Seeing the Multimedia Forest In the CD-ROM Trees

April 2, 1993

By Scott Rosenberg

SAN JOSE -- "It's this stuff that's going to save the trees." The guy next to me on the hot-dog line at the San Jose Convention Center nodded his head sagely, then waved his arm out at the teeming show floor.

Hundreds of companies jammed the space -- consumer-electronics heavyweights like Sony and Philips; computer behemoths like IBM, Intel and Apple; corporate manufacturers like 3M and Kodak; publishers, media companies, distributors and a horde of mom-and-pop startups with one or two products for sale.

This observer wasn't suggesting that all these businesses had assembled last week at the Intermedia Exposition to form an altruistic conspiracy on behalf of the global environment. He simply shared the conviction, widely held here, that this year a medium known as CD-ROM was finally going to take off -- and begin replacing print-on-paper.

At least for now, I wouldn't bet on the forests. Intermedia almost certainly felled more trees than it spared; at this "multimedia conference," one old-fashioned medium remained dominant. You could walk home with as large a mountain of paper as you allowed yourself to be handed -- each piece explaining why and how CD-ROM can change your life.

CD-ROM is short for "Compact Disk, Read-Only Memory." When you say it, it sounds like "Seedy Rahm" -- perhaps an exotic, flavorful Middle Eastern pastry. That no one has come up with a better name is one indication of the difficulties this fledgling industry faces, even as it presses its revolutionary claims.

CD-ROMs are disks which look just like the CDs you buy at music stores but which play through an add-on drive to your personal computer, or through a VCR-like box hooked up to your TV. They hold enormous amounts of data -- 300 or so times what your computer's flops floppy disk can fit. That means they can store whole libraries of text, hundreds of high-quality photos and sound recordings, even digitized video footage (of varying resolution and quality).

And one of these days, a lot of businessmen are gambling, someone will devise a use for them that's so obviously wonderful you will plunk down four or five hundred dollars for one.

In the technology world, CD-ROM remains controversial. Some sneer at the format's relatively lumbering speed and graphic limitations. Others tout 1993 as "the year of CD-ROM" and exult in visions of a new "Electronic Hollywood" based on the medium. On one score, at least, the new industry already surpasses Hollywood: The first ever Invision Multimedia Awards ceremony, held Tuesday night by NewMedia magazine, was even more mind-numbingly dull than Monday's Oscars.

The old Hollywood isn't exactly quaking in its boots, but it did send emissaries to the upstart: Paramount and the American Film Institute hosted parties, and speakers included James Cameron and former Fox honcho Barry Diller (now of QVC, the cable home-shopping enterprise). Diller shared the stage Wednesday with Microsoft CEO William Gates and Apple CEO John Sculley; he looked touchingly at sea as he pondered questions from starry-eyed futurists like, "Is there a reason for broadcasting to exist at all?"

The biggest roadblock to CD-ROMs supplanting movies and books is the bewildering and ridiculous array of incompatible formats the consumer faces. It's as if a dozen TV manufacturers each produced a different kind of set -- and each station had to pick one type to serve, or improvise a way to reach several at once.

Despite this digital Babel, where nobody's machines can understand anyone else's, you couldn't help getting infected with the enthusiasm of many of the authors and developers who flocked to Intermedia to show off their work.

They don't have a standard format. They can't even agree on a name for their industry. Buyers are leery of spending $50-100 per disk. But whatever you call their product -- "interactive multimedia," electronic publishing, a Gutenberg-like leap or a crock of hype --it's here, today. In fact, in at least a few categories, it's positively bountiful.

For Kids

The dinosaur is without question the most exhaustively chronicled inhabitant of the CD-ROM universe. Every company, from Microsoft on down, seems to have a dinosaur title. Though Barney hasn't made the jump to digital yet, it's bound to happen. If there is any irony in the pairing between extinct prehistoric reptiles and cutting-edge software, the denizens of the CD-ROM world don't seem to pick up on it. Or maybe they're just afraid to acknowledge their own fear of turning out to be the technological equivalent of an evolutionary dead end.

