Computers Mixing Sound With Sight Are on the Way

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IN August, four boxes arrived with some of the most interesting bells and whistles in the computer industry. Besides the traditional desktop case, monitor, and keyboard, I found two black speakers, a weird triangular antenna, a tiny clip-on microphone, a remote control, and a tangle of wires to hook up those gizmos to the back of the computer.

In short, this was CompuAdd's multimedia computer.

Multimedia is the combination of sight and sound. CompuAdd's computer - sans TV tuner - overwhelmed me. I wasn't quite sure what to do with it. Four months later, I find myself in the same predicament.

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It's not that I dislike multimedia. It's just that, as a user, it's not yet part of my computing culture.

For example, CompuAdd does a beautiful job of integrating disparate technologies into one machine. A single program, based on Microsoft Windows, allows me to record my own sounds onto the computer's hard disk. A click of the mouse lets me tune in my favorite radio stations. Another click, and I can play the internal CD-ROM player. That's nifty. But why turn on a computer to listen to the radio?

I could see the usefulness of the sound mixer if I were preparing some kind of presentation. Specialized users - such as TV graphics people - use such tools heavily. Multimedia for the rest of us will come slowly.

What piece of multimedia will arrive first?

Sound, says Satish Gupta, vice president of strategic marketing and development for Media Vision, which sells the boards that turn a PC's beep into music and speech. Just as people got used to telephone answering machines, he argues, so will they become acculturated to PC sound effects.

Computer-game makers are rushing to include audio - not just sound effects but speech - in their products. Specialty software and hardware companies are developing products to make the computer more useful to the blind. (National Braille Press in Boston has published a new guidebook on the technology.) More mainstream educational and business software is also moving in that direction but at a slower pace, Mr. Gupta concedes. With sound-board prices down from $1,000 to about $200 or $300, he predicts more

people will try out talking computers.

You can talk back too. Some programs now control computers by voice command. But don't rush into that technology just yet. When InfoWorld tested three such systems recently (one each on a PC, a Macintosh, and a Next machine), it found none of them quite up to expectations.

At the moment, sight, not sound, seems to be driving the multimedia market. Michael French, senior consultant with Link Resources, says most buyers are going to multimedia for better images - everything from animation to still photography to moving pictures.

The market for these technologies is still small. Link estimates that only 9 percent of the office computers shipped last year were multimedia ready. (It was only 1 percent for home computers.) That should change by mid-decade. In 1996, the company forecasts that 75 percent of all office machines and 65 percent of all home computers will be multimedia ready.

Of course, being multimedia ready doesn't come cheap. The technology requires a fast computer, lots of memory, and loads of hard-disk space. My CompuAdd computer was built around a Cyrix 486 chip with three megabytes of random-access memory and a 120-megabyte hard disk. (Total cost: $3,354.13) At times, the machine didn't quite keep up when I was recording speech at the highest quality levels. Look for multimedia machines with larger hard disks (200 megabytes or more), at least eight megabytes of memory,

and faster processors.

So I'm moving slowly into this technology. My first investment will undoubtedly be a CD-ROM drive, the fastest one I can get. My CompuAdd experience has convinced me that CD-ROM is just too useful to pass up. It delivers volumes of information quickly to people like me who spend hours on their computers.

Does that make me multimedia ready? Not quite. Call me "multimedia-expectant."

* Send your comments on this column to CompuServe (70541,3654) or Prodigy (BXGN44A).

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