Computers at Work With TVs, Phones

THE computer industry launches big ideas the way some people throw beach balls. The biggest and airiest of them all these days is called ``convergence.''

The theory goes something like this: The technologies of television, telephones, and computers are all moving along converging trajectories. When they intersect, bang! The world will change. People will make calls from their television sets. Or watch television with their phones. They'll pull out their pocket doodad in the middle of a traffic jam and accomplish what an advanced desktop computer does today.

I suppose a Big Bang has to come along at least once in every universe. And perhaps this is it. Computers are transforming the way we will watch television and make phone calls. Probably, one day, new industries will emerge because of this move from analog to digital technology.

For now, though, the only convergence going on is a passel of business mergers among digital wannabes. In the future, we'll still watch a lot of TV that isn't interactive. We'll make plenty of phone calls where nobody can see our faces. The difference is that computers will make existing technologies far easier and cheaper to use.

Like the camcorder.

Admit it, your friends' home movies bore you. Out of their two-hour masterpiece, ``My Summer in Rome,'' you liked at most 15 minutes. They probably don't think you're the next Alfred Hitchcock either. If it didn't cost so much time and money, you could edit that videotape. Soon, you'll be able to.

This is already happening at the professional end. In the last couple of years, TV producers and film directors have moved to computers to figure out how they'll piece together their movies. The final product is still put back onto film or videotape. But this too is changing.

This summer, ABC ran a short comedy series called ``She TV.'' It was groundbreaking because the material was specifically focused on women. The real breakthrough, however, was that the show was broadcast directly from a computer.

The image quality wasn't as good as videotape, says David Shapiro, senior manager of program editing for the Discovery Channel. But ``we're on the edge. ABC has allowed every producer out there to say: `If it's good enough for ABC, is it good enough for me?''' In two or three years, as the technology improves, he thinks that even an image-oriented channel like Discovery will begin using computers to edit and broadcast TV shows. The savings in time and money are compelling.

Where the high end goes, the low end is sure to follow. Consumers will be able to make their own movies, says Curt Rawley, president of Avid Technology. The Tewksbury, Mass., company is leading television's charge into computer-based editing. ``That's where we think the world is going to move.''

Some companies are going the other direction. Apple Computer's QuickTime technology already allows Macintosh users to put together short digital ``movies.'' The effect is not as smooth as your camcorder image. And it takes up so much disk space that a few minutes of video will fill the average hard disk. But the company continues to improve the technology. As technologists find better ways to compress video frames into smaller packages and build fatter pipelines through which those frames can be displayed, desktop video will become increasingly commonplace.

Think about that for a moment. In the same way that word-processing and desktop-publishing created a raft of new newsletters, so the computer is about to put in our hands the most compelling form of communication: video. ``It will democratize the process of storytelling quite a bit,'' says Hans Peter Brondmo, Avid's director of interactive technologies. ``People will learn to be, not passive users of videos, but active creators.''

Now that's something to get excited about.

* Send your comments to: CompuServe (70541,T3654), America Online (lbelsie), or via the Internet (laurentb@delphi.com).

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