If the only thing you're getting from your CD player is great-sounding audio, at least two major consumer-electronics companies think you're missing at least half the fun.
Philips Electronics and Commodore have introduced interactive compact-disc machines that not only play your favorite audio CDs, but also let you visit a museum, take a photography lesson or play a round of golf -- all without leaving your living room.
By tapping vast storage capabilities -- a single disc can hold a 21-volume encyclopedia -- companies are now able to add memory-consuming visual elements, such as animation, graphics and digitized photos. Although the systems are now limited to displaying a combination of still video and partial-screen, partial-motion video, sometime in the next year they'll boast full-screen, full-motion video to accompany the music or voice tracks.
Manufacturers even envision putting feature films on CD, though they're at least two years away from that.
The interactive systems are Commodore's CDTV (Commodore Dynamic Total Vision) and Philips' CD-I (Compact Disc-Interactive, also called the Imagination Machine). Each sells for about $800.
Although these machines are designed to hook directly into television sets and stereos, couch potatoes should beware: Unlike TV's usual passive fare, the programming on CD-I and CDTV discs is interactive, requiring viewers not only to watch, but also participate.
So be prepared to wield your remote control actively, manipulating on-screen symbols and menus to obtain additional information, move to other selections or to ask or respond to questions.
And beware another point: Although both systems do many similar things, buying one won't give you access to the other -- discs bought for one don't play on the other. The Imagination Machine has issued 30 titles and plans to put out 25 more by the end of next month; prices range from $17.98 to $49.98 per disc. CDTV has issued more than 80 discs, from $19.95 to $79.95.
How do the systems stack up against each other?
I found the Imagination Machine a little easier to use, and its memory seemed to retrieve information a little quicker than did CDTV's. And based on the first batch of releases, Imagination discs seem more realistic. But if you're buying a system primarily to play video games, CDTV may be more to your liking. Also, CDTV has the edge in reference works.
For realism, consider the Imagination Machine's "Time-Life Photography," a tutorial that uses more than 1,000 photos. With it, your TV screen is converted into a simulated camera that can be used to "shoot" practice photos, which are analyzed for correct settings. By clicking the "camera" with the remote control, you get to see how your picture would have come out -- without spending a dime on developing costs.
Other adult-oriented Imagination titles include "Treasures of the Smithsonian," a two-hour tour through 200 exhibits in the famous Washington museum, and "ABC Sports Golf: Palm Springs Open," which uses more than 7,000 photographic images to produce one of the most lifelike golf simulations around.
For children, Imagination offers "Pecos Bill," an animated tale narrated by Robin Williams with original music by Ry Cooder; "Alice in Wonderland," a game featuring classic stories from the book, and titles based on "Sesame Street" characters and Mother Goose rhymes.
When it comes to games, CDTV probably has the advantage, mainly because a Commodore Amiga 500 computer lurks under
the machine's non-computerlike exterior. The Amiga has become a favorite with game players, because it produces high-quality graphics and animation, for arcade-style game play.
Commodore's other strength is its library of reference materials on compact disc.
CDTV's New Grolier Electronic Encyclopedia, for example, not only displays text and pictures of a subject, but also offers accompanying audio that adds an extra dimension to the visual material. A listing for John F. Kennedy, for example, provides pictures and text -- and lets you hear him give a speech. Cross-referencing features point you to other sources of information.
Other reference titles for CDTV include The Complete Works of Shakespeare; Time Table of Business, Politics and Media, and The American Heritage Illustrated Encyclopedic Dictionary, which contains more than 180,000 entries and 3,000 color illustrations.
It's no accident that Commodore's and Philips' systems resemble conventional audio or video components both makers clearly want their multimedia players in the living room, not in the study or home office with the computer gear.
In fact, the TV is an integral part of the CDTV system, as the player lacks all but the most basic control buttons. Most of CDTV's control functions are instead displayed on the TV screen, and are controlled by a rather wide, rectangular remote control, which looks like a video-game joypad that has been stretched to accommodate a 22-button keypad in the middle. By using the remote to move a cursor among on-screen symbols, you can make full use of all the system's functions.
If you're considering buying one of these new systems, go into a store, pick up a remote, and start comparing to see which one's right for your home. And don't just react -- interact.