Powerful new Macs use AV technologies


August 09, 1993|By PETER LEWIS

Most of the attention at last week's Macworld computer trade show was focused on a little green Apple, a hand-held unit called the Newton. But Apple Computer Inc. also decided the time was ripe to introduce its most powerful Macintoshes to date.

The new Macintosh Quadra 840AV and its smaller sibling, the Centris 650AV, are the first of what Apple says will be many computers using AV -- audiovisual -- technologies.

In practical terms, the AV technologies built into the new Macintoshes will allow users to capture and display video clips directly from a camcorder or videocassette recorder, or to create computer animations and store them directly on a VHS videotape. They will speed the processing of images as realistic as photographs under Adobe Photoshop.

They will allow the computer to be used as a speaker phone, an answering machine, a recording studio for creating high-quality voice messages that can be sent over a network. These are not the raspy, walkie-talkie sounds of current voice technology, but clear messages with full inflections.

Most likely to draw a "gee whiz" in the new technology is voice recognition and speech synthesis.

'It will answer me'

"I'll finally be able to tell the computer what to do, and it will answer me," said Richard Doherty, editor in chief of Envisioneering, a newsletter for designers of consumer electronics, communications and computing products that is published in Seaford, N.Y. "Within a month we'll have one set up in our offices. If I'm traveling on the West Coast, I'll be able to call in at 2 in the morning and ask the computer to see if I have electronic mail, and have it read to me. You can't do that today anywhere outside of M.I.T.'s Media Labs."

Such a conversation might go like this:

Doherty: "Computer, open mail file."

Mac: "You have 17 items. There are three fax files and 14 E-mail messages."

Doherty: "Computer, please print new faxes."

Mac: "Excuse me?" (The computer is very polite if it cannot understand a command.)

Doherty repeats the order. The computer responds, "Starting printer communications."

Doherty: "Computer, save mail to new folder."

"And I can convert that file into text and have the computer read it to me," he said. "That's magic."

Actually, it's some clever software called Plain Talk and a specialized microprocessor called a digital signal processor, or DSP chip.

Both new Macs come with twin engines, one a Motorola 68040 mi croprocessor and the other an AT&T DSP. The latter is exceptionally fast, so it is assigned the chores that require "real time" speeds, including speech, audio, modem and some graphics applications. By taking over such tasks from the Motorola chip, the DSP frees up the main microprocessor to concentrate on the rest of the system.

Apple also introduced a new monitor, the Audiovision 14 Display, that has a pair of stereo speakers built into its front. Although it is intended to take specific advantage of the new AV Macintoshes, it will work with most Macs that do not already have a built-in display.

Apple refortifies position

With its new models, Apple has refortified its position as the champion of multimedia, a loosely defined category that includes CD-quality sound, video images, voice, animation, photo-realistic graphics and other embellishments.

The question is, do customers really want such fancy features, and at prices that, including a monitor, start at nearly $3,000 and go twice as high?

"They are nifty computers, but it's kind of like way beyond what most people need," said Bruce Ryon, principal analyst for multimedia research at Dataquest, a market research company in San Jose, Calif.

Mr. Ryon said the voice capabilities of the new Macs were impressive in contrast to other computer voice systems currently on the market. Those other systems typically require one user to "train" the computer to recognize his or her voice, by repeating each word in the computer's vocabulary several times. The new Macs are speaker independent, which means they will listen to strangers. Also, they recognize continuous speech, instead ... of ... making ... the ... computer ... user ... talk ... like ... a ... robot.

On the other hand, Mr. Ryon said he was not convinced that voice commands are anything to shout about.

"Many people within the technology business believe that anything that helps people interact with a computer more naturally helps to expand the computer market, which is a big plus," he said. "The trouble with speech is that it doesn't have 100 percent accuracy."

"If you had a keyboard that didn't work properly 100 percent of the time, you'd throw it away or get it serviced. Besides, voice doesn't solve the problem for novices of how to interact with the computer, because you still have to learn the system and know what to tell it to do. People can actually do it faster through the keyboard."

Appeal to high-end users

Voice aside, there are other things about the new Macs that are likely to appeal to high-end Macintosh users.

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