Agenda for Action in the UK:  Continued


Visit to Acorn Online Media, Cambridge

Wednesday 22 May 1996


              Lord Craig of Radley
              Lord Flowers
              Lord Phillips of Ellesmere (Chairman)

The Sub-Committee visited Acorn Online Media, St Matthew's Primary School and Netherhall School in Cambridge.



1. Acorn Online Media (AOM) is a subsidiary of the Acorn Computer Group, which is 45 per cent owned by Olivetti. AOM was established in 1994 to develop products and services for the networked multimedia market. Presentations were given by Simon Wyatt (Director and General Manager of AOM) and Nigel Harper (a senior consultant at AOM).

2. Mr Wyatt said that the "killer application" for the information society, in so far as there was one, was interactivity. AOM's core business was in the production of intelligent set top boxes for interactive TV applications, along with associated systems software, network services and consultancy. A key aim of AOM's activities was to keep costs to the consumer as low as possible by developing computing and interactive TV systems which used the televisions people already had in the home. To achieve this, an important development was graphics software that produced good quality images using the particular qualities of a TV screen.

3. The AOM set top box could be regarded as an inexpensive computer with a minimum of Random Access Memory (RAM), an operating system that used Read Only Memory, and a high performance low power processing chip which did not require a cooling fan. RAM chips were still an expensive component of the set top box and AOM were attempting to achieve the maximum range of functions while restricting the RAM requirements to 4MB. Mr Wyatt said that "programmers have become lazy" and AOM had had to convince them to write less RAMintensive versions of word processing and spread sheet software for use with the set top box and the Network Computer.

4. Most of the functions of the set top box could be operated using a simple hand held device similar to a TV remote control, although a keyboard, mouse, printer and other typical computer accessories could also be added to increase functionality and extend the potential service usage.

5. AOM had been working with companies such as Digital and various standards organisations to ensure that the set top boxes would meet current industry software standards. Content providers had agreed on about three or four standards for digital movie play back etc. and the AOM set top box was designed to recognise all of them. The set top boxes also had the ability to down load "applets" (small software applications that preceded the main content and allowed the computer to decode and display what followed) and hold them in the RAM memory while the content was being accessed.

6. Mr Wyatt predicted that at some point in the future when digital television broadcasting, digital televisions, and digital programmes had become established, then the AOM set top box might become an integral part of the TV set.

Interactive TV and demonstration

7. The Cambridge Interactive TV Trial (iTV) began in September 1994 with 10 "tame" users and a couple of content providers, using the already well established Cambridge Cable network. The trial was later expanded to 100 real customers and a number of schools. The Cambridge Cable network was upgraded in the trial areas to extend fibre optic cable as far as the streetside boxes. Coaxial cable was then used in the local loop to individual homes. The upgraded network infrastructure with Asynchronous Transfer Mode (ATM) protocols used throughout now provided full twoway broad band capabilities.

8. The trial was set up as a partnership with each contributing company providing hardware, skills, software, or content as appropriate within their fields of expertise. After establishing the network infrastructure, the main activity was the development of services. A "service nursery" was set up as a safe learning environment for the companies involved to learn from each others mistakes and to develop common themes for their content. Some of the companies taking part were the Post Office, Anglia Television, IPC Magazines, Tesco, National Westminster Bank, and the BBC. The Independent Television Commission and National Opinion Polls had also been active contributors. Mr Harper indicated that AOM's interest in providing training and help for the content producers was not just altruistic. It did not take long for the hype over the new technology to disappear and for people to start demanding content. Interactive TV and consumer interaction with services was effectively at the mercy of the content providers. Consumer interaction and the success of AOM was dependent upon content being up to date, interesting and worth watching.

9. The iTV demonstration featured: online booking of cinema tickets (including choosing one's seat and watching a film preview); personally focused news, where the user identified areas of interest and these items were regularly trawled from the various press agencies; indexing of broadcast material so that the user could jump to specific sections of a programme; and fast access to Ceefax. Apparently the fast Ceefax service was one of the most popular: AOM regularly downloaded and stored all of the broadcast pages of Ceefax on to an online cache which users could then access rather than having to wait for each Ceefax page to be broadcast. Banking, shopping, regular television channels, educational material and other cable services were also available.

Network Computers

10. The network computer concept was an alternative to the traditional PC and, like the AOM set top box, was designed with simplicity, ease of use and low cost in mind. The main computing power and data storage requirements were held on a local server and this was accessed over a network using a simplified Network Computer as the interface device. The Oracle Corporation was one of the main proponents of network computing and Acorn Network Computing had recently signed an agreement with Oracle to develop and provide a reference design for a network computer which Oracle would then licence to manufacturers.