The point-and-click simplicity of a lot of interactive CD-ROM designs, combined with their capacity for lots of bright color and eye-catching animation, makes them a natural for children's publishing. The young user can read about his favorite triceratops or brontosaurus, watch it amble through the ferns, or listen to it roar. (No one knows what a dinosaur sounds like, but accuracy apparently matters less than multimedia-cy.)

Among the first CD-ROM "hits" were computerized pop-up books like Broderbund's "Just Grandma and Me" and Voyager's "A Silly Noisy House." Some of the most innovative children's titles today come from Knowledge Adventure, which pioneered a wander-where-you-want approach to educational software. (The company sells similar versions of its products on regular disk and on CD-ROM.)

Dinosaur Adventure, Space Adventure, Sports Adventure, and Isaac Asimov's Science Adventure all let you move through a simulated three-dimensional space -- a kind of virtual museum whose exhibits come to life. The idea is to learn by deduction rather than by being lectured at, says Bill Gross, the company's founder -- who designed the programs for his son.

For Grownups Only

On one side of the aisle hangs a poster for "Fractal Ecstasy," a CD demonstrating an arcane mathematical system that generates abstract psychedelic images. Across the way, the Pixis company is selling "House of Sleeping Beauties" -- "a full-length digital adult movie" promising a more down-to-earth kind of ecstasy.

The multimedia world is abuzz over electronic erotica, or digital porn. While prurient programs are nothing new -- the cartoonish MacPlaymate was a popular item a few years ago -- only recently has the technology begun to allow people to view high-quality nude stills and full-motion fleshly video on their screens.

Staid computer entrepreneurs act as though the possibility of such products never occurred to them, while companies like Penthouse and Playboy that already have a big backlist of the material rush to exploit the new market. At Intermedia, a handful of X-rated dealers were tucked away in the back corner of the exhibition hall; somehow every local TV crew found its way to them.

"What can you do with this that you can't do with a regular video?" a spectator asks.

The spokesman for a company called Romulus Entertainment stumbles at the question. "Well, you can cut and paste..." Clearly, the language of computing can be treacherous in this context.

Digital porn producers all promise "interactive" experiences. Penthouse exec Kathy Keeton demonstrated "Penthouse Interactive," a new CD-ROM that allows the user to act as photographer at a Penthouse Pet shoot. Body Cello, an X-rated distributor, displayed "Nightwatch Interactive," in which a sultry night security guard takes you along on her voyeuristic rounds.

This kind of "interactivity" is mostly a one-way street: The male user sits at the controls and enjoys the attentions of a female digital servant. When "Remove Top" or "Strip Naked" are the two choices, the direction of the "interaction" is a foregone conclusion.

Speakers at a late-night panel on multimedia erotica ignored such issues and instead decried the possibility of digital censorship, which so far seems to be nonexistent. They also talked hopefully of more complex uses of the new medium.

One described an interactive program that provides a crash course in sexual manners. You approach a hot-looking woman on the street, and are confronted with three choices: ignore her, ask her out for a drink or invite her to share a hot tub. The panting dog who can't resist the third choice gets a slap in the face for his impatience. Presumably, though, the savvier player who buys her a drink is offered a better time.

Reference Works

CD-ROM is ideally suited to encyclopedias, dictionaries and maps. Several encyclopedia publishers are already competing with products that offer quick searches, illustrations and even sound annotation. The magnificent Oxford English Dictionary has gone digital. National phone directories abound, and travel guides and national information bases are common; products from Mexico and even Zimbabwe were on sale at Intermedia.

Of the several video movie guides available, Microsoft Cinemania -- which adds stills and sound clips to Leonard Maltin's capsule reviews -- is the most ubiquitous. For the Macintosh, though, TasteMate is cooler: You answer a few questions about your likes and dislikes, and it matches your answers with a built-in database to come up with a list of recommended films you're likely to enjoy.

Sometimes you have to take publishers' claims skeptically, even when they're packing 650 megabytes on a single disk. DeLorme's Global Explorer calls itself "the most detailed world atlas ever," down to street level. But when I asked the demonstrator to zero in on San Francisco, he admitted sheepishly that it wasn't one of the 100 cities worldwide that DeLorme had mapped out.

The Best

If you wade long enough through the CD-ROM sea of dinosaurs, babes, encyclopedias and games, you stumble on an occasional unique creation that begins to fulfill the medium's possibilities.

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