Future TVs will offer better sights, sounds

THE BOOB TUBE GETS SMART

November 21, 1991|By Michael Pollick

Want a taste of the television of the future?

Head for the TV department at any Sears, Montgomery Ward's or Circuit City, find the Philips CD-I player demonstration kiosk, and ask the salesman if you can play the Palm Springs Open.

Using a very simple remote control with built-in joystick, you pick a club, tee off, and knock that ball all the way to the pin while wise-cracking commentators make remarks about your shots.

On the screen are photographs of real golf holes, depicting the scene wherever your ball lies. A realistic human figure hits the ball for you, with the appropriate stroke for driving, chipping or putting, and the power of the shot is determined by manipulating the joystick.

And that's not all.

Using Philips' $800 "Imagination Machine," which began appearing in stores this month, you can play audio compact discs, browse through the Compton's MultiMedia Encyclopedia or take a course in photography. By next year, you'll be able to get your regular color slides placed on a CD for viewing on your TV.

You could call it smart TV -- made possible by the merger of consumer electronics and computers. Today, consumer electronics manufacturers are putting powerful computer chips inside their equipment. The chip buried inside the Philips player, for example, is the same one that powers an Apple MacIntosh.

Equipped with the power of digital data compression and the ability to handle text, sound, still and moving pictures and to take commands from the remote control, your TV will soon become jukebox, library and learning center, slide projector and game arcade.

And while programs for personal computers have long been interactive, new consumer electronics equipment is aimed at a different audience in a different room: your whole family, in the living room.

Passers-by who tried out the Philips golf game last week at the Sears in Hunt Valley were impressed by the quality of the video -- and by the "commentators' " cute comments. As one player remained stuck in the rough for several shots, one "commentator" said to the other, "I think dehydration is setting in, Jim."

"I think it's phenomenal," said John Siemer of Newington, Conn.

"I'd rather play this than Nintendo," said Brian Sutton, an auto mechanic from White Hall. "It's not some kind of cartoon."

Computer companies such as Apple and IBM have professed some interest in developing such products for the mass market, but they have done little.

Meanwhile, another, much smaller company than Netherlands-based Philips has developed a completely different way of harnessing computer power in the living room. Frox Inc. of Sunnyvale, Calif., is preparing to ship a multipurpose audio and video enhancement device that also is based on a high-powered computer.

You can hook everything up to it (including a Philips CD-I) and run it from your couch while moving only a finger and a thumb.

It will vastly improve the picture quality of any video image, creating an image that has 40 times as many light dots (pixels) as the industry standard. Its sound system can be made to simulate a hall, club or stadium, in case you want to pretend Madonna is performing at Oriole Park. As one option, you can have a 100-disc CD changer tied into it, allowing you to browse through the discs and pick the individual tracks you wish to play.

Frox also plans to pipe in an updating service via existing cable TV lines -- probably "hidden" on the incoming signal of an existing cable network. It will make sure your Frox can handle any new devices that come out, provide you with an electronic TV guide, and let you keep track of your favorite stocks.

Just like the Philips CD-I, all the "interacting" on the Frox is done on the screen, allowing the use of a very simple remote control, which Frox somewhat majestically calls a "FroxWand." In this case, rotating a ball bearing on top of the remote with your thumb moves a tiny hand around on the screen, where you can pull down menus to handle various tasks.

You'll have to head for a high-end audio shop if you want to be one of the audiovisual pioneers who buys the first model FroxSystem.

The basic set-up, along with a 31-inch, extremely high-resolution screen, sells for about $10,000. But it would typically be installed as part of a more complete home theater with a 51-inch screen, 100-CD automatic changer and surround-sound for about $20,000.

While the Frox and the Philips CD-I may seem smart now, who knows? Maybe they'll turn out to be low I.Q. compared with the equipment and programming coming later in the decade.

Frox "has nothing that is sophisticated. All it is is expensive," says the voice of TV-future, Andrew Lippman of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab.

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