11. Because software and stored information were not tied to a home computer, they were available anywhere that a network connection could be made. This was done using a smart card placed in the Network Computer (or street kiosk etc.) to identify the user and provide access to their files. The local servers for this required about the same computing power as modern Internet servers and the computing power may be optimised by software that learned the habits of its users (e.g. by down loading and caching the football results on a Saturday afternoon).


12. Carole Macintosh (the Deputy Head of St Matthew's School) and a group of her children demonstrated how they were using computers and the iTV educational material in the school. Some of the educational software provided for the trial was now out of date although they were able to download current material and software from the Internet for use on traditional PCs. Ms Macintosh said that the iTV and other computing materials were being used mainly as an additional resource to books etc. rather than as a complete teaching medium.

13. The iTV system had advantages over the other computers in that a whole class or group of children could sit around the screen and interact with the programmes. The children themselves seemed completely at ease with the iTV technology and were happy to explore and interact with the features on offer through the system using a remote control hand set.

14. In addition to the iTV machine the school had a range of secondhand PCs (donated by a parent) and software (e.g. drawing packages) which the children were encouraged to use during their free time. It was apparent that a considerable amount of time and effort, by both teachers and enthusiastic parents, had been put into obtaining and setting up the computers, screening software and making the computers childsurvivable. One example of parental activity was screening games down loaded from the Internet to weedout those with violent scenes. However, the range of suitable material available (real content and not just "froth"), via the iTV system in particular, could still be much better.

15. The school had conducted a survey of the proportion of pupils with access to computers at home. This was 70 per cent, although the "computers" ranged from games consoles to fully functional home PCs. Children without home access were given extra coaching in keyboard skills at school.



16. The Headmaster, Dr Hunter, provided an introduction to the school and its long history of being at the forefront of using computers and testing educational software. This was followed by demonstrations of the technology by Alastair Wells (the Head of Information Technology), Mr Driscoll (from Design and Technology Online) and a number of the ALevel students.

17. The School had 1495 pupils and 85 staff, split over two sites, which were linked by their computer use and physically by a fibre optic connection. The school is a superhighway evaluation centre, and had piloted the Design and Technology National Curriculum material for the Department of Education. A major new school building, which would include ATM technology, was under construction.

Use in the school

18. The school had an internal computer network and five labs linked together with a broad band connection. However, the amount of actual computer use was said to be quite small because of the physical and personnel limits involved: the cost of the computer equipment was still a major drawback, but the main need for additional funding was to provide an extra member of staff to develop the use of IT still further. The school was, however, trying to encourage the use of computing technology across all aspects of school life, and to all ages, by promoting the purchase of individual Acorn pocket book computers (based on the Psion pocket book). These were being made available to students through a nought per cent financing scheme. Loan computers would be made available to students who could not afford to buy them.

19. The school network used ATM protocols and they had a number of large storage devices for networked computer use, including a 480 Gigabyte hard drive for video storage. In terms of practical use the iTV system allowed users to gather data for school projects and collate video material which, for example, could be used either in the classroom by the teacher as a learning resource or by the student at home for preparing homework assignments. It was said that teachers were naturally experts at multimedia authoring (they do it already when preparing teaching material and so using the iTV system was an obvious extension to their skills).

20. The school was producing its own multimedia material for distribution on the iTV network and much of the authoring was being done by the students. One of the successful experiments so far had been to video a geology field trip and then place it on the network so that students could review the trip, compare views with their field sketches and catchup on any aspects that they might have missed.


21. One of the benefits of a network system that linked to other schools was that items of expensive equipment could effectively be shared electronically between sites. A student demonstrated how it was possible to send the designs for an injection mould over the network to a computercontrolled milling machine, and then watch the process in operation via a videofeed back over the network link. In the demonstration the machines were in adjacent rooms, but any distance could be irrelevant if suitable network connections existed.

22. The students themselves were very confident about using the network technology and, in particular, seemed to enjoy the development work associated with multimedia authoring. Most of the students already had access to computers at home although few had home access to the Internet.

23. It was said that one teacher had overheard the following in a local pub: "I'm going to buy my son the Internet for Christmas". Clearly this demonstrated that the public awareness of the Internet was high, but that this was not yet matched by a clear understanding of what it was.

24. The school was clearly a centre of IT excellence, with equipment to rival that in some university departments and an exceptionally enthusiastic and dedicated Head of IT. The school acknowledged that it was fortunate in being in Cambridge and had benefitted by having significant links to the local high technology industries. The case for centres of excellence to act as test beds for other, less fortunate, schools was strongly argued.


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