet Technologies Ltd, ex-founder-member of C-DAC, recipient of the prestigious Udyog Ratan and Bharat Udyog Goldstar Award, says: "Divinet has spent over Rs 100 million in the project so far, over the last three and half years. Raising funds was not too difficult because people knew about our sound track record in innovating technologies." The company also received USD 150,000 as prize money, thanks to the first E-Biz challenge award instituted by Dubai Internet City for world-class innovative e-business ideas.
"The future is convergence," says Narayanan. "We believe in our strengths to meet this expectation. Divinet is the only company in the world today to create such a future-proof integrated technology that delivers multiple services on a large network. Our initial target is 1,00,000 users in the next financial year, and the necessary tie-ups are in place. We do not have any competitors yet. This technology is the first of its kind."
If it works, your TV will never be the same again.