Special Report on Electronic Gifts: Museum tours in your own home

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The Independent Online
WHEN Philips and Sony jointly launched CD digital audio in 1983, they may have thought they were backing a winner. But neither could have guessed that CD audio would soon become one of the biggest consumer electronics successes of all time.

By the mid-1980s, Philips and Sony had shown how other kinds of information could be stored in digital form on a compact disc. Soon new CD players were emerging that could access text, sound and images from discs known as Compact Disc Read Only Memories (CD-ROMs). Most were drives that had to be connected to desktop computers. Although such systems are now widely used in corporate and professional applications, computer-based CD-ROM systems were never intended for the mass market.

Over the past two years, however, new CD-ROM systems have been launched aimed squarely at consumers. They offer a combination of pictures, sound and text on a compact disc running on a player which is easy to use: you connect it to a television and use an infra-red remote controller to select from menus on the screen. The aim of this new generation of multimedia CD players is to bring affordable, interactive entertainment, education and reference into the home.

Commodore was the first to launch a consumer multimedia CD player. It was called CDTV and when it appeared in Britain in April 1991, Commodore emphasised that the system was not a computer but just a new kind of CD player. In reality, they had bundled together their best-selling Amiga home computer and a CD-ROM drive and put them in a sleek, black box. The players were excellent but the same could not be said of the discs.

Before he resigned this autumn, Steve Franklin, Commodore's European CDTV boss, confessed that 'the software was absolute rubbish'. In the first year, Commodore sold fewer than 15,000 players in Britain, traditionally its strongest market. It is re-positioning CDTV as the kind of product it really knows how to sell - a multimedia computer with keyboard and plug-in floppy disc drives.

The consumer electronics industry has really been waiting for the Compact Disc Interactive (CD-I), the player Philips first announced in 1987. After many delays, the first players reached the shops in the United States last autumn and in the UK in May. The Philips system, like Commodore's CDTV, is a consumer appliance designed to look good in a living room. Unlike CDTV, however, it embodies real innovation, extending the capabilities of traditional CD-ROM systems so that high quality graphics, sound and text can be delivered interactively on a television screen.

CD-I is unlikely to be an overnight success. At pounds 499, a CD-I player is hardly an impulse buy and potential customers will need time to understand its benefits. CD-I's success will also depend on the discs that are available. So far, more than 60 are available, mainly US imports. The first British titles are appearing. On the whole, the quality is high, with superb educational discs based on the Sesame Street characters, cultural titles covering art, opera, jazz and pop, interactive tours of museums such as the Smithsonian, and hobby discs, including a spellbinding Time-Life guide to photography. The first CD feature films are due next year.

The best news for CD-I, however, came shortly after its launch when an independent survey of early adopters in the UK gave Philips a boost. More than a third of those buying players had incomes of less than pounds 17,500. This suggested that CD-I was having instant impact in the mainstream mass market. Now Philips expects to see the beginning of a real lift-off by the end of next year - sooner if the recession eases.

But Philips will not have it all its own way. A new consumer player called the VIS (Video Information System) has been launched by Tandy in the US. The Japanese firm Matsushita is joining forces with Electronic Arts, US software specialists, to create a player called the 3DO. Nintendo and Sega, the video-game giants, are launching CD extensions to their games consoles.

Whoever wins this CD war, one thing is sure: the new generation of CD is certain to have a huge impact on mass-market entertainment and information. Like it or not, an interactive multimedia CD player is coming to a living room near you soon.

(Photograph omitted)

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