COLUMN ONE : Plugging Into the Future : Firms hope to move the computer into the living room with multimedia--information systems that mix words, sounds and moving images. The new devices may be a hard sell.


The video screen beckons, urging you to press a button and reveal more of the words, images and sounds that lie hidden on a silvery compact disc. Today, you've got the Van Gogh disc inserted into your new interactive multimedia machine, and you're especially intrigued with the painter's Arles period.

Click. "The Cafe in Arles" appears, in full color, with your choice of musical accompaniment. Click. There's a picture of the actual cafe that served as a model for the famous painting. Click. A narrator describes the techniques used in the painting and suggests other works from the period. Want to see some of them? Click again.

So now you're bored with Van Gogh? Try a new disc, perhaps the hands-on guide to 35-millimeter photography, the latest Nintendo game or--depending on what kind of system you have--an audio-visual history of the Persian Gulf War or perhaps an encyclopedia. Each of these "programs" contains a rich mix of words, pictures, moving images and high-quality sound, an inviting smorgasbord of information that anyone can navigate with ease.

Multimedia systems performing such high-tech wonders are now being touted as the next hot electronics product.

For computer companies, multimedia is the technology that will finally allow the personal computer to penetrate the living room, a realm that has always been dominated by the television set. Consumer electronics firms see it as a logical extension of the TV, the compact disc audio player and the video game machine. Publishers and educators consider it a promising way to reach those who have been reared on video games and MTV and don't read much.

Multimedia is really a family of technologies, and the systems are coming in many varieties. Some are personal computers with special attachments. Others are souped-up compact disc players that plug into a television set. All are designed to give people control over discs full of words, sounds and images while creating a new medium for education, entertainment and the dissemination of all kinds of information.

Chances are that you haven't yet seen one of these machines, much less bought one. Despite years of hype, multimedia today remains a tiny presence in the ever-changing computer industry.

But some of the world's biggest electronics companies remain determined to change that. International Business Machines Corp. and Apple Computer Inc. consider multimedia so important that they've made it a centerpiece of their new alliance announced last week. And over the next few weeks, the first wave of multimedia products designed for a mass market will hit the streets, accompanied by a barrage of promotion.

Yet the new products won't be an easy sell. Consumers are likely to be confused by incompatible equipment and conflicting claims. Some aspects of the technology have not been fully mastered, and a multimedia system will cost a minimum of $800 and, in some cases, as much as $10,000.

Above all, does the typical consumer even want multimedia?

Hundreds of book publishers, computer software companies, entertainers, artists and movie producers--many of them based in Los Angeles--have combined to produce an interesting collection of multimedia "titles." But even enthusiasts wonder whether the collection of elaborate video games, educational programs and how-to guides will get people to bring a new machine into their living rooms.

"It took 150 years after the invention of the printing press to develop the novel," said Bob Stein, co-founder of Voyager Co., a widely respected multimedia software company in Santa Monica. Multimedia, he says, is a "new language, and it might take a decade or two to get something good."

Development of multimedia has so far been a painstaking process. Conflicting corporate agendas--especially a basic philosophical split between computer companies and consumer electronics companies--have prevented any agreement on much-needed technical standards. And that has exacerbated new technology's classic chicken-and-egg problem: Nobody will buy machines until there are programs to play on them, but nobody will create programs until there are people with machines to buy them.

Good programs are the key to success. One example of the possibilities is a massive project on Christopher Columbus that was released last week. Financed by IBM and put together by documentary film director Bob Abel, the Columbus program features a nearly endless array of film clips, pictures, narrated stories and written passages that cover not only the life of the famous explorer but also the many issues--both historical and contemporary--that might come up in a discussion of his voyages.

Abel sees multimedia as a revolutionary educational tool, "a way to empower students and teachers with new ways of accessing and disseminating information." The material, he says, is "cross-cultural and cross-curricular," and the technology allows it to be presented in an interesting way. "It rewards curiosity, and that is a powerful thing," he said.

But the Columbus program requires an expensive array of equipment and is designed for schools, not homes. Even more important, developing software on the scale of the Columbus program costs millions of dollars.

Philips, the Dutch electronics giant that will launch a long-awaited multimedia system called Compact Disc Interactive next week, decided to develop both equipment and programs, forming a company dedicated to creating multimedia titles. At the company's Westwood-based subsidiary, Philips Interactive Media (formerly American Interactive Media), more than 125 employees and dozens of temporary workers are putting finishing touches on about 50 titles that will be available this year.

Conceived in the early 1980s as an extension of the hugely successful compact disc music technology, the CDI machine closely resembles its music-playing cousin, except that it plugs into a television set and comes with a remote-control device that manipulates a pointer on the TV screen.

Bernard J. Luskin, a former community college president who serves as president of Philips Interactive Media of America, describes CDI as "an extension of the television set." Just as cable television, the videocassette recorder and Nintendo game player have widened the range of uses for the TV, so will CDI, he says.

"TV is the education and entertainment center of the world, so multimedia has to come into the home through the TV," Luskin said. While children today might watch Saturday morning cartoons on TV, with CDI they might explore a disc called "Tell Me Why." It presents cartoon images of a fictional town and allows the child to explore whatever interests him--the police station, for example, or a tailor shop--with the click of a button.

Luskin and Gordon Stulberg, a veteran Hollywood executive who is chairman of Philips Interactive Media, insist that CDI will become the worldwide standard for mass-market multimedia. As with the audio CD system, the equipment will be sold by many different manufacturers, they say, and the software will be produced and marketed by a variety of independent companies.

