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Smile] This will have you in a spin: Photo CD will make the family album a thing of the past, says Steve Homer

IMAGINE THIS. Your children have just got married. One month after the wedding you send Auntie Hannah in Australia, Uncle Clive in India and Grandma Joanna in America a special present. This will look like a compact disc, except it will be coloured gold, not silver.

On that disc will be a little bit of family history - a special message in pictures, words and music. There may be pictures of the bride and groom growing up, of the wedding and, perhaps, of the honeymoon.

Once loaded into a new type of CD player, the disc will come alive on the television screen. You could watch the pictures as a slide show, with a soundtrack prepared by the happy couple, or you could simply browse through the images. While wedding videos offer a fuller picture of the day, it is more difficult to pick the bits you really want to watch.

Consumers should find a wealth of uses for this new technology. Businesses are already spotting opportunities, which should help to drive the price down rapidly.

But photographs are wonderful ways of capturing images. So why do we need new and complicated technology? One answer can be found in my top drawer (and many similar drawers around the country, I'm sure).

In my misspent youth I travelled around India and South-east Asia for two years. I am, though I say it myself, a pretty sharp photographer. I now have more than 1,200 images on slides and prints, which I have shown to no one for the past seven years. Photo CD, developed jointly by Kodak and Philips, could be the answer.

Photo CD players will play ordinary CDs as well as Photo CDs. Several interactive CD players, such as Philips' CD-I machine, will also play Photo CDs, as will IBM-compatible and Apple computers with the right CD ROM drives.

Domestic consumers will take their film into a developer, and along with their usual prints they will order a Photo CD disc. It will cost about pounds 4.99 to buy a blank Photo CD, and pounds 8.75 to process 24 pictures on to it. Later on, they can have images from another film added on to the existing disc. They will also be able to transfer old negatives and slides to Photo CD. This will be more expensive, at about 50p per image with a pounds 1.75 handling charge. Each disc will be able to hold between 100 and 125 digitised images.

The images will be stored in 'master' format, which means they will reproduce the high-quality image of a 35mm negative or slide. You will be able to select and copy photographs from this master disc digitally (which means faultlessly) and store them in a lower resolution suitable for display on a television screen. In this format, you can store up to 800 images on one disc.

The more sophisticated facets of Photo CD should be easily understood by users familiar with computers. For the rest, help is likely to be at hand once Photo CD is developed for mass-market consumption.

You can have the disc tell the Photo CD player the order in which you want the pictures shown, for how long, and even display text on the television screen . You can also ask viewers what they would like to see next. On top of all this, you can include a soundtrack of narrative and music.

From here, it is just a small step before an intelligent electronic system is developed that allows you to create and test your own interactive 'disc' in the shop. The final disc can be created with the push of a button.

In stores such as Boots or Dixons, and perhaps in specialised Photo CD shops, you will be able to create your own interactive discs.

When you have created your masterpiece, having copies made should be relatively inexpensive since the data is simply copied from one disc to another. All you should pay for is the extra blank, the handling costs and the processor's profits. This currently costs an unforgivable pounds 24.99.

But all this cleverness will be of no use if Auntie Hannah in Australia has no Photo CD player. Photo CDs will not play on ordinary CD music systems. The chances are, however, that within five years either Auntie Hannah or her neighbour will own one.

After only three months on sale, more than 100,000 units have been sold worldwide, Kodak says. At present the cheapest Photo CD player costs pounds 299.99 compared with pounds 150- pounds 200 for a standard CD player. Within a year or two it is likely that Photo CD will add a premium of only about pounds 50 to a CD player, and will be built into many hi-fi systems.

The market for Photo CD will be partly determined by the availability of pre-recorded software. Publishers are already considering the new format. One example might be 'Song Birds of the UK'. A single disc could hold details of hundreds of birds, including a indexes and cross references, thumbnail images and larger photos of the bird, along with descriptions of where they are found and a recording of their songs. Travel, recipe and gardening discs should be cheap to publish.

Holiday companies could show you your destination, hairdressers could let you browse through 100 different styles, and supermarkets could use a weekly disc to promote special offers.

Photo CD is already being used in medicine, data storage, engineering and to develop mail-order catalogues and training manuals. In time, there will no doubt be obituary discs of the famous. As an experiment in the US, Kodak has recorded the recollections of a 100-year-old woman along with photographs, and already there are thoughts of creating Photo CD family trees.

While there are many more sophisticated multi-media products on the market, the great advantage of Photo CD is that it is easy to understand and offers customers an immediate return.

(Photograph omitted)