Quickcams Make Computer Users Into Instant Spielbergs

Admit it. While you like movies, you think you could do a better job directing them than Hollywood does. You want to slip into the director's chair, tell the actors how to play the scene, then yell ''action'' at just the right moment.

Now you can - with a handy gizmo called a QuickCam.

Imagine a palm-sized rubber ball with a lens stuck on it. That's a QuickCam. It displays what it sees on a window of your computer screen. To record a scene, all you do is aim the QuickCam, press the spacebar and the ''enter'' key, and let the action begin. To stop recording, you press ''enter'' again. It's that simple.

Of course, computer video is still in the infant stages. QuickCam won't yet give you the capabilities of Universal Studios - but the technology is developing in that direction.

My first stint in the director's chair featured a high camera angle worthy of Hitchcock, a zoom shot toward our parrot Ziggy, and me humming the theme to ''Mission: Impossible.'' (QuickCam allows you to record sound too.) Not Oscar material, but it was a start.

Others have done more. Connectix, which makes the product, sent along a sample of QuickCam productions, including a hilarious time-lapse clip called Bunny's Night Out and a dazzling mini-movie where a Barbie doll comes to life. If this is what's possible with a first-generation product, imagine the future possibilities. Video-conferencing, Internet movies, and cheap home-security systems are a few examples just over the horizon.

Although there are other computer products that do the same or better with video, the QuickCam stands out because it's inexpensive ($99) and easy to install. One cord hooks onto the plug usually used by your printer. The other cord is installed between the computer and the cord that leads to your keyboard. But just any computer won't do.

Make sure you have a powerful multimedia machine - either an IBM-compatible or a Macintosh - with lots of hard-disk space and 16 megabytes of memory. You can do it with less memory, especially on the Mac. But the video won't play smoothly with too little memory. (If you have an older IBM-compatible, make sure it has a bidirectional or ''extended capabilities'' parallel port.) Also, some users report problems if they run the QuickCam and a printer off the same connection using a special switch.

Before you get any big ideas about producing the next ''Jurassic Park,'' you have to understand that computer video still has a long way to go. The QuickCam, for one, has several limitations. Its images are black-and-white, not color. The mini-movies it creates will not fill the big screen anytime soon. To look at all decent, they have to run in a window the size of a saltine cracker.

Most people won't be able to use the QuickCam for video-conferencing either. While Connectix makes videophone software that works with the QuickCam, it works only on special phone lines or computer networks. A decent video phone call from home is still some ways away.

Another challenge is storage. Computer video takes up huge amounts of space. To put it in perspective, ''Gone With the Wind'' fits on a video-cassette tape costing less than $5. The same movie recorded on a QuickCam would require a huge hard disk costing more than $2,000. And that's for a black-and-white version playing in that saltine-sized window. A full-screen version in color (which the QuickCam can't handle) would require a much larger disk. The QuickCam comes with compression software that squeezes the movies down to a more manageable size, but the process can take an hour or more, even on fast machines.

Eventually, the computer industry will overcome these technical and price barriers. But we'll have to wait awhile. That's show-biz, computer style.

* Send comments via Internet (laurentb@delphi.com) or to CompuServe (70541,3654) or America Online (LBELSIE).

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