Tragedy prompted Tim Collings to create a tool that could help protect impressionable minds. It stands as one of SFU’s most celebrated research-based innovations.
Since television became widespread in the 1950s, the potential toxic effect of televised violence, sex and profanity on children has had parents, watchdog groups and sociologists wringing their hands. At the same time, broadcasters have been reluctant to impose self-regulations, and telecaster advisories have not gone very far in terms of quelling concerns.
Enter Tim Collings. In the early 1990s, he created a device that he called the V-chip, an innovation that provided a simple way to block unwanted television content. “I just thought that there must be a more intelligent way to filter content before you even turned the TV on—you can never predict what might come across the screen,” he says.
He was spurred to develop the technology after the Montreal Massacre, a horrific event that occurred shortly after he joined SFU’s School of Engineering Science as a lab instructor in 1989. The murder of 14 female engineering students at École Polytechnique hit close to home for Collings–one of his first initiatives at SFU had been to establish an orientation program to make women entering engineering studies feel welcome. Then there was the revelation that the killer owned a sizeable collection of violent videotapes, which made Collings curious about how television could adversely affect human behaviour. He read studies that associated violent programming with negative affects on children, strengthening further his desire to create a solution for parents.
He hit upon the idea of using existing closed-captioning technology to code content according to multiple TV rating systems (18+, TV-PG, etc.). He then programmed a microprocessor (i.e. a computer chip) with his pioneering meta-tagging system and built it into a TV. The TV set could then be programmed using a remote control to “black out” programs if television signals indicated they conflicting with the television owner’s settings.
Once a prototype of the V-chip was ready, SFU’s Innovation Office (then the University/Industry Liaison Office) assisted in patenting and licensing the technology to Canadian V-Chip Design, an SFU spinout company that introduced the innovation to TV manufacturers and commercializing partners. Additionally, Shaw Cable and its subscribers did trials using the chip before it was finally deployed commercially. Eventually the technology was acquired by Calgary-based Wi-Lan.
News of the V-chip was eagerly received by multiple interest groups, including the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission. It was also notably championed by the Clinton administration—Collings was even invited to the White House in 1997 to demonstrate the V-chip. Today, it remains a mandatory component of every TV sold in the US, Canada, and beyond, and as technology evolves to include digital and wireless TV options, Collings remains involved in standards-setting groups.
Almost two decades after first developing the V-chip, Collings still receives “thank yous” of appreciation from parents. “I don’t get recognized on the street or anything,” he says with a laugh, “but I still get letters about it—even from kids who had to write up reports about it and thought it was cool. It’s been gratifying to do something positive.”
Tim Collings was a founding faculty member of the Technical University of BC in 1999 which was later absorbed into the technology-focused SFU Surrey campus in 2002. He continues to be involved in innovation by investing in new ideas and serving on the board of the WUTIF Capital Inc. seed fund. He also remains keenly interested in content standards, serving on several technology standards-setting committees. The Vancouver Sun has named him one of B.C.’s top 50 living public intellectuals and he was appointed to the Order of BC in 2015 for his work with the V-chip.
Photo credit: Province of British Columbia
Q & A with Tim Collings
What motivates you as a researcher and inventor?
I think that research and invention are quite different. Research is undertaken to increase knowledge, whereas invention is more of a creative process. All inventors need to undertake research in order to solve a problem and I am motivated as an inventor by seeing a new possibility, connection, or relationship beyond what is already known.
How important is collaboration in advancing research/new ventures?
Collaboration is integral in new ventures. The entrepreneur is the driver but must be able to draw upon other skills and resources in order to be successful.
What does "open innovation" mean to you?
Incorporating external ideas to further your technology.
Putting one’s research or innovation out into the world often requires a leap of courage. Where do you derive your courage from?
At the end of the day, there is really nothing to be afraid of so just be courageous. Don't be afraid to fail because you will. Embrace failure and move on.
What advice would you give to other innovators?
Keep on facilitating connections—no one succeeds in isolation.