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Practicality? Just Give Me My Virtual Ringo

<i> Chris Willman is a frequent contributor to Calendar. </i>

A colleague seemed surprised and puzzled over my recent choice to buy a CD-ROM player, yet curious--or materialistic--enough to keep pressing me for pertinent details about just what the damn things do and how much they cost.

The bottom-line question was inevitable: Were I sucker enough to shell for one of these , wouldn’t it go the way of all flesh and all hardware formats right about the time I figured out which side of the disc goes up? hypothesized my interrogator, the hollow look of a former Beta man in his eyes.

Pressed for a defense, I spewed forth some of the usual hopeful, high-sell applications of CD-ROM as entertainment and/or information for the home, business, university and playroom. But then I decided upon just one word (much like the gent who advises Dustin Hoffman about plastics in “The Graduate”) to assure him that there is a future for the format:

Pornography.

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It’s not that I mistook my colleague for Uncle Ernie. It’s just that, if some of the more pragmatic computer magazines are to be believed, CD-ROM is in much the same place now as the VCR was just as that American staple started to boom in the early 1980s: an invention touted as fun for the whole family that ironically is being fueled largely by the sudden, easy availability of soft-core smut. And with this upstart hardware, high-tech dirty pictures become a staple of the home and office: While his co-workers go out for lunch, Dad can use the same PC that gets steamed up rolling over stocks during business hours to interactively order the Pet of the Month to roll over.

While other new formats may have the support of Sega, you see, CD-ROM has the support of Seka.

Seriously (and no one should doubt that the economic viability afforded a porn-friendly format is serious business), CD-ROM will probably succeed most of all because it works in conjunction with personal computers, thus further diluting the diminishing line between business and pleasure. There’s guilt involved in getting a Gameboy, or probably should be--but a legitimate computer accessory, Lord knows, you’re going to use for important stuff .

Programs currently available already run a gamut from the mundane to near-sublime. Would you like to walk through the National Gallery of London on your home computer? Have the phone company’s white pages or yellow pages for the entire country encoded on a single slender compact disc? Browse an encyclopedia that comes with handy film clips and sound bytes? Remix a David Bowie song to specification?

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Explore lavishly animated alternate worlds at your own pace? Play chess with characters that duke out your moves on the board? Watch an entire movie in miniature, with production notes scrolling alongside? Flip through an audiovisual business magazine? Study a Bible that has James Earl Jones speaking up occasionally and disconcertingly through your PC as the voice of God? Interactive catalogue shopping, anyone?

No? You know you want it.

Not that the future-shock glut now playing at an electronics store near you didn’t give me plenty of doubts of my own about the format’s long-term survival prospects before I made the leap.

Though never a Beta man myself, I do feel a certain loneliness as still the only laser-disc enthusiast on my block, and I plan to be the last to jump on the Mini-Disc or Digital Compact Cassette bandwagons, should there ever be one of either. I still have a defiant “convince me” attitude toward the formats that more or less are competitors to CD-ROM for America’s hearts and minds, like CD-i (CD-interactive) and CD+G (CD-plus-graphics).

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Such a quandary. The indefatigable collector in me finally started lusting after a CD-ROM drive after reading favorable reviews of recent interactive music releases by the likes of Peter Gabriel and the former Prince, as well as press releases about upcoming retrospective discs on everyone from Monty Python to Clint Eastwood to Bob Dylan. But the technophobe in me convincingly counterargued that life is already entertaining and difficult enough without spending untold hours learning new commands just to finally hear “Gett Off” or “You feel lucky, punk?” booming through my tinny computer speaker.

What about price, you (and I) ask?

The good news is, you can get a good external “double-speed” CD-ROM drive add-on for your computer for $225-$400 these days--not bad as cutting-edge hardware goes. The bad news is, the software itself almost never comes cheap, usually costing anywhere from $35-$60 for discounted popular titles and more than $100 for some heavyweight discs. The good news is, thanks to the immense archival storage capacity of each disc, you sometimes get an awful lot of ROM for your charge slip. (Those national white pages come to mind.)

Myself, I was strictly a “DOS for Dummies” kind of guy a couple short months ago. But on a recent conspicuous-consumptive whim, I bought a new Power Mac with built-in CD-ROM drive (about $2,000), and topped off the shopping by bagging my first piece of CD-ROM software, Xplora: Peter Gabriel’s Secret World ($60).

