Multimedia options may give PCs a 'Buck Rogers feel'


July 27, 1992|By Fort Worth Star-Telegram

FORT WORTH, Texas -- To catch a glimpse of the future of computing, you may have to go to Tycoon World.

This computerized game developed by Tandy Corp. allows you to do more than just zap electronic aliens or destroy animated cartoon characters.

In the Tycoon World prototype, players can use a computer to view film clips, identify pictures, listen to audio commands and even roll electronic dice.

Although Tycoon World is experimental, the system used to create the game represents one of the investments Fort Worth's Tandy is making to shape home and business computing.

The nation's largest purveyor of consumer electronics is trying to speed the development of software that can manipulate sound and video in much the same way today's programs can process text and numbers.

By making it easier to bring film clips, sound bites and text together on one machine, Tandy hopes to find new uses for personal computers. Those new applications could breathe life into a business troubled by slow growth and severe competition.

Tandy established a unique assembly line process this year for making next-generation computer software.

This "Information Factory," on the 17th floor of Tandy Tower Two in downtown Fort Worth, belies the image of traditional manufacturing plants.

Workers have no need to tote power tools or welding guns. Absent are those hulking metal car frames that usually plod their way through an assembly line, waiting for nuts, bolts, wiper blades and rear-view mirrors.

Instead, Information Factory manager Dusty Rector and his team of 10 technicians rely on a network of high-powered personal computers that may become a prototype for assembly lines in the information age.

"It's exciting to start with this business from the ground floor," Mr. Rector said. "It's like being where the video industry was 25 years ago."

L Each worker in the Information Factory is assigned one task.

For example, one technician is responsible for recording sounds into the computer data base. Another focuses on entering photographs into the system. Yet another works on developing animated graphics.

Watching over the process is Ed Delaney. Mr. Delaney's title is production manager, but think of him more as the project's foreman. From his PC, Mr. Delaney writes electronic work orders that tell his workers what needs to be entered into the computer data base.

"Doing this type of work, I feel like I'm part of the 21st century," said Roger Hein, photography director at the Information Factory.

The work he and others are completing at the Information Factory may help give a Buck Rogers feel to the PCs in use today.

Personal computers today are adept at processing information. The easy manipulation of text and numbers has helped the machine evolve into a type of electronic filing cabinet.

The introduction of photos, video and sound to the computer, however, may transform the way we look at computers, said Tim Bajarin, president of Creative Strategies International, a market research firm in Santa Clara, Calif. "Instead of having a computer screen that stares at you, video and sound gives you a computer that can talk back," he said. "That takes the PC to a new dimension. Instead of a simple information processor, the PC expands into the role of an interactive communication tool."

Tycoon World is built on the premise that computers can handle more than just word processing and spreadsheets.

For example, if you land on Fort Worth while playing Tycoon World, a voice from inside the computer will ask a question about the city's Cultural District while displaying a picture of the Kimbell Art Museum.

The player who correctly answers the question becomes the proud owner of Cowtown and wins the right to move on to buy other cities on the Tycoon World map of the United States.

Although the Tandy game may sound simplistic, the technology to make that kind of computer software is significantly more complex -- and expensive. That's a major problem for Tandy, which is trying to encourage the development of computer applications that process audio and video.

New applications give consumers more reasons for buying advanced computers.

Some industry observers say this new dimension of computing also could spawn a multibillion-dollar publishing industry within the next decade. Software that combines video, sound, photos and text could mushroom into a $10 billion business by the turn of the century, according to estimates made this year by the Volpe, Welte & Co. investment banking firm in San Francisco.

Yet even industry participants are skeptical when talking about a market that has yet to materialize. Manufacturers have been touting the development of systems that can merge video, sound and text since the mid-1980s.

A variety of hurdles have stalled the widespread acceptance of these multimedia computers.

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