TECHNOLOGY

Leisure’s new look

Technology is transforming home entertainment

DIANE BRADY February 17 1992
TECHNOLOGY

Leisure’s new look

Technology is transforming home entertainment

DIANE BRADY February 17 1992

Leisure’s new look

Technology is transforming home entertainment

TECHNOLOGY

For some armchair travellers, the kind of electronic tourism that is now possible through a new generation of compact discs almost seems better than the real thing. One example is the program “Treasures of the Smithsonian,” marketed by Los Angeles-based Philips Interactive Media of America. Using a disc in a Philips Compact Disc Interactive player that is wired to a television set, a viewer can organize a private tour of 150 exhibits in the 14 museums that make up the Washington-based Smithsonian Institution. After the user makes selections from a video menu, the program will provide music, video and narration of the dinosaur skeletons in the Smithsonian’s American Museum of Natural History, or the Apollo 11 lunar command module—which landed on the moon in 1969—in the Air and Space Museum. The disc allows users to retrieve or manipulate specific images and data from a vast quantity of stored information, and also permits users the

freedom to zoom in on the brush strokes of a painting or move around the back of a display, for example.

Philips’s new product, known as CD-I, which went on sale in the United States in October and will reach the Canadian market this spring, is part of a new wave of electronic wonders that is rapidly transforming the sound and face of home entertainment. New items that will reach North American markets during the next year include a miniature CD player-recorder that uses 21/2-inch discs (current CDs are either 3V2 inches or five inches wide), an even smaller tape recorder that works with a two-hour, postage-stamp-sized cassette, and a cassette-tape machine that can record and play both regular tapes and higher-fidelity digitally recorded ones. Manufacturers are also using digital technology to develop radio signals that can remain crystal-clear over long distances and TV screens with significantly sharper images.

So much new audio and video technology is on the horizon that some electronics experts predict consumer resistance if prospective purchasers feel confused by the profusion of products. And the arrival on the market of devices that allow users to make high-quality copies of recorded material has raised concerns in the music industry that millions of dollars worth of potential sales may be lost to home recordings made on CD or digital tape.

The common feature of all the new products is digital technology. Long-playing vinyl records (LPS) and conventional audiotapes both employ so-called analog technology: microgrooves etched on vinyl discs or electrical signals recorded on magnetic tape. In a digital system, sound or light waves are encoded numerically on CDs or digital tape. With CDs, a laser beam optically scans the encoded information and converts the data into audio or visual signals, while with digital tape, a magnetic head reads the numbers, eliminating the background distortion, noise and other interference that plague analog systems.

Because of their superior sound quality, CDs, which came out in 1982, have made heavy inroads into a market once dominated by LPs. According to the Toronto-based Canadian Recording Industry Association (CRIA), consumers last year bought $454 million worth of compact discs, while spending only $306 million on vinyl recordings and audiotapes. Indeed, many manufacturers, including Capitol Rec-

ords, have stopped making vinyl records. “Vinyl is toast nowadays,” said Peter Holmes, technical director of Studio Morin Heights, a recording operation 75 km north of Montreal that has been used by such rock music stars as Bryan Adams, David Bowie and Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones. Holmes added: “Everything for consumers is going digital.”

The new interactive CDs extend the reach of digital technology by combining a group of functions in a single disc and making them available for use on TV screens or computers. Digital videodiscs, known as Laser Discs, were first introduced during the mid-1980s. But even though they produced clearer pictures than videotapes, Laser Discs lost ground in the marketplace to video cassettes, which were cheaper and could be recorded onto by users. At the same time, interactive functions have long been available in computer software programs for games and educational materials.

Now, interactive CDs bring

together in one disc high-quality sound, sharper pictures and interactive functions that allow viewers to select their own programs from the CD menu. Philips’s interactive programs include video golfing and a disc that allows children to compose songs—and have characters perform them. To use Philips’s new interactive discs, consumers will first have to purchase a CD-I player for about $1,200. The new Philips system will compete with a similar line of laser discs designed for use either on TV or home computers introduced by Commodore International Ltd. of Westchester, Penn., last spring. The Commodore discs offer educational materials, including the complete works of

William Shakespeare.

