Personal Computers Gaining TV's Power Of Image and Sound
By John Markoff
The New York Times
September 12, 1989
The personal computer, which not so long ago could display no more than a small amount of text and only recently added graphic images, could soon be far more versatile, combining the brains of a computer and the beauty of television pictures and sound.
A number of companies, from computer manufacturers to media giants, are investing heavily in the hybrid technology.
The potential uses are many. Someone training to be an automobile mechanic could watch a video of an expert demonstrating a repair on the computer screen, rather than merely reading about how to do it. If more help is needed, the viewer could also question the expert from a prepared list of inquiries.
Someone viewing Picasso's ''Guernica'' could explore the painting in detail by summoning a vast library of background material, including television documentaries on the artist, related paintings and film footage from the Spanish Civil War.
The technology, labeled multimedia computing, or desktop video, may also create a new class of video games, transforming the cartoon figures of Nintendo games into lifelike television characters whose adventures would be determined by the player.
''In the 90's we're going to see the SUB JUMP D5 concept of what a personal computer is change,'' said Robert Abel, a Hollywood special-effects expert who founded a company, AND Communications, to create computer video productions. ''It won't be just a spreadsheet device or something that crunches numbers. It will become something new. Like television, it will provide entertainment, information and ideas. The difference is that you will have to be active.''
For five years, personal computers have been used to control television images stored on a videodisk player and displayed on a separate monitor. But now, newer, more powerful computer chips and equipment allow the computer itself to handle the tremendous amount of data that must be moved through the system each second to create a television-like image.
Unlike a simple television set, which merely captures and displays an image, the new computers could store the image as digital data - information recorded as a series of 1's and 0's. The speed of digital processing would allow the user to manipulate the television instantaneously to locate a particular segment, freeze an image, zoom in on a particular part of the image or splice together portions to create a new work. Indeed, a new industry may specialize in this kind of computerized production work.
The hybrid machines, which have advanced screens that can produce a sharper picture than today's television sets, could someday integrate the functions of stereos, videocassettes and compact disks.
''People don't want to sit passively in front of the television,'' said William H. Gates, chairman of the Microsoft Corporation, a computer program developer that is spending more than $10 million a year on research into this new style of computing. ''Over time, everything is going to become digital, and sound and video will be stored and manipulated by the personal computer.''
The new technology may arrive at a crucial time for the maturing personal computer industry, which is running short of new markets.
Some Are Skeptical
Although multimedia technology has many supporters, some people in the personal computer industry say it will not be widely used for some time. They see it as a case of marketing hype outstripping substantive developments.
Nonetheless, video and sound have become the cornerstone of an attempt by the world's largest computer maker, the International Business Machines Corporation, to take back technological leadership in desktop computing. I.B.M. is planning to convert the mainframe computers it sells into vast repositories for video and sound that could be sent over networks and displayed on desktop work stations.
I.B.M. has formed an alliance with the Intel Corporation to develop a technology to permit the compression of images, sound and data onto compact disks that could be played on personal computers.
Apple Computer Inc. is also investing heavily in the design of multimedia computers. Neither Apple nor I.B.M. has said when the new computers will reach the market, but analysts say I.B.M. may introduce a machine priced at $2,500 to $3,000, perhaps by late next year. Apple's product is expected to be more ambitious and will not arrive until a few years later.
Commodore International Ltd. already has a home multimedia computer, the Amiga, which sells for less than $1,000 and has some advanced animation and sound features. And the Sony Corporation of Japan and Philips N. V. of the Netherlands are together developing a product to be linked to home television sets.
Many analysts think multimedia computing for the home will be the next big market for the computer industry. But others suggest that the market will not grow sharply until the young Americans now growing up with video games come of age.
Fear of Japanese
Apple and I.B.M. are both moving quickly, in part because they fear that the home computer of the future may not come from computer companies but from television makers, who almost certainly will be based in Japan. Japanese companies, which dominate television manufacturing, have already begun to add computer-like features to their sets.
In the future, high-definition television, with its sharper images, is expected to erase the distinction between computers and television sets. Like the new multimedia computers, high-definition television, or HDTV, will store images digitally.
Convinced that multimedia computing will become a huge market, large media companies have just begun to introduce programming for the new machines. At an Apple Computer exhibition in Boston last month, Time Warner Inc., ABC, Newsweek and McGraw-Hill Inc. all showed multimedia programs they are developing for Apple's Macintosh computer. A High-Tech Record Player? Supporters of multimedia technology hope a union of the computer and television will allow computer makers to reach people who have had little interest in mastering the complexities of personal computers. But the changes have raised concerns that some companies, like I.B.M., may use the new technologies to limit the creative uses of personal computers, effectively transforming the computers into high-tech record players.
''I.B.M. is trying to change the fundamental nature of the computer by making it more of a player than a tool,'' said Stewart Alsop, a computer industry analyst who publishes PC Letter in Redwood City, Calif.
For example, people use the word processor of a modern personal computer to assemble and edit their own ideas. In I.B.M.'s initial hybrid computer, it will not be possible to create a multimedia production inexpensively, only to play back prepackaged programs. But Apple says it plans to give customers low-cost capabilities to create their own productions.
Whether or not computerized video reaches the home market soon, it is already arriving in business and education. The Ford Motor Company and the Quaker Oats Company are among the corporations that have established interactive video kiosks where employees can obtain information on benefits and company issues. Video systems controlled by computers have become commonplace in schools and have demonstrated that they can be powerful motivating tools, educators say.
Products for Current PC's
The interest in multimedia computers has prompted a flood of products that permit users to view and capture video images on existing computers.
Last month, for example, Aapps Inc., a company in Mountain View, Calif., that was founded by the computer entrepreneur Nolan K. Bushnell, introduced a $400 card for the Macintosh that creates a 2-inch black-and-white window on the computer screen, on which television-like images can be displayed. The device is complete with a tuner and volume controls.
Experts on the personal computer industry dispute how quickly a multimedia computing business will replace traditional personal computers. For example, Mr. Gates of Microsoft, which has been host to three annual conferences on multimedia applications, said he had recently scaled down his expectations.
Indeed, some people skeptical of multimedia technology say it has been tried before without success. ''It seems to be the second coming of videotex,'' said Vincent Mosco, a professor of mass communications at Carlton University in Ottawa, referring to disappointing efforts to market two-way communications systems between subscribers and central computers. ''There doesn't seem to be a great deal to lead me to think that the second coming will have any greater impact than the first coming.''
''Multimedia is, simply put, a sham,'' said John C. Dvorak, a widely read magazine columnist on personal computers. ''It's promoted by the natural-born hucksters within the industry because it has all the earmarks of something trendy and fashionable.''
But for believers like Mr. Abel, new computer-based technologies will soon be a powerful force. ''We're trying to move from the age of information to the age of ideas,'' he said. ''We're trying to get people to think.''
GRAPHIC: photo of Robert Abel (NYT/Bart Bartholomew) (pg. D5)
Copyright 1989 The New York Times Company