Multimedia Is Here, And It's Amazing

Imagine you can control the action on your TV from your sofa. After selecting a video program, you grasp your remote control and assume the role of a character in a mystery, a visitor to a museum, or a game show contestant. Meanwhile, across the house, another family member is working a personal computer that not only plays a symphony as crisply as a compact-disk player but also displays video and animation.

Well, stop imagining. After years of hype, so-called multimedia technology finally is available in consumer-electronics and computer stores.

MUPPET MATH. In essence, multimedia systems are a melding of the CD, the PC, and the TV -- a techno-utopian idea, for sure. But because each of these technologies is advancing rapidly and combining in different ways, you may want to see how it all shakes out before you count yourself among the first buyers of these relatively pricey setups.

By far the simplest system is CD-I, unveiled in October by Philips Electronics, the Dutch giant that developed compact-disk technology with Sony. The $1,000 "Imagination Machine" plays conventional 5-inch music CDs and can be hooked up to virtually any stereo. The selling point is its additional ability to connect to your TV and play CD-I disks that look like music CDs but also contain interactive video.

The interactive part is the key. Instead of just watching Sesame Street, for example, kids can participate in it. Ernie and Bert appear on the TV, invite you into their apartment, and guide you through activities. Using a handheld remote control with a tiny joystick, you can examine items in their living room. Select a book and it will open so that you and Ernie can read together. Pick the Muppets' TV, and they'll guide you through an interactive arithmetic lesson.

Dozens of available CD-I titles, priced from $25 to $50 each, work in a similar way. Treasures of the Smithsonian lets you visit 150 exhibits at the Washington museum complex in whatever order you like. You can learn about the Apollo 11 spacecraft and then play an ancient thumb-piano. Already, Sony and Matsushita have licensed the technology in order to market their own CD-I systems.

The drawback of CD-I is that it hardly acts like the microprocessor-controlled computer that it is. Since there's no way to connect a modem, it can't retrieve information or communicate with the outside world. And unlike a PC, it's not expandable. You won't be able to add new options as they become available -- which is certain to happen.

If you prefer a functional computer, there's the MPC, with the "M" standing for multimedia. Ten manufacturers, including Tandy and CompuAdd, are selling MPC machines, which are souped up IBM PC clones. All have in common a built-in CD player that sends digital audio to speakers or headphones. Plus, each has graphical windowing software from Microsoft. The systems play conventional music CDs, so you can do spreadsheets to Springsteen. But the real selling point is the ability to run lookalike CD-ROM disks that contain a rich mix of sounds, photos, moving pictures, and printed information.

The more than 60 CD-ROM programs available for the MPC are different from the CD-I titles. They generally contain less video but much more reference material. Perhaps the best example is Compton's MultiMedia Encyclopedia, which combines 32,000 articles, 15,000 images, and 60 minutes of sound in one interactive program. When you want to learn about whales, for instance, you not only get several long articles on them, but you also can view photos of humpbacks, hear the sound of them communicating, and even watch an animation of one swimming. Similarly, the MPC version of the popular geography game Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? is a CD-ROM disk with far more anima-tion, photos, and music than could be crammed onto conventional computer diskettes.The main drawback of MPC is the expense. The machines are about $800 more than comparable models of ordinary PCs, and the software titles can cost hundreds of dollars each, although many are in the $80 range. Most important, though, you'll want a large hard-disk drive, perhaps 80 megabytes, to store all the needed multimedia files. And you'll want a fast, 80386 microprocessor, so that you don't have to wait 30 seconds or so for images to appear on screen. Today, such a system would cost more than $3,000. Or you can buy an upgrade kit, for about $1,000, that can turn your IBM-compatible PC into a multimedia machine complete with CD-ROM drive.

Since there are so many ways to use multimedia, enthusiasts are predicting that the concept will widen interest in computers. For instance, starting next year, photofinishers equipped with Kodak's Photo CD system will be able to put up to 100 of your snapshots onto a single CD. Then you'll be able to show those pictures on a multimedia PC or CD-I machine. In addition, some multimedia setups allow you to take standard video from a VCR, edit it, add sound, graphics, and text, and then send it back to the VCR for viewing. Likewise, you can hook up musical instruments, such as electronic keyboards, to an MPC and edit songs or overdub sounds on top of a melody -- like a professional record producer.

In fact, multimedia aficionados have been doing video and music editing for years on machines from Commodore. Since the introduction of its Amiga computer in 1985, Commodore has been regarded as a leader in multimedia. Last February, Commodore brought out CDTV, which is being marketed more like a piece of consumer electronics than a computer.

Like CD-I, the CDTV system is a CD player that attaches to your television. But unlike CD-I, it's expandable in myriad ways. For $249, you can add a keyboard, a mouse, and a floppy-disk drive to the $799 machine, transforming your television into a working computer that can do word processing and run the thousands of programs developed for the Amiga over the years.

CDTV also plays special video CDs. Costing from $30 to $80, the nearly 100 titles now available are generally not as sophisticated as CD-I programs. Nor are they as information-rich as most MPC titles. Instead, CDTV programs such as the Lemmings game included with the system seem like a more sophisticated form of Nintendo. (Nintendo plans to add a CD-ROM drive to its popular game machines.)

INCOMPATIBLE. Like Commodore, Apple has long been a leader in multimedia, except that its forte has been in education, where kids use computers as an adjunct to classroom learning. Some of the best educational software on CD-ROM was available first on the Macintosh. Apple's most inexpensive machines, however, are black and white, which means you'll miss out on all the colorful images.

Of course, none of these four different systems is compatible, meaning interactive CDs for one machine won't run on another. But that's not the main reason to hold off on buying. In two years, you may spot CD-I and CDTV players for about $400 and powerful MPC or Mac setups for about $1,200. Buy now, and you'll pay nearly twice that. On the other hand, you could be the envy of your block as you enjoy a multimedia Christmas.


IBM-compatible personal computers with a built-in CD player and digital

audio-video capabilities. Manufactured by Tandy and 9 other companies. Includes Microsoft Windows. Priced from $2,600


These look like large CD players. But they can turn your television into an

interactive computer that plays video and animation. Priced at $799


Apple's Macintosh can play music and display video. A drawback is that the

inexpensive models ($1,000 and up) are in black and white. CD-ROM drive ($799)

needed for mass storage


Like CDTV, these are machines that attach to your television set and play

digital video and audio from special CDs. Controlled by a remote device. Developed by

Philips. Priced at $1,000

Note: Prices do not reflect retail discounting, which are about 25% lower


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