It's a stylish black box that fits inconspicuously alongside other high-end home video and audio gear. Yet inside lurks the most powerful bundle of technology that any home has ever seen. It can maintain a jukebox library of hundreds of audio CDs, simulate the acoustics of an intimate jazz club, and give today's standard television signal quality on a par with what high-definition TV promises--even on a 10-foot screen. It can tell you the value of your portfolio, based on current prices. And perhaps most impressive, it can do all this and considerably more under the guidance of a simple, two-button remote control.
What is it? The FroxSystem, designed by Frox Inc. in Sunnyvale, Calif., to be the gadget to beat all home entertainment gadgets. Aimed at the upper-crust of audio and video enthusiasts, many of whom are building so-called home theaters, it combines a computer workstation, lots of custom microchips, and a raft of Frox-designed software. The base price: a mere $10,000, not counting options such as digitally driven speakers or 100-disk CD jukeboxes that can drive the price as high as $30,000.
Are there enough well-heeled couch potatoes out there to make a market for this pioneering blend of computer, audio, and video technology? Five European individuals have bet a total of $22 million that says yes. But the odds have
lengthened considerably since the Frox concept was first put forth in 1988 by Hartmut Esslinger, the German-born head of frogdesign Inc., Silicon Valley's best-known industrial design shop. He enlisted Andreas V. Bechtolsheim, a co-founder of Sun Microsystems Inc., and Andy Hertzfeld, a software whiz from Apple Computer Inc., to design a mass-market entertainment system to sell for about $500. But as research and development costs ballooned, that price proved unreachable, and Esslinger's team bowed out.
A former Xerox Corp. executive, Austin Vanchieri, took over as president and CEO in 1990 and pushed ahead with the big-ticket FroxSystem. Using a Sun workstation--a computer usually reserved for engineers--the Frox system promises not only to improve the quality of the sound and pictures it handles but to make it simple to run a baffling array of components. The FroxWand, for instance, lets you move a simulated hand around the screen to adjust computer-generated knobs and buttons that pop up when you need them. The Frox computer can control other machines, such as CD players and VCRs, by simulating the infrared signals of their remote controls.
SPORTS AND STOCKS. Clearly, the FroxSystem is intended to dazzle consumers who simply must have the latest and greatest. For example, because all audio and video signals entering the Frox box get converted to digital code, they can be manipulated in ways that are virtually impossible in conventional analog gear. The computer also can maintain all sorts of information files -- about its owner's CD collection, for instance, or the coming week's TV schedule. Frox says it will broadcast continuous streams of data to customers, piggy-backing on the nationwide signal of Ted Turner's TBS superstation. Options, for which customers will pay $34.95 or more each month, include a 20-minute delayed stock ticker, TV listings, sports statistics, and movie reviews. Still more information and software updates may be delivered on prerecorded videocassettes.
"It's great for the gadget freak who wants to fiddle with knobs," concedes Ivan Zuckerman, president of Niles Audio Corp., another maker of high-end audio and video gear. And there are more gadget freaks out there than one might imagine. The Custom Electronic Design & Installation Assn., a trade group, estimates that U. S. consumers spend $600 million a year installing such exotic gear. Frox has so far signed up some 120 installers.
Even if Frox isn't a complete success, observers agree that it's giving the market an intriguing glimpse of home electronics' all-digital future. Says Lawrence E. Ullman, editor of the magazine Audio/Video Interiors: "It's a harbinger of things to come."
WHAT'S IN A FROXSYSTEM?
MEDIA PROCESSOR Digitizes, enhances, shapes, and routes all audio and video
FROXWAND A two-button remote control, which can direct the activities of all
other components, from satellite dish to VCR to loudspeakers
FROXVISION The company's own projection screens display high-resolution TV
images as large as 10 feet diagonally
FROXCAST An optional data service that delivers stock, sports, and TV schedule
information via cable-TV signals