The Consumer Electronics Show was once about the latest in hi-fi and the biggest and best in televsion, but the focus of this year's summer show, held in Chicago, was the computer - how it can be turned into a centre for home entertainment and how computer technology can bring interactive entertainment to the television screen.
The reason is simple. Personal computers used to be found only in offices. Now more than 40 per cent of US homes have a computer - although the figure for Britain is still only about 10 per cent. And while they may be used for spreadsheets from time to time, often they are used to play the nattiest games around and, less frequently, for accessing reference material for education in one form or another.
With interactive games, information and entertainment being delivered to the personal computer, not surprisingly big companies are starting to notice. The mighty forces of the entertainment industry, the Hollywood studios - Walt Disney, Paramount, Time Warner, Sony Pictures (formerly Columbia), Fox and many smaller studios - were all at the show.
Much of the emphasis is still on 'dedicated' computer games machines. The biggest event at the show this year was a breakfast for 1,000 hosted by Walt Disney and Virgin to launch a game based on the new Disney film, The Lion King. Disney is spending dollars 8m ( pounds 5.2) promoting the game, which will be launched in the UK with the film. Initially it will run on Sega and Nintendo machines. While this might look extravagant, Disney has sold 3.5 million copies of its Aladdin games.
At the show Sega showed off its 32X, due out in UK in November at about pounds 150, an add-on for existing Mega Drive games systems to increase their speed and picture quality. Nintendo also secretly showed its Ultra 64 high-powered games machine, which is due out late next year.
Although games machines continue to be big business, the industry's attention is switching to the role of the once-unglamorous personal computer as an entertainment centre. The technological development which is feeding this trend is the CD-rom, computer- readable compact discs. Increasingly the best titles for the home market come on CD-rom. Because they hold so much data, games tend to be richer with better images, sound, and even movie clips. Reference and education titles also can contain sound and video clips. On most computers the video can only be displayed in small jerky images in a tiny window, but as computers and technology improves that is changing.
By this autumn there will be more than 1,800 CD-rom titles on the market, according to games company, Capitol Multimedia. Something like Compton's Multimedia Encyclopedia or Microsoft's Encarta encyclopedia are not only pretty but contain almost all the information you are ever likely to want. Almost. But there is a problem that you can only look at one disc at a time. And they can be expensive. A solution is at hand for some that could mark the arrival of a whole new type of computing.
Compton's New Media recently announced it was working with Intel on a device that would allow users to access CD-roms over a cable television system. The initial offering will allow users to access 150 titles at normal CD-rom speeds. This means that after purchasing a simple device which links the cable television outlet to the back of your computer, you would be able to nip into the study and play a CD-rom game and then, if little Hannah wanted to know when Mozart was born, you could just nip into an encyclopedia disc and find out. Cookery, language and many other types of disc could be stored on the system.
Another development on display could even develop into a video service for the personal computer. A company called Sigma Designs has come up with a card you can put inside your computer that will allow television-like pictures to be read from CD-rom discs. Store a couple of movies on Compton's service and you have videos-on-demand for your computer. However, that is only available if you have a cable operator delivering the service.
But another US company, Prodigy, is offering an information service available to any computer user in the US with a telephone line and a modem. Using a modem you can get access to the latest news and various other services. It is extremely easy to use.
At the end of last year Prodigy introduced pictures on the service. At the Consumer Electronics Show, it launched a new facility. You can now dial in and listen to news reports. At present the service is basic and you have to download a file and then play it back. However, it was still quite impressive to be at the show and listen to a breathless commentator announce that Stefan Edberg had just been knocked out of Wimbledon.
As the service expands more than the basic news reports could become available. For instance it might be possible to dial in and download a Winnie the Pooh story for the children at bedtime.
Or, assuming a similar type of service comes to the UK, who knows? If you missed the Financial World Tonight, you might be able dial into the interactive BBC Radio service and call up this or any other programme of your choice.
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