SILICON Valley it's not. Yet this Corn Belt capital may one day be remembered as the birthplace of the consumer electronics industry's next consumer craze. For this is the headquarters of Microware Systems Corporation, a 14-year-old maker of real-time operating systems. Microware was chosen from among 60 companies by electronics giants Sony of Japan and N.V. Philips of the Netherlands to collaborate on the creation of compact disc-interactive or CD-I.
Consumers are used to playing music recorded onto 5-inch compact discs, and to attaching CD drives to their computers for access to large amounts of stored data. Videodiscs are also a well-known though not so widely used alternative to videocasettes for playing movies at home.
CD-I combines these applications in a new viewer-controlled educational and entertainment package. Ken Kaplan, president of privately held Microware, demonstrates the technology for a visitor.
He pops a disc into the CD-I player, which is linked to a television set and stereo, and begins a ``visit'' to the Smithsonian Institution. He uses a remote control to select one of the museum's buildings from an aerial view. That moves the viewer into the building for a tour of its major attractions, consisting of a still photograph and voice narration. At any point the tour can be interrupted to seek additional levels of information or view new exhibits.
For instance, after seeing the Spirit of St. Louis, the aircraft in which Charles Lindbergh made his solo flight across the Atlantic, Mr. Kaplan calls up an animation of the pressure changes on a wing as it breaks the sound barrier, complete with sonic boom.
Leaving the Smithsonian, he plugs in a disc that turns the screen into a video jukebox. Selected soundtracks are accompanied by MTV-style visuals to which can be added the written lyrics or trivia about the artist.
Whether or not CD-I will catch the consumer's fancy is the $200 million question. That is the amount invested by the trio of companies in the five years the technology has been under development. Sony has worked on the audio part, Philips the video, and Microware the hardware architecture, system software, and disc format design.
A ``very profound impact'' in the market is foreseen for CD-I by Robert Sorensen, president of OptImage. The company is a joint venture of Microware and Philips that sells ``authoring systems'' to businesses that want to create CD-I works.
Admittedly biased, Mr. Sorensen and others involved in the creation of CD-I predict it will accomplish what International Business Machines Corporation and Microsoft Corporation have never been able to do - put a computer in every home. The CD-I player will contain a powerful computer, but, unlike other computers, the machine is merely a playback medium.
COMPETING interactive systems are being developed, but those are computer-based, while CD-I is being positioned as a device that connects to a stereo and television, says David Davis, advertising manager for Microware. The consumer electronics market is 100 to 1,000 times larger than the home-computer market, he says.
Philips will launch its CD-I players around Oct. 15, says Emiel Petrone, senior vice president of sales at American Interactive Media, a Philips subsidiary in Los Angeles that produces CD-I titles. Initially a selection of 45 titles will be sold alongside the CD-I players in the largest outlets, Mr. Petrone says.
The CD-I player will be able to play regular audio CDs as well as CD-I titles. Eventually it will be upgradable (through the purchase of additional hardware) to play movies from CDs, which aren't yet available. And it will play ``Photo CDs'' that Kodak is introducing in mid-1992. Consumers having their film developed will have the option of receiving them on CD, with up to 100 images per disc, Petrone says.
Philips introduced the CD-I at the International Summer Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago, which ended last week.
The CD-I standard has been accepted by the electronics industry, Petrone says. Philips's machine will be followed by ones from Sony, Technics, Pioneer, Fujitsu, Sharp, Ricoh, Sanyo, and Panasonic, he says.
As has been typical of previously introduced electronics products, the price will initially be around $1,000, dropping fairly rapidly as demand rises and competition increases, Petrone says.