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Whoops: This was a pointedly arty, almost all-graphic CD-ROM, in which the intelligentsia could point and click on color codes and mysterious icons to proceed to the various Gabriel videos and song extracts and odes to African instruments. (Words, it seems, get in the aesthetic way.) Novices best start elsewhere--though eventually I found that pointing ‘n’ clicking at random, not unlike the proverbial typing monkey, would get me through the disc in my own careening fashion.

But the “game” aspect still proved frustrating: Sometimes I would click on some intriguing symbol and an ethereal Gabriel visage would pop up, teasing, “No, I’m sorry, you can’t get in there without a pass.” After the umpteenth blockage without the slightest idea which passing window might be the will-call where I could pick up my “pass,” I found myself wanting to world-beat Peter on the head with a very big xylophone mallet. Sixty bucks I paid to have a hologram tell me I’m not on the guest list?

Obviously, a computer-illiterate fool such as I was in need of something a little more elementary (i.e., text-based) to start with.

My follow-up purchase, “Cinemania ’94,” fit the bill handily. This disc, aimed at film buffs, allows you to type in one of any thousands of movie titles, then pick between the respective opinions of Maltin, Kael or Ebert, or get an instant bio and filmography on major actors and filmmakers. For the most popular films, you can pull up production credits, listen to a byte of scoring or dialogue, or for a few select titles, even watch a herky-jerky film clip.

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My next stab at user-friendliness, Compton’s Interactive Encyclopedia, proved a lot more fun than the encyclopedias I waded through as a kid, if only because I could call up video of J. F. K. asking us to ask not, or M. L. K. recounting his dream.

Next I was on to the most popular CD-ROM title of years past--the Voyager edition of the Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night” that has the complete film unspooling in a small window on-screen, with access to the original draft of the script, critical notes or record-studio logs alongside the movie. Type in “Turn left at Greenland” or just “Greenland,” and the disc will take you right to the spot in the movie where John Lennon answers the reporter’s question, “How do you find America?”

Having successfully navigated these fab digital baby steps, I felt ready to again try my mousy hand at something challengingly interactive, something less literal and more instinctive: “Virtual Valerie.”

Just kidding. Rather it was high time to check out Myst, the one CD-ROM title that has become a singular phenomenon.

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The brilliance of Myst made me realize why CD-ROM is oddly perfect for adults and younger children alike, but will probably frustrate the Nintendo-trained teens in between: Like most games designed for the format, it moves very, very slowly, providing a tangible sense of exploration but no quick thrills. With few instructions, you move around a deserted island one lazy click at a time--reflexes and/or coordination not required (a big plus, in my book)--looking for clues amid the spookily lifelike illustrations to put together the “back story” yourself.

To hell with “winning”: Improbably, I enjoyed clicking my way down to the Myst Island dock just to listen to the waves lap against the wood, or going up into the woods to hear the wind whistle through the trees, being in no hurry to best the 40 hours it’s said to take an average person to get around the entire island. Myst is the first example I know of, in the computer realm, at least, of a stop-and-smell-the-roses game.

A bona fide new art form, as Wired magazine claims of Myst? Maybe.

A nd yet, the complaints you hear about CD-ROM are basically true: The lag time between command and response does limit the possibilities for games. The film clips are tiny and ridiculously low-resolution, like live-action flip cards. Audio dropouts are common, at least on my system, as are annoying messages informing you your computer doesn’t have enough memory to continue. The level of actual “interactivity” is more hype than reality, unless you’re convinced having a gameskeeper or naked lady or the goofball formerly known as Prince lure you down animated corridors is the height of freedom of choice.

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Some holdouts--like my not-quite-convinced colleague--find these factors a barrier to buying in. As a new convert, I acknowledge the limitations and resolve to enjoy what’s there, since it’s more likely there’ll be technological improvements to CD-ROM than it is a whole new format will set a different standard for home computer accouterments any year soon.

But maybe I’m just rationalizing the extravagance of my new toy, because you know what? Defying all sense, I actually enjoy hearing “Gett Off” blast through my tinny little PC speaker.


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