The video labs at AT&T's Atlanta HQ are not located on the higher floors of its 47-story Midtown Center where, between demos, you can casually scrape a view of the city through giant windows. You know, where you might expect to see the future of TV. Instead, they're buried down on the second floor in a building a few doors down, in a plain gray room, whose only exceptional attribute is a wall of TVs-eight total including two 60-inchers-which are hooked up to experimental U-verse IPTV DVR boxes. In this room, sitting on the single blue-green couch, you can stare up and see the future-TV-to-phone video calling, iPhones as remote controls, on-screen visual voicemail, MST3K-style chat while viewing and more-TV as you will hopefully know it in the next couple of years.
There's a chance you won't, actually, see this TV in a few years, at least served up from AT&T. Only 379,000 subscribers are currently hooked up to U-Verse TV, and it's not available to a whole lot more than that. Rollout is slow. But listening to Peter Hill, VP of voice and converged services, talk about what the company is working on for U-verse, you'd never know that everything he was showing me was just for a tiny, privileged sliver of TV viewers. (BTW, for a great hands-on cable vs. U-verse review to see what they're getting, check out this piece.)
The first thing I spot-and ask about-when I walk in is the Xbox 360 on the shelf, a ghostly reminder of the promise of a ubiquitous IPTV box. The status? Microsoft and AT&T have to "come to terms" on it. Whatever that means, but the shaky laughter dotting our exchange implies you'll probably never see it in the States. On to the real show.
Integration is the key to AT&T's IPTV vision-integration with the internet, with your home network and media, integration with AT&T's services. But that doesn't mean TV itself is taking a backseat. Whole home DVR is arriving soon, so that one DVR box will stream content to any and every TV on the network (currently, only the TV directly jacked into the DVR can play back DVR content). You'll totally be able to pause something in one room, and pick it back up in another. With whole-home DVR, the box will be able to simultaneously stream eight feeds to every TV in your house: Three hi-def plus one standard-def stream from the DVR, plus 2 HD and 2 SD streams of live programming. All those TVs are getting all that content from one box. (For the nerds, each HD stream is encoded in MPEG-4, running at a variable bit rate that hovers around 6.5Mbps. The U-verse pipe is built on a 25Mbps profile, which is divvied up by high-end QoS for TV and your internet.)
Next, we go into some of the media sharing stuff, which probably looks familiar to anyone with an Xbox 360 or media extender since U-Verse uses Microsoft's IPTV platform. Music, movies, pictures, streamed to your TV from a standard Windows Vista or Media Center PC on the network-basic, but nice, since this is all just pumping into your set-top box. They've also got TVersity running off their network, which basically will stream anything to any device with a web browser, be it PSP or iPhone. It's running over Wi-Fi and it's actually damn snappy. I'm not really sure how this fits into the IPTV platform, other than their vision of a totally networked home.
All of this is "six to nine months" ahead of the field now. So, you could expect this stuff in the next year, though it's not officially announced yet. It's all about mainstreaming media streaming and sharing-a baby step, but probably necessarily to get, say, your parents ready for what's coming after it. This is when Peter pops on the "ultra-bleeding edge box" though he warns me none of this is actually guaranteed to become a TV reality.
Fire up the box. Welcome to Peter's favorites. Yep, like Sezmi, everyone gets their own personalized TV setup, with recommendations, favorites, etc. You can also log in and control the set-top box from the iPhone, like a sweet multi-touch remote. It's running over Wi-Fi and it's as responsive as any other remote control. But you know, sexier. An app for streaming to the iPhone? Not yet, I'm told, since there are "certain areas of the iPhone" where "Apple is keeping the experience..." "Controlled?" I volunteered.
It's a good transition to the more internet-y stuff they've got going on. Integrated RSS feeds-you can read Giz on your TV and have it not look like crap! Video RSS feeds are where it's at though, like a feed of CNN clips that constantly refreshes. It's like Headline News, without the waiting. Course, it can also pull in YouTube, though I'm more interested in Hulu.
Here's where AT&T benefits from being AT&T here, with your phone jacked into your set-top box. Maybe more "cool" than critical. A message asking for a video share call from a local Atlanta 404 number appears on the screen. Caller ID on the TV. We smack yes, and we're looking through the eyes of an LG Glimmer on our TV. Yeah, it looks like shit on the 60-inch DLP set, but it really works. Next, I call Peter's cell and leave a voice mail. A few seconds later, we're informed by the TV we've got a new voicemail waiting, so we flip over to a list of incoming calls. We can remotely check out the voicemail or add the contact to our address book.
The finale: It's basically Twitter TV. You jump into a chat room with your friends (or invite them) and you can bleat out IMs that are collected on a timeline as you watch Leonidas atomically kick effeminate Persians into bottomless pits. And lest you were worried about text-typing via a crappy remote control, I actually used an iPhone to input the text. Later you can go back and scour the conversation timeline like regular IM, looking for a nugget of insight that might've accidentally slipped out during the orgy of violence (or whatever else you and your friends are simultaneously watching). BTW, the cheesy avatars will be updated to look less like late-'90s Messenger, I'm told.
While these are all, by themselves, just little bits of coolness, taken together, it is a shift from the mostly passive way we watch TV. We actively time and place-shift now, but once we're plopped in front of the screen, input from us stops, despite decades of prediction that TV would become more and more interactive. U-Verse is not wholly revolutionary, but it's a stride toward true TV 2.0, with content from multiple sources, fueled by the internet. TV's got to do something, after all-there's less and less reason to be drawn to that particular idiot box, when there are so many boxes out there for so many different kinds of idiots. Of course, cable's got its own ideas about the future of TV, and soon we'll be looking into that too.