Originally published in the January 1995 issue of Advanced Systems.

Product focus

Television on the workstation

by Shalini Chatterjee The way I found out about the death in jail of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer wasn't by sitting in front of the 6:00 news with the usual bag of Salt 'n' Vinegar potato chips in hand, but from a broadcast on a workstation. Yes, a workstation. I happened to be watching a live CNN newscast one Monday morning on a SPARCstation during a demonstration of ShowMe TV from Sun Microsystems (Mountain View, CA).

The new audio/video communications tool allows X Window and Windows users to view video broadcasts on their computers, as well as record or edit television programs. It is also possible to transmit broadcasts to people of your choice. Sun said the product, which was originally used internally, is targeted at companies which need some type of constant, real-time, live-broadcast feed, or for corporate purposes such as employee training. Currently, financial services and government agencies are at the top of the customer list.

The ShowMe TV Receiver and Transmitter comprise the complete product, and are priced separately. At $2,000, the Transmitter broadcasts the audio/video source program over the network to any workstation that's running ShowMe TV Receiver software. The Transmitter will run on a SPARCstation only, with Solaris 1.x or 2.x, a standard TCP/IP connection, and a SunVideo board (not included). The SunVideo board performs the proper data-compression tricks that avoid network disruption. In fact, Sun said the product doesn't affect the network much, since only 64 kbits/ second are needed for an audio broadcast, and 500 to 800 kbits/second for an audio/video broadcast.

Basically, the Transmitter broadcasts video and audio from any standard camera, VCR, TV, or file (not included) onto a workstation or server. To control viewing, thus preventing the whole corporation from watching Simpsons reruns all day, or ensuring confidential broadcasts stay that way, there is an Open/Closed option. "Open," the default, lets anyone watch. "Closed" pre-specifies the audience. To choose viewers, the Transmitter user refers to the included ShowMe Address Book, which stores viewer network IDs and group names, just like e-mail aliases. And it's possible to add a message right onto the viewing window (such as "check out that nasty blizzard in Minneapolis!"). Called the message teletext, this feature looks like the silent news messages that glide across the bottom of your TV's picture.

Additionally, there is an option to select and schedule program material. Multiple video and audio channels can be broadcast simultaneously by using multiple ShowMe TV Transmitter stations on the data network.

TV-on-Demand, which won't ship with this version, takes advantage of the calendar-scheduling capability of the ShowMe TV Transmitter. The user sends a mail message to the Transmitter workstation mailbox requesting a particular broadcast channel and specific time slot, for example: Channel 44 from 6:30 to 7:00 pm, Monday. The Transmitter will, if no competing requests exist, reserve that time slot to transmit that channel during that period. This feature, which is available internally at Sun now, will be included "if it's manageable," according to Jon Haass, multimedia manager of product marketing.

The ShowMe TV Receiver software starts at $100 per user for 100 licenses. It lets the user record a single frame, short segments, or a whole broadcast for later editing or mulling over; it can digitally record program material on disk in compressed form for later rebroadcast. Programs can be recorded using either the integrated timer or the Quick Record feature. The software runs on Motif interfaces and any X11R5 or Open Windows 3.0 windowing environment. It allows the viewer to display multiple channels concurrently. The Picture-in-Picture (PiP) feature provides the simultaneous display of a second channel within the viewing area of the primary window. With a mouse drag, the PiP can be relocated or toggled between the two displayed channels.

Current options include the SunCamera ($495), a monitor-top camera with a privacy shutter intended for conferencing, and the SunTuner ($399). This compute-controlled device, which attaches to a TV cable, turns TV signals into standard audio and video signals that can plug into a video card and an audio port on the workstation. Without it, Haass said, "you need some other device to select a particular station out of the jumble of analog signals on a cable feed."

Sun Microsystems Computer Corporation, 2550 Garcia Ave., Mountain View, CA 94043, 415-960-1300.

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Last updated: 1 January 1995.