Another major new product that will reach North American retail outlets this fall is a digital compact-cassette recorder from Philips Electronics, N.V., the Eindhoven, Netherlands-based electronics giant that is the parent company of Philips Interactive. Although digital tapes are similar in size and shape to standard cassettes, they record CD-quality digital data much as CDs do. The result is increased clarity without the irritating background hiss present on conventional tapes. Philips officials say that the units needed to record and play the new

digital compact cassettes will cost about $700. They can also play non-digital tapes. Said Graham Thorpe, a director of merchandising for Scarborough, Ont.-based Philips Electronics Ltd.: “People don’t have to throw out their cassettes and start a new collection.”

At about the same time as digital compact tapes arrive on the market, Japan’s Sony Corp. will launch its Mini Disc, a pocket-size playerrecorder that uses the company’s new 21/2-inch CDs. Officials at Sony, which brought greater portability to the music world in the early 1980s with the introduction of its wildly popular and widely imitated Walkman, say that a special memory chip will prevent the Mini Disc from skipping tracks when jostled, making the device ideal for jogging or car travel. Later this month, Sony will also introduce a tiny digitaltape recorder in Japan that is capable of recording two hours of high-quality sound on a cassette recorder that is only 4.4 inches long, two inches wide and one inch thick. Dubbed the Scoopman, the 5.2-ounce machine will have an initial price tag of about $920 and is targeted at a specialized market. “It’s mostly for journalists,” said Douglas Willox, vice-president of corporate communications for Willowdale, Ont.-based Sony of Canada Ltd.

Philips’s digital-tape recorder and Sony’s new Mini Disc both raise prospects alarming to the record industry, which already loses an estimated $700 million a year from tapes illegally made from cassettes, CDs and the few new LPs still being issued. Said CRIA president Brian Robertson: “For every legitimate copy, one is lost to home recording.” As a result, when Sony first introduced digital audiotapes in 1985, most record companies decided not to market prerecorded digital cassettes. The reason: company officials insisted that purchasers would deprive them of revenues by making relatively cheap, high-quality copies on digital tape.

Since then, the music industry has developed a series of defences that will give it some protection from people who make copies of commercial discs and tapes. To limit the number of digital home recordings made from the new cassettes or miniature CDs, both the tapes and discs contain electronic signals that will

“flag” copied tapes. Digital recorders will not be able to copy duplicate tapes onto other digital cassettes. Still, because users can make multiple copies from the original, the protective device has clear limitations.

In an effort to make up for the revenues lost to the music industry, U.S. record companies, music publishers and electronics manufacturers and importers last summer worked out complex agreement that would give recording artists, recording companies and copyrightholders three per cent of the wholesale price of digital-audiotape recorders and two per cent of the price of blank mini-CDs. A bill called the Audio Home Recording Act, which the U.S. Congress is currently considering, would enshrine the arrangement in law. Officials in Ottawa’s department of communications say that they are examining the issue of home taping as part of a review of copyright legislation.

Another difficulty facing manufacturers of the new digital equipment may be the problem of how to reach consumers who feel confused by the array of new technologies. Experts in consumer electronics say that the battle between the rival VHS and Beta video cassette systems during the early 1980s had the effect of discouraging some consumers from buying either of the new systems. “Once people start wondering about the format, they don’t buy at all,” said Arthur Sinclair, manager of product planning and training for Mississauga-based Matsushita Electric of Canada Ltd., which helped to develop the digital compact cassette. In the past, fear of perplexing consumers has often persuaded major manufacturers to collaborate before launching a new product. But Sony’s Mini Disc cannot be played on standard CD systems, prompting criticism from some record producers and competitors. Said Sinclair: “It’s too early to introduce a second CD format.”

And despite consumer infatuation with CDs, a surprising number of music enthusiasts say that they remain firmly committed to LPs. Ross MacDonald, a Waterloo, Ont. creative writer, says that he owns more than 6,600 records. MacDonald says that vinyl often produces better sound than CDs, which some

critics say lack warmth. “CDs produce a tinny sound to me,” said MacDonald. “I have original pressings that sound much better.”

Still, the novelty and accuracy of the new digital recording technologies is likely to triumph eventually over the voices of dissent. Said Sony’s Willox: “People are well versed in this technology and want to see more of it.” Clearly, consumer electronics manufacturers are gambling that that assumption is correct—by providing consumers with a dazzling variety of choices.

DIANE BRADY