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'Interactive' Video Expands Scope

Laser-read technologies let viewers manipulate images, information, and sound

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)?

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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.

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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 Gr eatest Hits."

The dizzying proliferation of such products is a cause for both amazement and caution. "Some of these products are redundant," warns Prof. Stonehill. "Most won't be around for long."

Software companies are hoping that their products will capture the popular imagination of customers, and they've devised slick advertising campaigns toward that goal.

"[Voyager's] CD-ROM is interesting technology that does wonderful things, but it hooks to your computer," says Ms. Cohen of Philips. "We think multimedia as education and entertainment belongs in the living room with your television set."

"Philips has bet the bank on CD-I," counters Voyager co-founder Bob Stein. Industry estimates put Philips's investment in CD-I at $500 to $700 million. But with seven years of critical acclaim for high-resolution videodiscs behind him, Mr. Stein says programs that carry text, video, and animation require higher resolution than is available on a TV monitor. "We think Philips will lose the bet," says Stein.

For its part, Commodore was first to enter the consumer end (lower than $1,000) of multimedia offerings. Its Amiga 500 already has a six-year track record and is owned by three million people worldwide.

Experts advise consumers to see demonstrations of the various technologies and to carefully consider their current and future applications. Philips's CD-I is promising interactive movies by June, in which viewers can select different plot scenarios, follow individual characters, and devise alternative endings. The "Imagination Machine" also plays existing audio CDs.

Multimedia owes much of its boom to the popularity of 5-inch audio compact discs sold in record stores. They have helped to propel sales of 12-inch laserdiscs and players to 100,000 per month, according to Billboard magazine's latest figures. Videophiles have long known the image quality is 60 to 70 percent higher than videotape, and many laserdiscs include digital soundtracks with far better sound.

Voyager now boasts more than 50 classic movies on laserdisc from "Citizen Kane" to "Casablanca." Viewers can listen to running commentaries, examine still photos, or choose language translations with the push of a button.

But consumers pay the price. Whereas the cost for standard videodiscs runs from $20 to $45, Voyager's Criterion Collection titles run $60 to $120.

"The early promise of this interactive format is finally coming into its own," says Jeff Heiman, a high-end video enthusiast who has collected laserdiscs for 10 years.

Is it worth the extra price? "If it is a movie you really love, it's like investing in a piece of art that you will have around and show off," Mr. Heiman says.

One hurdle for interactive multimedia manufacturers is how to catch the fancy of low-end consumers. To this end, companies are focusing on children and trying to exploit widespread concern that conventional TV is too passive.

Still, the biggest hurdle is the recession, which has seen the consumer electronics industry coming off its worst year in decades.

"This is a tough economy in which to launch these new lines," says Martin Brochstein, senior editor of Television Digest. "The problem is convincing the consumer he really needs this stuff and getting around his confusion that 'multimedia' means something different to everyone."

Other observers are more upbeat.

"Just when the world is calling for a rethinking of the educational system," says Stonehill at Pomona College, "multimedia options offer a learning revolution that is very cost-effective and can be adapted to one's own level."

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