The Philips machine will go on sale later this month at Sears, Circuit City and other stores at a list price of $1,000, and a number of Japanese electronics companies are considering introducing CDI systems next year. If it catches on, prices will begin falling, probably in 1993.

But the development of CDI has been plagued by years of delays and technical problems, and many program developers have been alienated by Philips' business tactics. The machine cannot handle full-motion video, and the overall quality of the images is limited by the resolution of the television set.

It's now almost impossible to find anyone outside of Philips who expects CDI to be a success. The company is widely considered to have made a serious miscalculation in spending so much time and money on the project. Luskin pegs the investment at $250 million, but many in the industry believe the real figure is at least double that.

"I have great difficulty seeing this as the next hot thing in consumer electronics," said Jonathan Seybold, an electronic media consultant in Malibu.

The one existing precedent--Commodore's CDTV system--doesn't offer much encouragement. CDTV, based on Commodore's Amiga computer, has been on sale in test markets for several months, and the early results are disappointing. Commodore's director of marketing, David Rosen, notes that it's tough to sell a new concept in a recessionary environment, and he speaks hopefully of the 1992 Christmas season as the time when a breakthrough might come.

The personal computer industry is well aware of how tough it can be to sell multimedia. Vendors and industry pundits have for several years touted multimedia as the next great advance in computing, but so far there has been mostly hype.

There have been some buyers in the corporate world. American Airlines, for example, uses multimedia computer programs to train flight attendants and security personnel. Instead of sitting in a class or studying textbooks, students can sit at a multimedia computer and call up film clips showing how a particular job is performed.

But Tandy Corp. (parent company of the Radio Shack chain), Microsoft Corp. (the world's leading personal computer software firm) and other computer companies are shooting at a much broader market with the Multimedia PC, which will be launched Tuesday. Basically a personal computer with special operating software and an accessory called a CD-ROM drive, an MPC will cost about $3,000--and much less to upgrade some existing personal computers.

The types of programs available for the MPC will be similar to those that run on CDI. But because a computer screen has much finer resolution than a television set, the programs will look better, and they will be able to accommodate far more text. High-quality motion video--which remains the major technical obstacle in multimedia system design--can be added by plugging in special circuit boards or laser disc players.

Probably the biggest advantage the MPC has, however, is simply that it's a personal computer. It can do other things besides play multimedia programs.

"This is a new way to think about computers," said Rob Glaser, head of the multimedia effort at Microsoft. "Now they're a tool for communicating, for delivering information, instead of just for calculations."

In many ways, though, the MPC is mainly a marketing idea, a way for computer companies to penetrate a domain that has long eluded them: the living room. Computers, after all, remain primarily business tools, and even those that are used in the home tend to be located in the study.

But computer firms have a long way to go in moving into this new domain. Their cultures are built around selling expensive, sophisticated machines in customized configurations through specialty retailers or direct sales channels. Buying even an inexpensive personal computer requires consumers to spend at least $1,000, choose between two incompatible types of systems (Apple- or IBM-compatible) and also select among a wide range of hardware and software options based on how the machine will be used.

On the other hand, consumer electronics companies, including Philips and big Japanese firms such as Sony, sell standardized, high-volume, single-purpose products at low prices through big mass-merchandising chains. Buying a CD audio player is a straightforward affair: The cheapest machines are less than $200, and though more expensive models have fancy special features, there are no important technical choices to be made.

It remains unclear whether multimedia will end up clearly on one side of this divide or the other. Will it be popularized as a cheap, standardized consumer product or as a complicated computer? And will any company be able to venture into both aspects of the business? Apple, considered to have some of the best multimedia technology of any company, recently formed a consumer electronics division. It has long been rumored to be working on an inexpensive, scaled-down version of its Macintosh PC that would be equipped with a CD player.

"It's the one computer brand that every household would know," said Denise Caruso, editor of the newsletter Digital Media.

Apple's new joint venture with IBM is aimed at creating standards for a whole range of multimedia products, from cheap machines that plug into TV sets to expensive computers, but little is expected to emerge for several years. Apple has also been drawing steadily closer to Sony, which might build a future Apple/IBM multimedia player and is itself a good candidate to create a broadly accepted multimedia system.

For now, incompatible multimedia hardware is slowing the development of the market and inhibiting the creation of programs. While some firms have been built on the sale of multimedia programs to corporations, those aiming for a broader audience are struggling to stay afloat.

Stan Cornyn, president of Time Warner New Media, hopes that "the hardware industry will come to its senses and say: 'This is the standard.' " In the meantime, his company is developing programs for the PC and the Macintosh and learning how to mold the vast information and entertainment resources of Time Warner Inc. into fun and interesting multimedia titles.

At Voyager, Stein doesn't have the security that a wealthy parent company provides, but the company has managed to bump along. "The downside of this is that we don't make any money," Stein said as he relaxed amid the clutter of the company's faded office on Santa Monica beach. "But the upside is that we make only what we like."

How Multimedia Works

* A compact disc, similar to those that contain music, holds a vast store of words, pictures and sound. A disc containing a particular multimedia program is inserted into a multimedia player, or into a special computer accessory called a CD-ROM drive.

* Pictures, text and moving images appear on a TV set or a computer monitor. The program is controlled by pointing at "buttons" on the screen, either with a mouse or a special remote control device.

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