Tim Collings is the inventor of the revolutionary V-chip, a device that provides people with some control over the content beamed into their homes via their television set. Inspired by tragedy, he applied his research to create a tool to help protect impressionable minds, resulting in one of SFU’s most renowned research-based innovations.
Since television became widespread in the 1950s, the potential toxic effect to children from exposure to televised violence, sex and profanity has had parents, watchdog groups and sociologists wringing their hands. Broadcasters were reluctant to do much in terms of self-regulation, and telecaster advisories didn’t go 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—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 students at École Polytechnique hit close to home for Collings, as the victims were mostly engineers-in-training. One of his first initiatives at SFU had been to establish an orientation program to make it more comfortable for women entering engineering studies.
Then there was the revelation that the killer’s home housed 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, further strengthening his desire to create a solution for parents.
He soon hit upon the idea to use 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 were associated with ratings conflicting with those preset by the viewer.
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 technology 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, which happened to be looking into improving programming regulations. It was also notably championed by the Clinton administration—Collings was even invited to the White House to demonstrate the V-chip in 1997.
Fast-forward to today when the V-chip has been legislated as a mandatory component of every TV in the US, Canada, and beyond for the past fifteen years. As technology evolves to include digital and wireless TV options, Collings continues to participate in standards-setting groups to recommend changes to broadcasting policies.
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.”
Q & A with Tim Collings
What motivates you as a researcher/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 do you see as the most noteworthy emerging trend that will shape the direction university research over the next 50 years?
Connections. Keep on facilitating connections—no one succeeds in isolation.