The future has arrived in Ada Wong's home, a 1,100-square-foot Sha Tin flat outfitted with a television, a videodisc player, and personal computer. But apart from this technology, found in many middle-class homes, Ms Wong and her family have interactive television - only one of about 6,000 families in Hong Kong with such access. Ms Wong volunteered three months ago for free interactive-TV trials, one of two conducted since 1994. The hype and expectations of this new service, however, have so far outweighed the delivery. 'It doesn't work very well right now. The movies are outdated by about half a year. You have to wait awhile to see videos during peak hours, just like the Internet,' said the 25-year-old saleswoman, as pictures of biscuits offered by Wellcome supermarket appeared on her TV screen. 'Maybe when I pay for it, they will make it perfect. Otherwise, I won't bother.' Interactive TV is supposed to feed our homes with everything we need in one form or another, by pumping in a continuous selection of music videos and movies, and allowing us to bank and order from grocery and department stores with a few clicks of a button. No official launch date has been set by Hongkong Telecom IMS (Interactive Multi-media Services), which was awarded the Video-On-Demand licence in November. But the service is expected to be available to 40 per cent of Hong Kong's 1.6 million households before the Lunar New Year. By May, users can expect to do home banking, access the Internet, play games, and watch educational programmes developed by local and overseas sources, including Putonghua and English courses. Later, users will be able to buy cinema tickets and even determine the endings of programmes they choose to watch. Though Ms Wong was more than willing to test the technology for free, her parents and sister were loathe to use the service - or even their cable service for that matter. 'I like the concept. I think it will be popular, especially if I can use the Internet on the television,' Ms Wong said. 'I'd prefer to do some things at home and avoid the queues, but for vegetables or clothing, I'd prefer to shop at the store itself.' Interactive TV trials began in Hong Kong four years ago, as did most trials overseas. In 1994, public reception to VOD services was gauged through a year-long trial. From July last year, a second trial served as a test run of the service. Trials in the United States, Canada, and Britain have reportedly failed to lure the public on the grand scale once envisioned, due to technical problems, poor telecommunications networks or the fact the service never quite lived up to users' expectations. But Hong Kong has a fibre-optic network more advanced than that in most countries, and will therefore become the first place in the world with paying interactive-TV users after its official launch in a few weeks. William Lo Wing-yan is the managing director of Hongkong Telecom IMS. His office space is a cubicle more than triple the size of others on the top floor of Sha Tin's Grand Central Plaza. Apart from the desk and chairs in his cubicle, there are movie posters, a poster of a Porsche, plants, a large portable screen, several black leather seats, an expresso-maker and a miniature green to practise his golf. 'What we're talking about is changing people's patterns,' said Mr Lo, explaining how to get people hooked on interactive television. 'There are a few things we learned in the past few years. Rightly or wrongly, people compare interactive television to regular television. The unique proposition we have is that your television is interactive and you have complete control. 'But for many people, television is about sitting down and giving up control. So interactive television is not normal behaviour for them. But for the next generation, this concept may be no problem,' he said. VOD will be the bait to hook the present generation on interactive TV, since the penetration rate of Hong Kong people using video rentals is about 75 per cent, Mr Lo says. Hongkong Telecom IMS has already invested $1 billion in research and development since 1994 and another $10 million will be spent over the next 10 years to fine-tune interactive TV. With a fibre-optic network in place in some areas and more being laid out, 90 per cent of Hong Kong's households are expected to be able to access interactive TV by 2000, according to Mr Lo. It is this network that will ensure the service is a success in Hong Kong, unlike countries that found it costly to upgrade their telecommunication networks. There are others with a bleak view of how unaccommodating people can be with new technologies, including Dr Alonso Vera, director of the Cognitive Sciences Programme at Hong Kong University, who in 1994 worked for companies involved with interactive TV trials in Canada. 'There is a huge difference between watching television as a human activity and using the computer as a human activity,' Dr Vera said. 'Television is more of a vegetative, inactive state. So if you want to provide entertainment via the computer that's one thing, because it's active. 'But to turn it around and expect people to do active things through their television is another thing,' he said. Advocates and proponents of VOD services will likely study developments in not only Hong Kong but also Singapore, where a VOD service was made available through personal computers last November. Mr Lo said that while offering VOD through personal computers is justified for Singapore, which has a 50 per cent penetration rate, it is less feasible in Hong Kong, which has only half that rate. '[Singapore Telecom] are missing a huge market, because everyone has a television. We think that the mass should benefit from information technology, not just those who can afford it,' he said. The monthly fee for interactive TV, including the set top box (or decoder), will cost $200. The bill can be called up on screen, then paid by credit card. The set top box also has a smart-card slot, eliminating the need to use cash or a credit card. The video selection will include an equal amount of local and foreign content, with most movies costing between $8 and $20. But if the movie is popular, the price may top $25, Mr Lo says. The concern lingers with interactive TV, as it has with the Internet, on how well the service will function during peak hours. But Mr Lo says delays are unlikely since programmes can be watched at any time, and not according to any programming schedule. Retailers are expecting brisk business once the majority of Hong Kong residents can access interactive TV. Stores such as Wellcome supermarket have an exclusive deal with Hongkong Telecom IMS, Mr Lo says, so Park'N Shop is not expected to be available over the service. However, it was not the company's policy to make exclusive arrangements, so stores with the same services or products could be offered on interactive TV, according to Mr Lo. A city'super spokesman says 40 per cent of its business is expected to come via interactive TV once the service becomes available to most Hong Kong residents. Twenty to 30 per cent of its customers now use its home-delivery service. With only four stores - city'super, Wellcome, a children's bookstore and Hongkong Telecom services - currently available for home shopping in addition to MOD (music on demand) and VOD, even the trial participants have suggestions on how interactive TV can make their life better. Take Kenneth Lin, a 25-year-old Sha Tin resident, who has already signed up. 'If possible, I'd like to be able to do some stock trading over the television,' he said. As for what else is in the long-term future, Mr Lo hesitates to guess. He says with new technology, it is unpredictable. All he can predict is that eventually, 'there will be more creative people than ourselves who will think of something better to offer'.