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'Interactive' Video Expands Scope Laser-Read Technologies Let Viewers Manipulate Images, Information, and Sound

Article excerpt

CAN'T quite make out the main trumpet theme in Igor Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring"? Remove the sounds of the orchestra's other instruments for a moment.

Like to practice your guitar with your favorite rock band or get a printed score of your live compositions? How about a tour of the Smithsonian Institution from your living room (you decide which galleries to visit and for how long)?

Get used to the words "interactive" and "multimedia." The two 1980s buzzwords are moving beyond the rarefied world of industrial, school, and electronics-buff applications into the living room of the average gizmo-buyer. The terms refer to ever newer ways of combining television monitors, compact/laserdisc players, and computers with the promise of education, information, and entertainment.

"Interactive multimedia is in a growth spurt right now," says Brian Stonehill, a professor of media literacy at Pomona College. "This is where the information explosion gets organized."

Though the recession has eaten into overall sales in the consumer electronics industry, some observers are hopeful that the dropping costs of multimedia technology will woo consumers.

"This technology has existed for years, but now it is hitting the magic consumer price point of under $1,000," notes Laura Cohen, director of creative affairs for Philips Interactive Media.

Because laser and compact discs are known as optical storage media, they represent a change from both magnetic tape and floppy discs that are read by tape heads.

Laser-read technologies allow users to access different parts of the stored information at will - and instantly.

The user "interacts" with software by responding to on-screen menus that offer choices of material to read, study, hear, or see. One makes selections through a growing array of "joysticks,mouses," remote controls, clickers, and switches.

Take one company's computer-screen study tour of 18 of France's top chateaux, for instance. Choose 1) fly by; 2) walk through; 3) history; 4) construction; 5) still photos. Each choice includes more choices within, allowing users to follow their own interests.

In 1991, at least two major corporations - Philips Interactive Media of America and Commodore Electronics Ltd. - marketed consumer versions of interactive hardware to pair with television sets. Both offer dozens of titles of software from painting to sports, arts, and gardening. Commodore's "CDTV" (about $800) is run with an Amiga 500 computer that can expand into a home video-editing system, print hard copies, and interface with music composition equipment.

Philips is pushing its "CD-I Imagination Machine" (about $800) as the hardware that will become the world standard, already followed with prototypes from Matsushita, Sony, Technics, Sanyo, Toshiba, and Yamaha.

Much smaller companies such as the Voyager Company here upped the ante recently on interactive computer software they first introduced in 1989 for CD-ROM. (A CD-ROM is a compact disc appendage for home computers that stores far more than the average floppy - the illustrated Bible with sound for instance.) Such drives cost about $1,300 three years ago and now start under $500. Voyager is taking advantage by beating the competition to full-motion video known as "Quicktime" for a title called "Baseball's Greatest Hits."

The dizzying proliferation of such products is a cause for both amazement and caution. "Some of these products are redundant," warns Prof. …