Network: Soon they'll sing it their way on CD: The lucrative karaoke market is responsible for a new technology that could take the world by storm. John Barker reports

LAST WEEK I sat in a karaoke bar in Tokyo and watched history in the making.

Japan has thousands of such bars - there were 16 in the tower block in which I was sitting - and they all have pretty hostesses, overpriced drinks and karaoke machines. To the untutored eye or ear, last week's karaoke seemed normal enough: you chose your song from a directory and made a complete ass of yourself, singing to the lyrics superimposed over still or moving images on a TV screen. What made this special was that the pictures and music were stored on video CD, a new technology that could take the world by storm.

Until recently, the dollars 5bn ( pounds 3.2bn) karaoke market was dominated by Pioneer's LaserDisc, and machines cost about pounds 15,000. Two years ago, JVC grabbed a 50 per cent market share with a new CD- rom version that was not only cheaper but also smaller - a major consideration in Tokyo, where space is at a premium. But both firms know the professional market will soon be overtaken by video on demand; bars will be connected by cable to a central server, and will download the latest tunes from a huge list when they are requested by customers. It is the firms' search for a domestic karaoke market, especially in Asia, that has resulted in the emergence of video CD.

In 1992, JVC agreed with Philips, the Dutch electronics conglomerate, a method of compressing digital video and audio data, called MPEG, which allowed 74 minutes of video to be crammed on a single CD as well as the usual 74 minutes of audio. Two further revisions to the standard mean video CDs can be played on Amiga CD32 and Philips CD-Interactive machines, plus any multimedia personal computer with a suitable decode board. With Sony and Matsushita having climbed aboard, there is now a single world standard for video CD players and discs.

The players were everywhere at this month's Japan Electronics Show. Although it will be some months before the products are available in Britain, the first could be Panasonic's VC-10, a living- room hi-fi system that replaces the traditional CD player with a video CD. Hitachi was showing a TV set with built-in video CD; Sharp, a radio-cassette stereo with video CD; and Sony a video CD player connectable to a computer that can play 2,000 high-definition pictures for educational use. Panasonic even had a tiny portable video CD player.

How long will it be before there is something to play on the new machines being shown in Tokyo? Philips has already begun a project to put hundreds of Paramount films on video CD, among them The Hunt for Red October and a boxed set of James Bond classics. Other firms are doing the same with music videos, TV programmes and educational and training materials.

The good news is that Britain, as well as providing much of the programming, could also be in the lead in providing compression services. I believe that video CD is the biggest entertainment export opportunity we have had since the Beatles.

The author is the editor of 'Inside Multimedia'.

(Photograph omitted)