Powerful chip at heart of new entertainment system

PERSONAL COMPUTERS

February 15, 1993|By PETER H. LEWIS

In the world of microprocessors, a 32-bit RISC chip is a powerhouse. Such chips typically are used in the class of computers known as workstations, which are to personal

computers what jets are to propeller planes.

Scientists use these powerful machines to create three-dimensional models of molecules, and graphic artists use them to create stunning animations and special effects used in motion pictures.

Some people believe that 32-bit RISC chips, along with another specialized chip called a digital signal processor and a CD-ROM drive, will soon be at the heart of a $700 home entertainment center. Such a device, called a 3DO Multiplayer, was demonstrated recently at the Demo 93 computer conference in Indian Wells, Calif.

The 3DO Multiplayer, which is expected to appear later this year as a shoe-box-size device, is basically a compact disk player that attaches to regular television and stereo set and plays both audio CD's and CD-based computer games. It will also display color photographs stored on Kodak PhotoCD disks.

Final features have not been decided, but the system is said tobe able to edit videos from a camcorder and to process musical instrument sounds through a so-called MIDI interface.

Games, both action and educational, will take on a new realism when displayed on a 32-bit system. The more advanced video game systems found in arcades typically use 32-bit software.

The original Nintendo games were so-called eight-bit systems, meaning the processor handled data in chunks of eight bits each.

When Sega Genesis and later Nintendo came out with 16-bit game systems a couple of years ago, the quality of games surged ahead withmore colors, greater visual detail and more complex action. The 32-bit systems allow nearly photographic quality images, coupled with CD-quality sound.

Special graphics chips also make the images on the television screen even sharper than one might expect, creating something close to a three-dimensional effect.

At the same time, the digital signal processing (DSP) chip creates the audio equivalent of three-dimensional sound. A DSP chip is an extremely fast processor that, among other tasks, analyzes and modifies sounds. DSP chips are also starting to appear in high-end stereo equipment.

The first buyers are expected to be gadget fanatics. However, just as CD players have fallen in price to just a few hundred dollars from an initial price of more than $1,000, the cost of the 3DO Multiplayer will certainly come down.

"Anything this small and light has to get cheaper," said Trip Hawkins, president and chief executive of 3DO Co., as he waved a prototype of the 3DO Multiplayer in his hand. Mr. Hawkins is also chairman of Electronic Arts, the world's largest maker of computer entertainment software.

Electronic Arts is one of three companies behind the 3DO Company, which will license rights to make the hardware or software. The others are Japan's giant Matsushita Electric Industrial Company Ltd. and Time Warner.

Mr. Hawkins said several companies had signed on to produce 3DO Multiplayer decks and dozens more have committed to produce 3DO software products.

As impressive as the 3DO prototype is, and despite the formidable alliance of Matsushita, Time Warner and Software Arts, the 3DO standard faces some tough competition.

Nintendo Corp. and Sony Corporation of America are working on a competing system called the Play Station, and North American Phillips may also align with Nintendo.

Nintendo's rival Sega of America Inc. already has a $300 CD-ROM attachment for its popular Genesis game systems, and Toshiba is rumored to have aligned with Apple Computer Inc. to produce a CD-ROM consumer device.

(Peter Lewis works out of the New York Times' Austin, Texas bureau: [512] 328-8258.)

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