Rock Musicians Tackle CD-ROM With an Eye on the Future

No one can predict how big interactive entertainment will become, but some are trying

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

PETER GABRIEL has often been described as an art-rocker, video pioneer, and promoter of world music and human rights.

But these days, Mr. Gabriel is also known as an ``experience designer'' - to use his words.

Enter ``Xplora 1: Peter Gabriel's Secret World,'' an interactive CD-ROM that allows any user of a Macintosh with a CD-ROM disc drive to participate in various ``interactive'' experiences that Gabriel has, in fact, helped design.

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A click of the mouse and voila: You can get a behind-the-scenes look at Gabriel's ``Real World Recording Studio,'' for example, and remix his song ``Digging in the Dirt.'' Then, you can ``travel'' around the world and sample music, talk to musicians, even try different instruments such as the Darabuka, a pear-shaped drum from Egypt.

A CD-ROM looks like an ordinary audio compact disc; ROM stands for read-only memory. But this relatively new technology can store massive amounts of information including video, music, text, still pictures, and graphics.

While Gabriel is considered a pioneer in this evolving medium of interactive, multimedia rock-and-roll, he is not alone.

Todd Rundgren was one of the first with his ``TR-I: No World Order,'' which allows the user to remix and change an entire album. David Bowie has created an interactive disc scheduled for release this spring. Thomas Dolby, Billy Idol, and U2 are producing or experimenting with CD-ROM projects. Rumor has it that Prince, Michael Jackson, and Madonna are also looking into the technology.

In addition, many major record labels have recently created interactive divisions.

All this suggests that just as popular music branched out into video (read: MTV), it may also go interactive.

Not surprisingly, moviemakers are keeping a close eye on interactive technology, causing insiders to buzz about ``Siliwood'' - Hollywood meets Silicon Valley. But what exactly will sell in consumerland remains to be seen.

``Nobody's really figured out where the big bucks are yet. They know that it's coming and that they can't afford to be left behind,'' says Fredric Paul, features editor for Electronic Entertainment magazine in San Francisco.

While some applaud the efforts to make entertainment more interactive, others wonder if music listeners, specifically, want to exert themselves to be entertained.

``A lot of people are paying for [audio] CDs because they want the artist's vision, and they don't want to be actively challenged to participate,'' says Jim Willcox, senior editor for TWICE, a consumer electronics magazine in New York. People in the industry are still trying to discover the degrees of interactivity that consumers are really going to be looking for, Mr. Willcox says. ``The technology is captivating right now, but it's too soon in the marketplace to see how they are going to vote on these things.''

Electronic Entertainment's Mr. Paul predicts that the future will bring the best of both worlds. ``In five years, there won't be much of a difference between regular audio CDs and multimedia interactive experiences. It will be all points on a continuum, different levels of the same thing,'' he says. ``You can take it on whatever level you want. You can sit and listen and watch or you can go deeper.... it's whatever you're in the mood for.''

For Gabriel, a musician who has always been involved in theater and art, the concept of interactive entertainment is the new frontier. The four-time Grammy winner delights in the idea of dissolving the barrier between artist and audience.

Gabriel writes in Xplora 1: ``These medias are coming at us very fast and they're going to transform the world in which we live. They're certainly going to transform the music business. A lot of us who have an affinity towards visual things - with pictures, film and video - are going to fall into becoming experience designers and this is where I want the centre of my work to be in the future.''

Gabriel and many others have worked hard to equip Xplora 1 with 140 minutes of video and audio, including four full-length videos from ``Us''; more than 100 full-color photographic images; and ``a book's worth'' of explanatory and educational text.

The software is published by Interplay Production's MacPlay division and the package - including a collector's edition paperback book - is priced between $50 and $60.

Quality in such an infant industry is difficult to measure.

Some interactive products can be crude and confusing, some are good but slow (and can be frustrating), a select number show promise enough to help the market shake down in the future.

``A lot of stuff coming out first isn't going to be that great,'' Paul says. Any medium starts out that way. Still, he considers Gabriel's Xplora 1 as ``one of the best'' in interactive rock-and-roll.

As the user in Xplora 1, you are given four areas to explore: ``Us'' videos and how they were made and directed; World music, including a visit to the WOMAD (World Organization of Music and Dance) Festival; Gabriel's personal world, where you can click into his earlier records, view his photo album, and gather information on Amnesty International and Witness Project human-rights programs; and ``behind the scenes,'' where you visit the Real World studios and award-ceremony rehearsals and more.

As your on-screen interactive guide, Gabriel gives you certain instructions, prompts you to try some things, and often pops up from time to time in the left upper corner of your screen to give you some background. He introduces a rehearsal for the Grammy Awards, for example, by saying: ``I don't think you can take these award ceremonies too seriously.''

People are taking interactive rock-and-roll seriously. Paul says that ``in five years it may not even be on discs. The information highway might be how you get this stuff.''

Willcox says that he can see the market really begin to flourish when multimedia hardware involves television-entertainment centers in people's homes rather than personal computers in home offices.

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