Five years ago representatives of N. V. Philips and Sony Corporation, the developers of compact disc technology, stood on the stage at the Microsoft Conference in Seattle and announced CDI, Compact Disk Interactive. This new medium would use an optical disk and player virtually indistinguishable from an audio CD disc and CD player to access audio, video, and data-- a combination now called multimedia--using a conventional television monitor. The prediction was that millions of players priced at under $1,000 each would be coming off the assembly lines within two years.
CDI has now finally arrived. Like the incompatible Commodore CDTV system introduced earlier this year, the CDI player consists mainly of a CD-ROM drive and a sophisticated computer squeezed into a unit the size of a CD audio player. The CDI player is priced at under $1,000, as promised. It accommodates most five-inch optical formats, including not only CDI, but CD audio--therefore, assuring that the hardware will not become a white elephant. The player also accommodates CD+Graphics, Kodak's announced Photo CD, and certain types of CD-ROM XA disks.
CDI produces digital video on four levels, from basic Nintendo-like graphics up to full 24-bit, 16.7-million-color images. It also is capable of four levels of audio quality, from 16-bit CD-quality sound to a compressed, long-play mode that offers up to 16 hours of audio.
The software will be the key to the new medium's acceptance. While there are not many titles yet, that which is available is impressive, ranging from stunning visual material such as "Harvest of the Sun: Vincent van Gogh Revisited" to challenging games such as the "Palm Springs Open." Also available are CDT-Ready audio titles which can be played either on a CDI device or on a regular CD audio player. When played on a CDI player, the audio is augmented with video material, including a display of the lyrics.
The most stunning disk is "Time-Life 35mm Photography,' a series of tutorials for photographers. The disk includes five hours of audio and thousands of frames on equipment and techniques. Particularly compelling is the "Workshops" section which presents a series of choices for use of a simulated camera. After all of the choices with regard to shutter/aperture combinations, etc. have been made, the picture is taken. The picture resulting from the choices appears immediately on the screen, thus providing unlimited practice without the expense of film and developing.
CDI is currently limited to still images, but next year Philips plans to include compressed, full-frame, full-motion, digital video meeting the standards recently set by the Motion Picture Experts Group (MPEG). The quality for motion video will be comparable to VHS, rather than the quality of the still images. The upgrade to motion video will require a graphics card to decompress the images. There is a slot for the card in the back of the unit.
Other companies which have announced CDI players, all based on licenses from Philips, are Sony, Panasonic, Sanyo, and Pioneer.
Should CDI not take off, we are comfortable in the knowledge that the Philips CDI player not only functions as a standard CD player, but is superior to the high-end players on the market in that it not only holds lists of the user's favorite disks in memory, but allows the creation of a menu of various combinations of tracks. Up to 75 combinations can be displayed for review and selection. No other CD player offers this option.
The CD player is generally available at electronics stores, and at some discount houses, but the software is still difficult to find. Several mail order houses do stock the titles--currently just under 200 in number.
It was announced in the November 19th Wall Street Journal that Philips has committed to purchase up to $66 million of Blockbuster Corporation stock. (Blockbuster, with 1851 U.S. stores, is the largest retailer of videos.) As a part of the new relationship between Philips and Blockbuster, it is planned that Philips new CDI software and possibly hardware will be test-marketed at company-owned Blockbuster stores.