Predicting the future is tricky business, particularly when it comes to technology.

By the time the 21st century arrived, we were supposed to be flying around town in rocket cars, dining on nutrient-rich pills and electing our leaders with touch-screen voting machines in our homes. Instead, we're still driving gas-guzzling cars, eating nutrient-free fast food and putting presidents in office the old-fashioned way: with punchcard ballots and backroom deals.

So it should come as no surprise that convergence, the much ballyhooed merging of televisions and computers that supposedly began back in the 20th century, is still more myth than reality. TV is still TV, computers are still computers and most people still use them for completely different tasks.

This is supposed to be the year that all changes. Insiders in the high-tech industry are predicting that next-generation game consoles and a new wave of set-top boxes will finally have us interacting with our televisions in the same ways we do with our computers.

The year's most significant development might be The Messaging Channel, a chat service for satellite and cable TV viewers that was scheduled to begin testing this month. The system is designed to let people swap voice and text messages on their TVs, just as they can on a computer.

The Messaging Channel is supposed to work without a keyboard, relying instead on a fancy remote control that can capture audio clips and can recognize characters handwritten on a small touch-screen. It also allows users to compose messages by selecting letters from an on-screen keyboard, which sounds cumbersome at best.

The success of such a system would depend on how smoothly it is integrated with traditional TV. If chat is restricted to its own channel, it wouldn't offer any reason to stray from a PC. And if people have to wait for voice messages to arrive like e-mail, most will opt to simply pick up a phone.

But if users can exchange voice messages in real time while watching another channel, they could tap into the natural communities that form around particular programs. "ER" watchers could swap predictions about how this week's medical emergency will turn out, while "Monday Night Football" fans can gang up to figure out what the heck Dennis Miller is talking about.

Meanwhile, personal video recorders like TiVo and ReplayTV will continue to evolve. These set-top boxes replace VCRs with a hard drive and software that gives users greater storage and more programming options, including the ability to "pause" live broadcasts.

The next generation of these boxes, due out this summer, will let people choose from multiple video streams of the same program. Satellite TV broadcasters could distribute simultaneous feeds from multiple cameras at a football game, for example, allowing viewers to choose their own angles and watch custom instant replays.

I'm not sure how useful this feature will be. Professional directors do a pretty good job of choosing the best angles and picking out highlights. And anyone who dallies too long watching customized replays of a football game will be stuck watching the rest of the game on a digital "tape" delay.

Most of the big names in consumer computing are still convinced people want to browse the Web on their TVs. Both Microsoft's WebTV and AOL-Time Warner's AOLTV use set-top boxes for that task, while Sony's Playstation 2 and Microsoft's upcoming Xbox will deliver Net access through game consoles.

TV-based Web surfing is the sort of thing that sounds good in a boardroom but falls flat in the living room. Most content on the Web is text, and it's no fun trying to read anything more than a caption on a TV set. These devices don't even make economic sense now that Web-capable PCs can be had for a few hundred bucks.

Online gaming, though, is much more promising. The large screen of a TV is perfect for video games, and consoles offer true plug-and-play capability , a vast improvement over the configuration problems that plague PC games. The only holdup is the limited availability of broadband Net connections, which are all but required for a seamless gaming experience.

By 2002, it's likely that convergence still will be considered a part of the future rather than part of our lives. But through the early steps that will be taken this year, we'll have a better idea whether the concept has any future at all.

To contact syndicated columnist Joe Salkowski, you can e-mail him at joes@azstarnet.com or write to him c/o Tribune Media Services, Inc., 435 N. Michigan Ave., Suite 1400, Chicago, IL 60611.

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