Out of the gallery into the living room

Microsoft supremo Bill Gates looks set to make his second fortune - as an art publisher on the Net. Steve Homer reports
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Indy Lifestyle Online
In June, pictures from the Barnes Collection, one of the finest private collections of Impressionist art, went on show in Munich. In Japan, more than a million visitors paid to see the exhibits. In France, more than 1.5 million people queued to enjoy the show. But for British art lovers there is bad news - and just a little good.

The Barnes collection is not coming to Britain. However, an unexpected benefactor is coming to our artistic rescue. True, we will only be able to see the pictures on our computer screens. But we will see 330 of them; visitors to the Haus der Kunst see only 80. We will get fine music, guided tours, access to the Barnes archive and much more besides - thanks to Bill Gates, richest man in the world and boss of Microsoft. He is riding to our rescue bearing a CD-Rom which is excellent - and not from Microsoft.

In 1989, Mr Gates created a company called Continuum to exploit high- quality creative images. The company, now called Corbis, is turning into a powerhouse of the multimedia world. It could be as successful in its way as Microsoft has been in the PC software business.

Today, Corbis employs 110 people, 25 of them in the UK. Besides its core business of licensing images from its archive, Corbis Publishing was set up last year to utilise properties in its archive. "Passion for Art: Renoir, Cezanne, Matisse and Dr. Barnes" is its first product - a CD-Rom showing what the technology can do.

The disk has three guided tours written and narrated by art experts such as Carter Brown, director emeritus at the US National Gallery of Art. What puts it head and shoulders above most other CD-Roms is the attention to detail. By placing the sound in the right place on the disk in relation to where images are stored, the disk feels like an almost seamless experience. There is almost no waiting for music to start or for one image to replace another, and there are no glitches on the sound as the images change.

Corbis has already stored more than 250,000 images. By 1996, it hopes to treble that number. This is a modest beginning. "Conventional archives store images in millions, but they are not that accessible," says Doug Rowan, chief executive.

Corbis hopes it will win on two counts. First, all its images are stored electronically, so can be distributed to any part of the globe in minutes. Second, every picture is comprehensively indexed, making electronic searches for the smallest detail possible.

The images are stored in very high resolution. An image on an office computer will normally take up less than a quarter of a megabyte; Corbis stores a picture as a 20Mb file. The storage system has more than five terabytes (5 million Mb) of total disk space.

Most of Corbis's customers are magazine and book publishers, multimedia title producers and other professional users of images. They can access indexes electronically and browse through images which can be sent out on CD-Rom or electronically. But Corbis also wants to reach a wider market. Part of the archive is already available on America Online (a competitor to CompuServe in the US) and will be available on the Microsoft Network when it launches this month. The company also plans to give wider access by putting some of its pictures on the World Wide Web, but these will not be such high resolution.

Corbis's biggest concern is to protect the copyright on the images. For that, it is using a very subtle mechanism combining twodevices - watermarks and covert image marking. Watermarks put the Corbis logo on top of the image. The company has developed a technique for allowing the image to be viewed briefly without the watermark being shown, but if the file is illegally copied, the watermark would become permanent. If someone getsaround the watermarking or purchases an image legally, Corbis can still keep track because every image contains invisible coding giving details of its origin.

Corbis's first venture into CD-Rom publishing is certainly impressive. It will be branching into video and audio archiving this year. If it can continue to produce titles of similar quality and build the archive business in parallel, Mr Gates could well be on the way to a second fortune.

`Passion for Art: Renoir, Cezanne, Matisse and Dr Barnes', RRP pounds 49.99, is available from Tower Records and Virgin Megastore and a few other outlets but only, for the moment, in London. For information, contact Corbis on 0171 278 1387.