THE JAPANESE take to new technologies like ducks to water, and although multimedia is still in its infancy, this is destined to be one of the most hungry markets for products that have not even been dreamed up yet.

Already the first significant multimedia product on the market, Sony's Data Discman, has sold 200,000 units, and Sony, along with its competitors, is trying hard to think of ways of using computer power to combine video pictures and sound.

The driving force behind multimedia development in Japan is the country's consumer electronics industry. Unlike the United States, where personal computers are widespread, penetration of PCs in Japan is not high - largely because of the complexity of the Japanese writing system, which has to deal with more than 2,000 characters compared with the 26 letters of the English alphabet. But Japan's strength is in the efficient manufacturing and marketing of consumer electronics products - if necessary the software can be bought in.

The Data Discman came about indirectly. After the launch of compact disc singles, which never really caught on, a Sony engineer began to look at other ways to use CDs, and how they might be linked to computers. One of the CD's big advantages over ordinary computer memory is that it can reproduce real sounds. And so was born the idea of the electronic book that could talk in a non-computerised voice.

Today the Data Discman sells for 50,000 yen (pounds 238) in Japan, and one of the three discs that comes with the machine is a Japan Travel Bureau phrasebook, with useful expressions in six different languages pronounced by a native speaker. There is a wide range of discs - each of which can store 100,000 pages of text - on the market in Japan. The most popular are the reference works, both encyclopaedia-type compilations and more up-to-date listings for restaurants or theatres.

Sony is happy with the Data Discman's sales so far, but was surprised at the results of a market survey of who was actually buying the product. 'The users are predominantly male and professional, as we had thought, but the main age group is between 40 and 50, not people in their twenties and thirties as was expected,' said Andrew House, in the company's corporate communications department in Tokyo.

Sony can only speculate that the older age group missed out on word processors, but were still interested in technology and data retrieval and found the Data Discman more user-friendly. The latest model has also incorporated the features of the computerised 'personal organisers', which store adresses and timetables.

Seeking out other multimedia possibilities, Sony has begun working with Nintendo, the computer games company, on uses for compact disc-read only memory (CD-ROM) technology.

Nintendo has 90 per cent of the Japanese computer games market, and although the two companies have not yet announced any new products, they are looking at how CD-ROM could enhance video games with better pictures and more realistic sound effects.

'Multimedia is going to need many technologies,' Mr House said. 'No company can do it all, and that is why there are so many alliances now.'

Most recently, AT & T, the US telecommunications company, and Matsushita, Japan's largest electronics firm, announced they were forming a consortium to make 'personal communicators' - a combination of cellular phone and personal computer technology.

The first personal communicators are expected to be unveiled by the end of this year.

The other big area of multimedia development in Japan is computerised car navigation systems. The ultimate goal is to develop a computerised system of maps displayed on a screen inside the car that is linked to satellites orbiting the earth. The driver could instantly locate his position, and at the same time plot his route ahead, at the push of a button. Other refinements could include an input of traffic information or road hazards ahead. Presumably at some stage the car could be programmed to drive itself and sound an alarm to wake up the driver when it reaches the required destination - with a freshly brewed cup of coffee, of course.

Leading the pack in car navigation systems is Pioneer, which uses the Global Positioning System satellites of the US Defence Department. In principle, the Pioneer system can get a fix on its location anywhere on the globe.

As an added extra, Pioneer has built in a karaoke set, so that when you are 'driving-by-wire' through the Sahara you can sing songs to keep yourself company.

The Nomura Research Institute estimates that by 2000 the market for navigation systems will grow to 500 billion yen (pounds 2.3bn) in Japan alone.